Conferences, Cons, and Solar Eclipse 2017, Or What I Did On My Summer Vacation

It’s been a busy month!

First I went to Realm Makers, which has become one of my favorite writing conferences, and then to a small local writing conference at Taylor University, my first time visiting there. In a couple of weeks I’ll head west again to attend the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers conference. It’s like I’m trying to get my annual allowance of writing conference in just a few weeks!

Little girl (face obscured) in pink unicorn helmet with pink feathered wings
This little girl was so excited about the fairy unicorn wings she made herself.
Sign: Gen Con badges are now sold out.
Gen Con sold out completely. Not a badge to be had.

Then I had Gen Con, an awesome gathering of 65,000 or so (final attendance not yet released for this year) of your geekiest friends to talk about games, books, history, film, anime, and pretty much everything related. Gen Con is always super-busy for me, because I teach sessions (this year I presented twice on Japanese Folklore & Mythology and once on Norse mythology, as well as teaching costuming workshops from Featherweight Armor to Moldmaking to a make-and-take for simple, hallway-safe wings) and because we compete in the costume contest, which because of Gen Con’s process is mostly a whole-day affair.

Laura as Stonn the Vulcan.
Stonn getting into makeup.
five Vulcans in shiny metallic costumes and Mr. Spock in Starfleet uniform, plus a cardboard Kirk
Mr. Spock and his Pon Farr friends!

This year, by request of my talented friend Emi, we went as a group of Vulcans from the iconic Star Trek episode “Amok Time.” I played Stonn, Spock’s romantic rival for his bride T’Pring. We paraded through the convention center, aggressively jingling Vulcan jingle-coffins and displaying our lirpa (it’s that improbably off-balance weapon) and nodding politely at everyone who recognized us. It was fantastic fun, and we got a lot of crowd love from fans, and then we won third place in the Professional division. (First and second place went to Queen Amidala and historically-accurate Belle, who totally deserved it. Their costumes were far more complex than our low-budget ’60s television designs.)

Our stage presentation was live-singing “A Message From T’Pring.” If that title prompts you to start humming the Hamilton soundtrack, yep, you’re right.

We also had one of my favorite joke-props ever.

I did get to play some Pathfinder, including the Season 9 opening special, and that was fun. (I have a level 14 kitsune sorceress, VC Kuroto Akae. Of course.)

Car window painted with eclipse and "see you on the path"
We saw cars from all over the US and even Canada.

The Solar Eclipse

After the fourth day of Gen Con, we went home and loaded the car to drive to Kentucky the next morning, where I’d reserved a parking spot in Hopkinsville, the point of longest totality for the 2017 solar eclipse. I’d been looking forward to it and even blogged about safety (and the hyperbolic and incorrect warnings) for pets.

The community college campus was an eclipse festival, with food trucks, lectures, and a weather balloon launch.

I’d seen partial solar eclipses before, but never totality, and wow. I’d read repeatedly that there is a real difference, and it’s true. The partial coverage was fun, especially as it advanced, when the sunlight got all weird like someone had screwed up the Photoshop brightness/contrast settings. You want to worry that you have eclipse blindness already (you don’t, it takes a day or two to show effects even if you stupidly stared directly into the sun), but it’s just the atmosphere refracting the reduced light.

Remember those old serials where they’d just put a filter on the camera to pretend it was night? It looks like that.

–my sister Alena VanArendonk

Totality was a very trippy experience. The sun was SO BLACK, and my poor phone camera just wasn’t equipped to handle the contrast. Cicadas sang as twilight fell. I could see the corona with my naked eye. There was a 360-degree sunset. It was really cool, and not nearly long enough even at the country’s longest totality.

Then we started the trip home. Sort of. We gave up trying to leave and went inside the community college to wait in the air conditioning for an hour, until the parking lot had cleared enough that we could get on the road. Then we headed off to charge the car and go home.

