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Like Ball Lightning:

In Memory of Ralph Noyes

I'm sure I've got a picture of Ralph Noyes around here somewhere, but he was so unprepossessing, you never know. Besides, he wasn't the kind to pose for pictures on his own anyway, and now there will be no more pictures of Mr. Noyes at all. He died on May 24, 1998, as a result of a fall suffered at his London home.

"Ralph Noyes was born in the tropics," according to the biographical note on the dust jacket of his 1985 novel, A Secret Property," and spent most of his childhood in the West Indies. He served in the RAF from 1940 to 1946 and was commissioned as aircrew, engaging in active service in North Africa and the far East. He entered the civil service in 1949 and served in the Air Ministry and subsequently the unified Ministry of Defense. In 1977 he retired early from the civil service to take up a writing career, leaving in the grade of under Secretary of State. He has since published several pieces of shorter fiction, most of them on speculative themes.

"For nearly four years, until late 1972," the dust jacket note continues, "Ralph Noyes headed a division in the central staffs of the Ministry of Defense which brought him in touch with the UFO problem. Since his retirement he has become increasingly interested in this subject, among others which lie on the fringes of present understanding. He sees speculative fiction as the ideal mode for grappling with these unusual areas of experience. But A Secret Property is not only fiction but also "faction"--at least to the extent of drawing on Ralph Noyes's lengthy background in the Royal Air Force and the Ministry of Defense."

I first came into contact with Noyes during the late 1980s, when he submitted an article (if memory serves) about ball lightning to the MUFON UFO Journal, of which I was then editor. I accepted it, a correspondence followed, and so did a handful of subsequent articles on the newest mystery of the time--crop circles. Already the Hon. Secretary to the Society for Psychical Research, Noyes was a founding member of the Centre for Crop Circle Studies, and then became that organization's Hon. Secretary as well. He would go on to edit what is one of the best books on the subject, The Crop Circle Enigma (Gateway Books, 1990), with pictures by Busty Taylor, and numerous contributions by other members of the CCCS, as well as a civilian or two like Hilary Evans. Or let's say one of the best books on the subject, given our understanding at the time.

In July of 1990, I attended what I think was the first international conference on crop circles, Terence Meaden's Oxford conference, and then spent a day in the fields with Meaden and other atmospheric scientists, viewing a ringed quintuplet, numerous grapeshot, and several magnificent dumb-bells, although, as soon became clear, the circle-makers had barely gotten started in terms of size and complexity. I don't think Noyes was at that conference, but I'm almost certain that I visited him shortly afterwards in his London home, in one of those neighborhoods made up of whitewashed rowhouses with the wrought iron railings out front and the bronze plaques that say William Hazlitt lived here. Noyes lived in a couple of long rooms off the first floor hallway, dusty, stale rooms, what you would call a confirmed bachelor's pad. He was a good 20-25 years older than me, and presumably existing primarily off a fixed pension, like so many of his peers. He was of the opinion that the neighborhood had declined of late, and that London was more expensive than ever, probably universal grumps (and truisms) of his generation. I don't know if these were the same rooms he fell in, although I do know he'd had an earlier fall here a couple of years or so ago and was some time recovering from it.

Among the ashtrays was a computer he was learning. His fingers were never far from a cigarette and neither were mine in those days. As quickly became evident, we both shared a love of the pulped grape as well, a dark burgundy, preferably. We puffed and sipped, sipped and puffed, and of course conversed. What were these miraculous new crop circles? Did they bear an intimate relation to ball lightning and/or UFOs? Fine and well; now, what would either of those be? It was during this conversation that I learned we shared something else: a fundamental feeling that all this wonderful stuff--crop circles, flying saucers, poltergeists, and so on--was certainly highly interesting if true, but how true was it? And could we please have the envelope with the evidence?

