On my most recent YouTube video I talked about my favorite UFO story, the tale of Joe Simonton and his alien pancakes. Below is the material I wrote about Simonton and his strange encounter for the book about UFO’s and Zen that I never finished.
The story of Joe Simonton’s encounter with a flying saucer whose occupants gave him pancakes is, to me, the quintessential UFO story. When I first came across this story I thought it had to be a joke. But many ufologists take it seriously. As they should.
Before I start, I want to say that, as funny as this story is, I do not present it here as an object of ridicule. It’s fine to laugh about it. I did when I first heard it. But please don’t laugh about it because you think Joe Simonton was too dumb to come up with a more believable hoax. I have no doubt that he was telling the truth about his experience. That is what makes it so interesting. Even though it is funny too.
Here’s the story.
On April 18, 1961, Joe Simonton, a 54 year old (some sources say he was 60) plumber who lived about four miles west of Eagle River, Wisconsin, says he had a close encounter of the third kind with a UFO. Eagle River is a small rural community in the far north of Wisconsin. The 1960 census counted 1,367 people in Eagle River, while in 2010 the population was 1,398. Eagle River today is known as the “Snowmobile Capitol of the World.” Many of the homes there are vacation places whose owners use them as launching spots for seasonal hunting and fishing expeditions.
The incident took place near Simonton’s house. There’s a video on YouTube of an interview with Simonton filmed not long after the event took place. You can see his house in the video. It’s a rough looking single-story wooden structure standing in what looks like a clearing in a forest. Simonton was married, but his wife was away in Chicago, where she worked at a department store, when the incident took place.
Simonton said that he was doing some dishes at about 11:00 am that Tuesday morning when he heard “something like the screech of automobile wheels as a car goes around a sharp bend fast.” He looked out the window and saw a large shiny metal object, “coming straight down just like an elevator. At first I thought the roof went off of my house. But then I thought, ‘No, the roof is green, and this is bright. What the heck is it?’ So I raced out to see what it was.”
A silvery craft — “brighter than chrome,” Simonton said — shaped like “two plates or bowls one inverted over the top of the other” had come to rest above the driveway to the rear of his house. It was about 30 feet in diameter and about 12 feet tall, Simonton said. The craft didn’t touch the ground, but seemed to hover, unsupported, just above it. Simonton saw a hatchway open “just like the trunk of your car.” A small person, about five feet tall appeared in the hatchway. Simonton described the person as looking “swarthy, like an Italian.” His face was completely hairless and Simonton couldn’t see if he had hair on his head due to the tight fitting cap he wore. Simonton estimated the saucer man’s weight at around 120 pounds.
The saucer man, Simonton said, “motioned by tipping his head backward and making a motion as if drinking water.” Then he handed Simonton a “metallic tureen or bowl with two side handles.” Simonton said, “I looked at his eyes and it was so penetrating, I had to look away.” Simonton carried the object into the basement of his house, filled it with water from the pump down there, and then returned to the craft.
Simonton said he leaned against the craft, steadying himself on it with his left hand, and handed the tureen up to the man standing in the hatchway. In a conversation three days after the event with Judge Franklin Carter, a local man with an interest in UFOs who reported the event in the December 31, 1961 issue of the Saucerian Bulletin, Carter asked Simonton to show him the hand he’d used to steady himself against the alien craft. Carter reported seeing no burns or redness. Carter had heard of people who had been close to UFOs and had been affected by radiation, but there was no evidence of this in Simonton’s case.
When Simonton brought the water out of his house, he says that he avoided looking the saucer man in the face until he got up close. When he looked up at the being, “he had the same look in his eyes, a sort of a penetrating look.” He said he felt like the man in the saucer could see right into him, like he could read his mind.
Simonton then noticed two more beings inside the craft. All three were dressed identically in what he described as “one piece tunic(s) with no buttons or zippers that I could see, but with a hood up over the head. It looked like black Jersey material.” The saucer person who had asked for the water had a white strip running down one leg of his pants, which Simonton took to be an indication of higher tank than the other two.
The other two beings, he said, “seemed to be chained or belted to what they were doing” with something that looked like a seat belts or stabilizing cables. One of the beings, he said, was “busily engaged at the panel or control boards.” The other appeared to be cooking on something Simonton described as a “square, grill-like concern.” There were no flames, but it seemed to be very hot, he reported, “There was smoke coming from it.”