It took a bit over 5 hours, including charging and heavy traffic, to reach Hopkinsville Community College that morning. It took a bit over 10 hours to get home, because traffic was so bad. Gas stations (we stopped for snacks) were packed with lines 4 and 5 cars deep waiting for fuel (consumed even faster as people idled and ran their air conditioning), and some ran out of gas. A station we visited was also out of Rand McNally maps, as people looked for alternate ways home. A woman there said she’d been trying to leave the area for 4 hours. Did you know that Google Maps traffic layer has a color beyond red?

That was when we could get Google Maps at all. Cell signal is patchy at the best of times in rural Kentucky; the network simply could not handle the demands of a couple hundred thousand extra phones all searching for signal.

We did better than most, though. We left the main roads and hit remote back routes which haven’t seen five vehicles in a row since Daniel Boone was guiding settlers through. While the back roads had their own issues — clearly some of the eclipse drivers weren’t used to driving rural roads at night, with the lack of street lights and clearly-painted lines — they were at least moving steadily.

It wasn’t really anyone’s fault. Western Kentucky’s infrastructure just isn’t built to handle that quantity of humanity. I saw that the town of Kelly’s annual August festival usually draws about 2,000 visitors to the town of 300, but they were expecting 20,000 for the overlapping festival and eclipse. And that was just in tiny Kelly, and the eclipse path ran nearly the length of the state.

The slow trip home gave me a chance to read up on the aliens, though.

Little Green Men

That festival in Kelly is the annual Little Green Men Days, commemorating an alleged close encounter 62 years ago.

On August 21, 1955 — yes, the solar eclipse date is an anniversary — 5 adults and 7 children reported an assault on their farmhouse by “little men” they claimed were extraterrestrials. (The color green was added in later media reports, and this may be the trope-namer for the phrase.) They fled to the Hopkinsville police station (their farm was between Hopkinsville and Kelly) to ask for help, saying they’d been fighting the creatures for 4 hours.

The whole affair started when one of the men, visiting from out of state, went out to retrieve water from the well. He saw a bright rainbow-colored light which he described as a flying saucer shoot overhead and land beyond a nearby treeline, hissing. He went inside and reported it to the family, who didn’t pay him much heed — until not long after when the little men, with gangling arms, stumpy legs, and a swaying gait, approached the house and began to peer in through the windows.

(It occurred to me, as I read, how much these “little men” sounded like the cinematic character E.T. in their description. But guess what? Steven Spielberg actually developed a film based on the Hopkinsville encounter, originally in the horror genre but ultimately gentler in nature and titled E.T. the Extraterrestrial. I’m gonna bet E.T.’s physical shape was a direct lift from the Hopkinsville reports.)

A dozen local police, state troopers, military police, and county deputy sheriffs went out to the farm and found no aliens, just plenty of evidence of the family’s shooting out the windows (and supposedly an iridescent sheen where one of the creatures had allegedly been shot). The Suttons and Taylors did not go with them to investigate. After a few hours they left the farm and told the family to go home, which they did — and the creatures returned at 3:30 am. Some of the family and friends were gone by morning. The rest left the farm within days, whether from fear of the creatures or because of harassment from disbelieving neighbors. None ever retracted their story, and the three surviving witnesses refuse to speak of it today. The goblins, as they became known, have not been seen in the area since.

Project Blue Book lists the incident as a hoax in a single typewritten line, with no further explanation or comment. However, Geraldine Sutton-Stith, daughter of Elmer “Lucky” Sutton who saw and shot at the creatures, says that a man knocked at her door to share his father’s deathbed confession of retrieving UFO wreckage for the federal government on that very night and just a few miles away. Of course, no evidence of this deathbed confession was provided.

Modern psychologists and skeptics have concluded that drunken farmboys mistook some owls for space aliens, which is clearly hogwash. No, not the farmboys’ story, but the debunking of it.

