LINCOLN, N.H. – Fifty years after Betty and Barney Hill reported seeing a flat, cigar-shaped craft hovering over them in New Hampshire's White Mountains, the state has put up a historical marker noting their close encounter with a UFO.
Returning from a vacation in Canada on Sept. 19, 1961, the Hills arrived home in Portsmouth puzzled by stains and tears on Betty's dress, scuffs on Barney's shoes and shiny spots on their car. Their watches weren't working.
When they got home, they realized they had "lost" about two hours of time. They called family and reported the event to Pease Air Force Base in Portsmouth the next day.
Barney, who had binoculars, later told science investigators that he could see figures on the craft. The couple also reported seeing a fiery orb. In 1964, they underwent a series of taped hypnosis sessions -- recalling they had been abducted and physically examined by "men" who did not appear to be human. Paintings and a sculpture of their descriptions depicted them with large, bald heads, slanted eyes and gray skin.
"They dragged me, kicking and screaming," Betty told The Associated Press in a 1986 interview.
In 1965, their story, known to only a small circle of investigators, close friends and family, was leaked to the Boston Traveler, which published it. Their UFO experience was described in a best-selling book in 1966, "The Interrupted Journey: Two Lost Hours Aboard A Flying Saucer," by John Fuller; a 1975 television movie starring James Earl Jones and Estelle Parsons, "The UFO Incident"; and numerous speaking engagements. Last week, Hollywood writer-producer Bryce Zabel, who developed the UFO conspiracy series "Dark Skies" in the 1990s, said he is planning to make a new film about the couple's experience.
In July, the state erected a historical marker to the "Betty and Barney Hill Incident" in Lincoln near some cabins at the Indian Head Resort on Route 3, one of the last places the couple recalled seeing that night.
The resort is the site of a conference Sept. 23-25 devoted to what the state marker describes as "the first widely-reported UFO abduction report in the United States." Kathleen Marden, the Hills' niece, will give a guided tour of places they stopped at during their encounter.
"How many states have courage enough to do something like that? Even the state of New Mexico hasn't put up a plaque for Roswell," asked Stanton Friedman, a nuclear physicist who was the first civilian investigator of the Roswell incident, a purported UFO crash on a ranch in July 1947. The military later declared it was a top-secret weather balloon.
Friedman has authored papers and books on his UFO research, including one co-authored in 2007 with Marden, "Captured! The Betty and Barney Hill UFO Experience."
"I started off kind of neutral," Friedman said when he first heard of the Hills' story back in the 1960s. "After meeting with them, I was very impressed with them. ... I saw no enlargement at all, no attempt to make more of the story than was there."
Friedman, another conference speaker, said the state marker gives some credibility to UFO sightings and research.
Michael Stevens of Farmington, who started a petition for the marker in 2008, said the state's Division of Historical Resources was "very clear from the get-go that they weren't necessarily backing that the event happened.
"What they could back up -- the report and the cultural effect it had -- was in and of itself historical, and that's what they could go on to get the marker through," he said.
Stevens said he had no connection to the case or to the Hills; he said he's just always been interested in their story. "I just thought it was one of those important things that history was going to overlook because it didn't fit into society's little box of `normal." The one-paragraph marker was backed up by 20 footnotes and 28 references that Marden provided to the state.
The Indian Head Resort is dedicating its own bronze plaque to the Hills next weekend. It's also having fun with the event -- the gift shop has alien-themed green golf balls, lollipops, "UFO Crossing" signs -- even a juicer shaped like a flying saucer.
"One of the things we're hoping to do with this event is to explore the potential for this being a UFO 'destination,' similar to the area around Roswell," said Stew Weldon, resort marketing manager.
The Irving Notch Express gas station on Route 3 in Lincoln also pays tribute with a mural of an alien and a flying saucer. Inside, it sells alien-themed hats and balloons -- and summarizes what happened in what it claims is the "First Rest Room Museum Dedicated to Alien Abduction."
The gas station is at the site of what used to be a farmer's field and apple orchard where Barney had said the UFO descended, hovering less than 200 feet above him and his wife.
Chris Berlo, a gas station cashier, said some people who have dropped by have full knowledge of the Hills' story. Others ask, 'What's with the aliens?"'
Marden, who was 13 at the time, recently put together a self-guided tour of the places where her aunt and uncle stopped that night, in response to a number of queries. She was a teacher and social worker before beginning research on the story in 1990.
"I think I had always secretly harbored the desire to investigate this for myself, to attempt to determine whether or not it was real or fictitious -- not that they would have made it up, but that perhaps the abduction was more of a fantasy event than a reality," Marden said.
"I believed, I always believed, that they had a close encounter with an unidentified flying object," she said. She believes her aunt and uncle were telling the truth about their capture.
Marden, who grew up in Kingston but now lives in Clermont, Fla., said the couple weren't seeking attention.
"They never wanted this to be released to the public. It would be the worst thing that could have happened to them. They were prominent citizens in the state of New Hampshire and in their community."
The interracial couple -- he was a U.S. Postal Service worker, she was a social worker -- were actively involved in civil rights causes. "They were both members of the NAACP, the state and regional board." She said the governor appointed him to serve on the New Hampshire advisory committee to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission.
Marden said they were afraid of losing their jobs -- which didn't happen -- not to mention their reputations. But after meeting with family members, they decided to speak publicly.
Betty died in 2004 at age 85; Barney died in 1969 of a cerebral hemorrhage at age 46.
In 2009, the University of New Hampshire held an exhibition and seminars devoted to the Hills. Betty's dress and other artifacts are part of UNH's special collections. Betty was a 1958 UNH graduate.
"I think that she wanted to make sure the materials were available for serious study," said David Watters, director of UNH's Center for New England Culture. "She said to me that she wanted the dress to be preserved, so that when our science caught up with alien science that it would be able to determine what the chemicals were on her dress, for example. Or the star chart that she made under hypnosis -- some day she thought it would be possible to have that confirmed through astronomy."
In 1991, Betty told The Associated Press she was retiring from making public appearances because of her age and her "disappointment in the way the UFO field is headed." She said too many people with "flaky ideas, fantasies and imaginations" were making UFO reports.
"If you don't know the answers to something, you can always dream them up, whether they are true or not," she said. "A lot of the UFO field certainly is not sticking to the facts."