Saturday, May 29, 2021

Flying saucers: Serious business?

  Written by Jim Heffernan for the Duluth News Tribune on Saturday, May 29, 2021

Flying saucers were very big news when I was growing up in the years following World War II. 

I see that UFOs (unidentified flying objects) are back in the news. U.S. Navy pilots filmed them in 2019 but the Navy kept the encounters under wraps until recently, according to The New York Times. Now, the Pentagon is going to release a full report next month.


Well, if you saw it in The Times it must be true.


I have a long history with unidentified flying objects, more commonly known in my ever-lengthening lifetime as flying saucers. They were very big news when I was growing up in the years following World War II. Flying saucers were being spotted zooming through the heavens all over the place, including here in the Northland. This paper even ran a photo of a couple of them hovering over Moose Lake, which turned out to be faked, much to editors’ embarrassment.


One clear summer night about then, when my family was vacationing at a lake cabin in northern Wisconsin, my father, older brother and I were standing in the yard just after sunset when suddenly either my father or brother exclaimed something like, “Lookit that,” pointing skyward. Something flashed across the firmament right over the lake. They both saw it.


The object disappeared so quickly I missed it. But there’s no question they saw something. My father was not given to embracing fantastic notions of the supernatural or extraterrestrial, but the incident resulted in increased interest in flying saucers in my family. Interest, but not really belief.


The only flying saucer I ever saw was in a movie, “The Thing from Another World,” which usually was billed simply as “The Thing.” It was so frightening to me I regressed in my psychological/emotional development at that stage in my life. I was about 10 and had been used to staying home alone in the evening when others in the family were out.


No staying home alone after “The Thing” lumbered into my life aboard a flying saucer imbedded in the Arctic ice, dynamited out by U.S. Air Force personnel at a remote, snow-swept base, where it proceeded to attack all living things, killing and drinking the blood of sled dogs and going after humans. Yikes. Plus, it was impervious to things like gunfire because it was vegetable, not animal. Oh the horror.


I got so scared I started to go to church with my mother, organist and music director of our church, in the evenings to gatherings like the weekly Prayer Meeting in the church parlors. She played an upright piano (of course the piano was upright — it was in church) for hymn singing between extemporaneous praying by the audience, and lengthy readings from the Good Book.


It was attended mainly by about a dozen elderly men and a few wives whose idea of a roaring good time might be sitting around re-reading Paul’s letters to the Thessalonians. One time a guy read lengthily from the begats, which describe who’s related to whom in the good Old Testament. I think the preacher might even have holy rolled his eyes at that.


I was the lone child there but I didn’t care. It beat staying home alone worrying about The Thing coming to my house and drinking my blood.


Of course I grew out of it, but news of flying saucers always gets my attention and reminds me of “The Thing from Another World” and how it scared the living daylights out of me as a kid. (There’s a better word than “daylights” but this is a family newspaper.)


Segue now to the 1960s when I was working at this newspaper as a general assignment reporter. The nice thing about general assignment was that you would get involved in different things every shift. I worked nights and could end up covering everything from boring government meetings like those of the city Charter Commission (at least nobody read the begats) to dashing off to a house fire to get the scoop first hand for the morning’s readers.


So one evening the city editor assigned me to cover a speech on flying saucers (we covered a lot of speeches) by an astronomer who had been invited to visit Duluth by Frank Halstead, the who was in charge off the old Darling Observatory at 910 W. Third Street, west of downtown. Halstead was a respected astronomer.


Well, the guest astronomer appeared before a respectable crowd in a downtown hall and started out with what sounded like a serious speech on  unidentified flying objects, but soon he changed his demeanor to more resemble a gospel preacher, invoking the Old Testament prophet Ezekiel and his vision of wheels rolling in the heavens.


Many people might remember the song, “Ezekiel Saw a Wheel A-Rollin’ Way in the Middle of the Air.” The so-called astronomer was talking about THAT Ezekiel and claiming the wheels Ezekiel saw were actually our flying saucers. And God was sending them back today as a warning to sinners and prophesying the coming End Times starring The Beast. Whew. Well, at least it wasn’t The Thing.


I was flummoxed about what to do. It sounded crazy but I didn’t want to return to the paper without a story. Nevertheless, I felt I couldn’t put that nonsense in the paper. I’d noticed that Halstead was inexplicably absent from the speech, so I telephoned him. He’d had dinner with the speaker and realized he was a religious zealot and not a serious astronomer at all.


I didn’t write a story.