“I was interested in them,” Simonton told Judge Carter, referring to what the saucer person was cooking. “I made a gesture like eating,” he said, “I figured I’d get a conversation going. Nobody was saying anything.” Then, Simonton said, “The man in the hatchway noted my interest and walked over and scooped some of them (the items on the grill) up and gave them to me. They looked somewhat like pancakes.”
Simonton took the four small pancakes the saucer man offered him. He described them as “hot and greasy.” He took a bite of one. Later he said, “If that was their food, God help them because … it tasted like a piece of cardboard.” He also remarked, “If that’s what they lived on no wonder they’re small.”
Simonton showed Carter the remaining pancakes, which he had saved. Carter noted the greasiness and said the smell reminded him of the goose grease his mother had greased his chest with when he was a child. The pancakes seemed rubbery, Carter said. Carter reported that the pancakes were around three inches across and were perforated with holes about the circumference of lead pencils. However, in the YouTube video, Simonton displays a fragment of one of the pancakes and the holes look a lot smaller than that to me. It kinda looks to me like a regular old pancake.
Judge Carter gave the pancake to UFO investigator Major Donald Keyhoe of the National Investigation Committee on Aerial Phenomena (NICAP) for analysis. Although the NICAP told reporters that the pancake had been returned without analysis, Carter claimed in June of 1961 that he never got it back. The NICAP, it should be noted, was a civilian organization. Keyhoe had once served in the Marine Corps but was a civilian at the time of the incident. In any case, it seems that the pancakes were analyzed but that there was some confusion between Judge Carter and the NICAP people around the matter.
Simonton said that after handing over the pancakes to him, the saucer man “placed the tips of his right hand to his forehead and immediately withdrew it.” Simonton figured this was some kind of a salute. “So I gave him my salute. What am I gonna do?” he said.
“Immediately after he gave me the pancakes,” Simonton said, “he shut the hatchway and you could not see any notice of where the door was or that there had been a door there at all.” He said, “You couldn’t see a bit more where that hatch was than you could see a hole in my hand.”
“After the door shut, the ship began to rise,” Simonton said. “It went up about twenty feet, tipped on its side at about a 45 degree angle, then shot forth and away to the south. There was a backwash of some kind, for a pine tree near the ship, with a butt of about 8 or 9 inches, bent completely back. As the ship shot upward at a terrific speed, the tree oscillated back and forth and finally came to a stop. It showed no damage whatsoever, the trunk and branches being intact.”
After the craft was out of sight, Simonton said, “Well, there I stood in the driveway with a handful of greasy pancakes and my mouth open wondering what the heck I saw. What had happened?”
In the YouTube video, a man in an Air Force uniform comes on after Simonton finishes his story. He says, “It is outside the realm of the Air Force to pass judgment on Mr. Simonton’s case” before stating that the pancakes were analyzed by the “food and drug people” and found to be “pure buckwheat.”
The man in the Air Force uniform in the video is not Donald Keyhoe, who went on to write number of books about his many investigations of UFO reports on behalf of the NICAP. Keyhoe believed that the government should release its UFO reports to the public. Psychologist Carl Jung used Keyhoe’s books, Flying Saucers Are Real (1950) and Flying Saucers From Outer Space (1953), as major references for his book on the flying saucer phenomenon.
Not long after the event, Simonton reported that 23 of the chickens he raised, whose eggs he sold to his plumbing customers as a side business, had died since his encounter with the flying saucer. Simonton suspected there was some connection, but none was ever established.
A set of letters back and forth between Judge Carter and the folks at NICAP reveal that the NICAP people thought Carter was a pain in the ass, but that they did take the story seriously. The goofiness of Joe Simonton’s tale worried them since it was already being treated as a joke by the many press accounts published at the time. Still, they did analyze the pancake. Their analysis didn’t turn up anything definitively extraterrestrial.
Simonton was annoyed by the publicity his story attracted. He said it cost him a number of plumbing jobs. He didn’t like that he was often referred to as a “chicken farmer” when he only raised chickens on the side. On the existing film, he appears to be sincere and sane. Investigators were skeptical of his story, but none of them thought he was lying or trying to create a hoax. One of the investigators speculated that, living alone far from human contact might have made Simonton susceptible to hallucinations or that he might have had a very vivid dream that he took to be real.
Another resident of the area, Savino Borgo, an insurance agent, reported seeing an unidentified flying object the same day as Simonton says he met the strange people with their weird greasy pancakes. Phyliss Lorbetske, another area resident, said that she and he three children also saw a UFO that day, in the same area where Simonton lived.