I wouldn't see Noyes in person again until the summer of 1992, when we both participated in Project Argus, an ambitious soil and crop-sampling exercise set up by Michael Chorost and funded with monies supplied by Robert Bigelow, MUFON and others (by mcsweeney). I arrived at Gatwick Thursday morning, July 16, and took the train to Swindon, where I was met by Noyes and a lady companion with a car, and thence on to Alton Barnes. I can't for the life of me remember whether this woman was Una Dawood, the liaison between Argus and local farmers, Noyes's sister or niece, Lucy Pringle--or all or none of the above! I know he was with family members later that day, however, and my otherwise detail-frayed account can be found in the September 1992 issue of the MUFON UFO Journal.

We were the first humans to enter the formation at Milk Hill that same afternoon--apart from whoever originally created it, of course. Interestingly, I'm looking at a clump of souvenir dirt on my desk as I write this, a clump of dirt found atop the otherwise pristine and "supernatural" floor of the Milk Hill formation. It was my first personal inkling that all was not as it seemed with the so-called crop circles.

The following day, Friday, we drove up to Winchester, where the CCCS was holding its own first international conference, "Crop Circles, the Enigma for the Nineties." Anyone who was anyone in cereology at the time was there that weekend: John Michell, George Wingfield, Colin Andrews, pilot and photographer Busty Taylor, dowser Richard Andrews, Montague Keen, Chorost, Jurgen Kronig, Noyes and others. My most memorable memory, however, is of the Friday evening banquet held at the downtown Guildhall, at which a somewhat soused and high-up Centre officer, or sponsor, went on at some length about, well, about nothing much at all. But a good time was had by everyone present.

Sunday evening found us back in the Swindon and Alton Barnes area. Monday it mostly rained. Tuesday, Steven Greer and crew arrived. The following night we trooped up to the top of Woodborough Hill to see what Greer's group, CSETI--Center for the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence--was all about. Best I could tell, CSETI was much ado about nothing. There was some sitting in circles and meditating, and some shining of powerful flashlights (half-million to a million candle-power only, please) skyward, and about that much candle-power of wishful thinking, from what I could determine.

Away to the east could be seen the flight path--outlined by numerous blinking lights--for either Heathrow or Gatwick. Off to the south of our most excellent viewing position the British military was holding various nocturnal exercises, consisting of flares, searchlights, and loud, artillery-like booms in the distance. All of which was cannon-fodder for Greer's acolytes. Didn't this intense military monitoring only prove they were getting "close" to the truth, that contact was imminent?

Certainly, the expectation of contact was imminent. In the darkness, Noyes and I found ourselves near a circle of five or six sitters, mostly female, who oohed and aahed in unison each time a ghostly disc-shaped light routinely swept into view. Our pointing out that said disc was a military searchlight regularly illuminating the broken cloud deck overhead was not well received (let alone believed).

But not to worry. The following evening Greer and group achieved "contact," albeit with what I suspect was a balloon launched by Robert Irving and others, although I could never prove it in court. On the other hand, Greer could never prove his case in court, either.

I can't even say the experience was instrumental in Noyes's own decision, shortly thereafter, to resign as Hon. Secretary of the CCCS. Maybe the confessions of Doug and Dave were equally to blame. Point is, just as we could see the searchlight beam on the clouds that night, we could also see the handwriting on the wall (by mcsweeney). Whatever the circles were first touted as being, it was becoming increasingly evident that what the supposed supernatural circlemakers could do, so could our equally inventive fellow humans.

I flew back to the U.S. and we continued to correspond. I thought I would see him again, here or there, maybe at an UnConvention or some other conference (as I fully intended). But we all know how intentions go. We all live our lives learning, via different channels, that someone we were once in close connection with has lost theirs.

My mind nags me now. It seems like I just saw something, very recently, with the Noyes signature on it, but I can't remember what or where it was. There's so much to read and keep track of nowadays. I want to say that Noyes didn't write enough, but that would be both churlish and judgmental of me. Maybe he said everything he wanted to say, and succinctly at that. After all, when I think of people who write too much in this field (and you know who you are), Noyes strikes me as a model of modicum and modesty.

As such, he will be sorely missed.

--Dennis Stacy