Finally, years later, recalling my family’s encounter with the UFOs over the northern Wisconsin lake, for Christmas I gave my brother a book titled “Flying Saucers: Serious Business.” He immediately said he wanted to return it unread.


“I thought you liked flying saucers,” I remonstrated.


“I don’t like them THAT much,” he said.



Jim Heffernan is a former Duluth News Tribune news and opinion writer and continues as a columnist. He can be reached at and maintains a blog at 

Saturday, May 15, 2021

Hard to get around in Duluth these days...

Minnesota Department of Transportation image
Written by Jim Heffernan for the Duluth News Tribune on May 15, 2015

It's a traffic tale of twists and turns that also isn't true. But, you know, it could be.

Here’s all the latest fake news that’s unfit to print...

A Duluth man missing for an extended period on a trip through the heart of the city was found yesterday unconscious in his pickup truck right in the center of town.


Fred A. Tappet, a western Duluth fishing and lottery enthusiast, became hopelessly lost navigating detours en route to the North Shore for an afternoon of angling.


Cam C. Clutch, chief of the Duluth Bureau of Missing Persons, Animals and Autos (DBMPAA), said Tappet had regained consciousness and was doing well in the hospital after going without food for most of his aborted fishing expedition.


“He just couldn’t find his way through town due to all the detours,” Clutch reported. “Many people are finding it impossible to get from one end of town to the other because of the many closed roadways due to construction. Even the ambulance carrying Mr. Tappet to the hospital got briefly lost.”


Hospital officials report that attendance is down in various wards due to the difficulty of patients attempting to get to their buildings. Several prospective patients simply gave up and went back home. These h non-emergency cases, said a nurse who asked not to be identified because he wasn’t authorized to speak for the institution. Midwives assisting in home births are doing “a land office business,” he said.


The lost man, Tappet, 57, an almost retired mechanic and Vietnam-era U.S. Army veteran who was recipient of the Good Conduct Medal, was the subject of a massive search led by DPMPAA personnel and members of his family. He and his wife, Fern, have nine children, most of whom are fully-grown and who branched out through the city in search of Tappet’s pickup. DPMPAA leader Clutch said four of them became temporarily lost themselves in the downtown maze.


“Things are really tough if you want to go anywhere in Duluth this spring.” Clutch said. He noted there are major repairs on I-35 related to the demolition and rebuilding of the famous “Can of Worms.” (Appellation is metaphor and only tangentially related to fishing.) Then there’s the replacement of a three-block stretch of downtown Superior Street, the city’s main drag, as well as the Essentia Health building project just east of downtown.


There are other detours too, related to roadway construction. Piedmont Avenue, the main local artery to the Piedmont Heights area is closed near its intersection with Superior Street and Garfield Avenue. And lower Michigan Street in the Lincoln Park area of the city has a large section closed off.


The search for the lost Tappet reached monumental proportions, involving air, land and water. State highway department helicopters were deployed along with Coast Guard rescue craft that searched shorelines of the St. Louis River estuary, near where Tappet lives, and the shores of Lake Superior near Lester River where the angler was headed.


Turns out he never got beyond downtown Duluth.


Consenting to a hospital interview via Zoom, Tappet said he first was going to take I-35 not far from where he lives in a modest frame house but was thwarted near 27th Avenue West where a bridge to the Western Lake Superior Sanitary District headquarters is located. That governmental unit said due to the construction it is running short of old paint and poisonous substances usually brought there by local citizens now unable to figure out how to access it.


Many people have also used the 27th Avenue West freeway access to visit the central U.S. Post Office nearby. Officials there said mail is way down, only half-filling trucks where it is taken to St. Paul to be postmarked, with local mail trucked back to Duluth. “Never seen anything like this,” said a postal carrier in a crisp gray uniform with a blue stripe on each leg. She declined to be identified for fear of repercussions and reprisals.


For his part, Tappet said he had left I-35 in frustration and decided to just plow on through the city center. That was where the serious trouble started. “I’m going up one avenue and down the other following detour signs,” he said. He said he became confused and attempted to make it through alleys, but to no avail.


Finally he kept going around one block after another, confused that downtown First Street has been switched to two-way after decades as a one-way thoroughfare. “When’d they do that?” Tappet asked from his hospital bed.


The search for Tappet ended when his black pickup truck with a rusty tailgate was spotted on Canal Park Drive near the Club Saratoga, the city’s lone strip joint. “I didn’t go in, though,” Tappet emphasized to his wife, who was worriedly standing by his hospital bed wearing a stars and stripes mask. He added: “How’d we do on Powerball?”