Great Horned Owl talons, courtesy of Flikr user khyri,
Great Horned Owl talons, courtesy of Flikr user khyri

Rodney Schmaltz and Scott Lilienfeld, famed debunkers of pseudoscience, wrote in 2014 that the Suttons and Taylors were probably intoxicated and mistook Great Horned Owls for aliens. This simply reeks of some smug ivory tower professor dismissing those they consider intellectual inferiors. Sure, Billy Ray Taylor was just an out-of-work carnie, and he had a stereotypical hillbilly name like Billy Ray, and it would be easy to make fun of him. But the professors need to keep in mind the following basic points about farmboys and owls:

  • These were rural folk who had to go outside to get their water from a well. They would have been familiar with owls. They would have known if owls had a nest nearby, as alleged.
  • One of the creatures allegedly grabbed Billy Ray’s head as he went onto the porch. A grab from an owl leaves a significant mark; there’s a reason raptor caretakers use those heavy leather gauntlets. He would have received a lot more than a hair pull, and there would have been an injury for law enforcement to document, had it indeed been an owl defending a nest as suggested.
  • Nothing described fits with normal owl behavior. The Suttons and Taylors described the creatures’ rolling gait with long arms and short legs (two men said they were first approached outside by an ambulatory “little man” with his skinny arms upraised). Owls don’t walk around vulnerable on the ground, especially not when defending a nest, and especially not during 4 hours of gunfire (and, the farmboys say, at least a few direct shots). And they certainly don’t tolerate 4 hours of gunfire and then come back later to start up again.
  • The family emptied 4 boxes of .22 ammo at the creatures, plus an unknown quantity of shotgun slugs. (The men reported that bullets make a clinking metallic sound when they struck the silver-clad little men, and that one was knocked from a tree but could not be found later.) Keep in mind .22s generally come in boxes of 100 or even 500. The smallest I’ve seen is 50, and I cannot imagine that in mid-century rural Kentucky, when people used guns weekly for both varmint control and hunting for food, that the boxes were smaller. The report doesn’t specify the size of the boxes, but I find it unlikely that men who almost certainly hunted for meals couldn’t kill a bird in several hundred close-range shots.
  • The witnesses described the “little men” as “silver” and “shining.” It’s suggested that this was a confusion of the owls’ reflective eyes, but owl eyes don’t reflect silver. Nor do their bodies shine.
  • Most key, the initial news report is quite specific that law enforcement found no evidence of drinking. While every skeptic’s take I’ve seen includes words like “intoxicated” or “moonshine,” the only support I’ve found for this is that a later visitor to the farmhouse saw “a few beer cans” in the trash. A few beer cans even in one night is not enough to work 5 adults into a panic, and there’s no evidence they were consumed that night. Law enforcement at the time said it was a respectable family without a history of absurd behavior, and the matriarch who’d owned the house for decades had a reputation for avoiding alcohol and disallowing liquor at home. This argument comes down to “of course they were clearly drunk because they must have been drunk” and is no argument at all.

Does this mean I believe they were aliens? Of course not. I don’t have any evidence to say what happened that night, whether aliens or escaped silver-painted circus monkeys (another offered explanation, somewhat weakened by the lack of local circuses or reported missing monkeys) or straight-up hoax. I only say that I find the popular owl explanation arrogant and insupportable. Look, I live in the country myself, I’ve been startled by owls — a screech owl 15 feet over your head in the inky creepy midnight will definitely get your attention — and I knew each time within a second that it was an owl and I just had to wait for my heart rate to drop back to normal. That 5 country-bred adults would be absolutely convinced for continuous hours that it was something else? I just don’t buy it.

aliens explode the White House in the film Independence Day
It was certainly a less expensive and less destructive invasion than most Hollywood versions.

Billy Ray wasn’t the only one to report lights in the sky that night. Were they meteors? Maybe. Or maybe Billy Ray and his friends successfully defended Earth from alien invasion, and we owe them a debt of gratitude for scaring off the extraterrestrials with cheap .22 ammo. May all invasions be so easily repelled.


Today, the close encounter is remembered in Kelly’s festive Little Green Men Days, but also in several geeky pop culture specimens. I’ve already mentioned E.T., but allegedly the Pokémon Sableye is also based on these creatures. And Paizo borrowed the name and concept for their goblin creature the Hobkins, which you may fight in Pathfinder, should you play at Gen Con or another geeky gathering.

What did you do for the eclipse? Spot any aliens?

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