The story remains as mysterious today as it was in 1961.
I call the tale of Joe Simonton and his pancake eating saucer men a quintessential UFO story because it’s got pretty much everything a good UFO story ought to have. It’s weird. It’s inexplicable. And yet it was told with great sincerity, apparent honesty, and there’s even some evidence to back it up in the form of the other witnesses and the pancakes.
When I first started conceiving of this book, my understanding of UFOs was that they were supposed to be mechanical spacecraft piloted by creatures from another planet. Of course there are all sorts of very logical arguments both for and against that idea. It seems highly unlikely that any other advanced civilizations exist in our solar system. Mars is a barren desert. The hellish surface of Venus is hot enough to melt lead. The gas giants in the outer solar system have no surfaces on which a civilization could exist. And while some of their moons may be able to support life, it’s difficult to imagine such life could be very highly evolved.
Which means that if UFOs are from other planets, those planets would have to be tremendously far away. Our nearest stellar neighbor, Proxima Centauri, is four light years away. We currently know of no practical way that a vehicle could travel at the speed of light and its believed that exceeding that speed is impossible. It seems impossible that vehicles such as the ones people claim to have seen could travel such distances.
On the other hand, theoretical physicist Michio Kaku has pointed out that there may be civilizations who are thousands, millions, or even billions of years more advanced than ours. It’s impossible to say what sort of scientific breakthroughs such a civilization may have made. Maybe there is some way for them to get here from wherever they are and we just haven’t figured it out yet.
We can’t categorically say that it would be impossible for a highly advanced civilization to travel here from many light years away. But I have to agree with those who find it highly unlikely.
But here’s the thing. Before I started digging into this I thought there were only two possible explanations for the UFO phenomenon. The first explanation is that all UFO reports are a combination of hoaxers, delusional people, and folks making honest mistakes about ordinary objects like planets, meteors, airplanes, clouds and suchlike. The other is that some UFOs really are space ships from other planets. It’s pretty clear that almost all UFO reports really do fall into one of those categories of hoaxes, delusions or mistakes. But there are other reports that cannot be explained any of those ways. And, even though those count for a small percentage of overall UFO reports, the truly unexplained cases number in the thousands.
The most popular theory about those unexplained cases is that UFOs are spacecraft from other planets. These spacecraft, it is assumed, are doing pretty much what we human beings would do if we were able to travel to and observe life on another planet. They’re studying us, maybe attempting to communicate with us. Perhaps they’re trying to be as secretive as possible about their observations so as not to alarm us or cause any disruption in our natural evolution — something like the Prime Directive in Star Trek, where the United Federation of Planets is forbidden to interfere with less scientifically advanced civilizations. Maybe every once in a while they slip up and show themselves. Or maybe these seeming slip-ups are intentional, part of an overall plan to gradually reveal themselves to us.
UFO researchers call this the Extra-terrestrial Hypothesis or ETH, for short.
But then you run into a case like Joe Simonton. His encounter is one of the many genuinely unexplained UFO stories that don’t make any sense even in terms of the extraterrestrial hypothesis. Unless you think that aliens might actually be short, mute Italians who like pancakes.
Those who thing UFOs are all just hoaxes or figments of the imagination love stories like Joe Simonton’s because they’re so absurd and silly. They’re great stories to bring up if you want to debunk UFOs and prove that the only people who claim to see them are uneducated yokels from the boondocks. Those who believe in UFOs and the support the extraterrestrial hypothesis hate stories like Joe Simonton’s for the same reasons the debunkers love them. They make the whole study of UFOs look goofy. They try to ignore the existence of UFO experiencers like Joe Simonton and the thousands of others whose encounters have been similarly absurd.
And yet, if we put aside the silliness of it, Joe Simonton’s is among the most convincing stories of a UFO encounter. Despite his lack of formal education, Simonton was a trustworthy witness. He wasn’t a nut-job or a publicity seeker. He had no reason to make up a story like the one he told. There were other witnesses who saw what was presumably the same object that took off from Simonton’s driveway after its occupants gave him the pancakes. And there is physical evidence in the form of the pancakes themselves. Sure, there was no evidence that the pancakes came from outer space. But I challenge you to watch the interview footage on YouTube and imagine Simonton cooking up some pancakes himself in order to try to put one over on the world with his bizarre tale. I don’t think he did. I’m convinced he was telling the truth about what he experienced.
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