Tappet was expected to be released to his wife’s reconnaissance when his strength returns.


“Hope we can find our way home,” he sighed.


Jim Heffernan is a former Duluth News Tribune news and opinion writer and continues as a columnist. He can be reached at and maintains a blog at

Saturday, May 1, 2021

How are things in Burkina Faso? ...

Burkina Faso Flag (Wikipedia)
Written by Jim Heffernan for the Duluth News Tribune on May 1, 2021

Burkina Faso will test my geography...

Here’s some recent news from Burkina Faso, as reported in a Minnesota newspaper: “A Burkina Faso military tribunal has charged the country’s former president with complicity in the murder of his predecessor…” blah, blah, blah, and so on and so forth.


Burkina Faso? I take some amount of pride in being fairly good at geography after a rough start in college, but, I’m sorry, Burkina Faso has escaped me. When I first saw it mentioned I mistakenly read it as Burkina Fatso and I thought it might be the name of a sumo wrestler.


Glancing around the world, I know Sri Lanka used to be Ceylon. I know Myanmar was Burma and that one of its major cities is Mandalay, where the flying fishes play, and the sun comes up like thunder out of China ‘cross the bay. (Thank you Rudyard Kipling.) I know that Bangladesh used to be East Pakistan. I know that Mumbai, India, used to be Bombay.


 And how confusing is it that St. Petersburg became Leningrad before becoming St. Petersburg again and moving to Florida? Well, not quite.


I’m not so hot at keeping up with changes in the names of countries on the African continent because it seems like they change quite often. Whatever happened to the Gold Coast? It’s Ghana with the wind.


Geography can be difficult. It’s a big planet. I was a kid when the Korean War broke out and I had never even heard of Korea at that time. Certainly heard a lot about it later.


Which brings us back to Burkina Faso. I Googled it and, lo and behold, no wonder I didn’t recognize it. It used to be called Upper Volta, not that I knew anything much about Upper Volta, but at least I’d heard of it. Isn’t that where they’re going to produce electric cars? If not, it should be.


Turns out Burkina Faso is located in interior Africa, landlocked, but its neighbor is the Ivory Coast. Well that’s more like it. Maybe you remember when the Ivory Coast was known as the Kong Empire (thank you Google), although to do so you’d have to be like 150 years old. Funny how “Kong” keeps coming up in our lives — Hong, King, Donkey.


No wonder I got such a slow start in geography. Actually, what happened was I thought I knew quite a bit about geography when I signed up for a course called Geography 1 (same as anything 101) in college. Already being a geography expert, based on 18 years of life experience, being told where Korea was at age 10 and osmosis, I figured I wouldn’t have to study and I would “ace” the course. “Ace” is the college term for receiving an “A” grade. It is also a good name for a man you once knew, run into again, but can’t think of his real name. Endears you.


Meanwhile, back in college Geography 1, I get back the result of the first test: “F” is a grade everyone knows means abject failure. Whew. I was shocked. Turns out the professor didn’t like it when I used my own descriptions of places and other stuff instead of those in the book, which I hadn’t read and probably didn’t even buy for $18 a pop.


I did so poorly that I was called out for incorrectly defining “latitude” and “longitude.” Who knew they were part of geography? Of course I sort of knew what latitude and longitude were. Everybody does.


I once rode through Greenwich, England, where longitude starts, at a high rate of speed and didn’t see a single longitude. But that was long after I did so poorly in Geography 1 in college. I should have stopped to eat in Greenwich and ordered a prime meridian steak.


All of this is a long way from Burkina Faso, I know, but it shows how important geography is in the modern world.


Lest the good people of Burkina Faso take umbrage at this light-hearted commentary, let me point out that we have some strange names too. I’ll give only glancing mention of the neighboring western Minnesota towns of Climax and Fertile, which are fraught with innuendo. I will point out that historical — or even hysterical — research shows that Climax is named after a chewing tobacco, like Copenhagen.


Then there’s Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, which was named Hot Springs before adopting the name of a popular radio program, research (guess where?) shows. Talk about fraught with innuendo.


So as the sun sets gaily in the west, we say goodbye to beautiful landlocked Burkina Faso, a small country with a strange name whose signal accomplishment is that it is not fraught with innuendo…as far as we know.


Jim Heffernan is a former Duluth News Tribune news and opinion writer and continues as a columnist. He can be reached at and maintains a blog at