“There are certain queer times and occasions in this strange mixed affair we call life when a man takes this whole universe for a vast practical joke, though the wit thereof he but dimly discerns, and more than suspects that the joke is at nobody’s expense but his own.”—Herman Melville
One of my favorite UFO stories is the 1964 encounter near Cisco Grove in Northern California. Like the story of the Kelly Goblins and the case of Joe Simonton’s pancakes from space, it is completely absurd, and yet there are good reasons to suspect that it happened. The sole witness/victim of the events certainly had no reason to make the story up. In fact, he wouldn’t give researchers permission to use his name for several decades for fear of losing his job at a rocket propulsion manufacturing company. Now that he’s retired, he has come forward to tell the story in his own words, although it has already been described in a number of books over the years with only minor discrepancies.
A Hunter in the Headlights
In September of 1964, three friends who were all employees of Aerojet in Rancho Cordova, a suburb of Sacramento, went on a bow hunting trip in the Tahoe National Forest near the town of Cisco Grove. Donald Shrum, Vincent Alvarez and Tim Trueblood were all experienced hunters and outdoorsmen. They set up a campsite before heading out to hunt for deer and agreed that if any of them got lost and it began to get dark that they would spend the night in the woods and then make their way back to camp in the morning. With that plan in place, they set out for the deep woods and were soon separated.
As the sun was setting, Donald Shrum realized that it would be a good idea for him not to try to make it back to camp in the dark. He had brought a long, military style belt with him in order to secure himself in a tree just in case this happened, so he wasn’t worried about spending the night alone in the forest. If this is a common practice, it’s no wonder I never took up hunting. Personally, I’d rather stay on the ground and take my chances with Bigfoot, but that’s just me.
It was then that he noticed a bright light moving slowly just above the trees which he believed to be a helicopter. His initial thought was that Alvarez and Trueblood had gotten worried about him for some reason and reported him missing and that this helicopter was looking for him. He quickly set three small fires and began waving his arms and screaming to attract the attention of the pilot, because a person yelling from far away is easy to hear over the sound of a helicopter engine.
The light began to come toward him, but it wasn’t until it was about 60 yards away that he realized that this was no helicopter but something far more unusual. Becoming frightened, he threw his bow up into a tree and then climbed up after it. At this point, he thought that what he was seeing was a small sphere of light about eight inches in diameter. It wasn’t until the light flew a 45° arc around him and he was able to see it from the side that he realized that the small ball of light was actually a huge, cylindrical craft approximately 150 feet in length with a searchlight on the front and three glowing rectangular panels on the side. The “mother ship” then came to stop and all three of the panels opened. A smaller craft flew out of the middle opening and came to a landing on a nearby ridge. Shrum described what he would later refer to as the “scout ship” as being saucer shaped with a bright light on top.
Up a Tree Without a Paddle
A few minutes later, Shrum heard the sound of footsteps moving through the brush from the direction of the saucer and headed in his direction. He soon saw two humanoid figures in silver space suits which covered their heads and obscured their faces. They were four to five feet tall with large, dark eyes. They were breaking off pieces of foliage and examining them as they made their way to the tree where he was hiding. Once they reached the base of tree, they stopped and stared straight up at him. This was when he realized that they had been coming for him the whole time.
Shortly after this, a third figure joined the first two. This one appeared to be a robot with a hinged jaw and large, reddish-orange eyes that flickered like fire. As it approached the tree, it reached into the last smoldering remnants of one of Shrum’s fires and scattered the embers. The first two beings had seemed wary of the fire upon their approach. The “robot” then stopped under the tree, looked up at Shrum and touched its face. Its hinged mouth then fell open and a puff of smoke came out, headed straight in Shrum’s direction. As the smoke rose, it spread out into a small cloud which rendered him immediately unconscious when it reached him.
When he regained consciousness, Shrum decided to go on the offensive and fired an arrow at the “robot.” The arrow bounced of its chest, sending a shower of sparks flying and knocking it backwards. At this point, the two humanoids ran off and hid in some nearby bushes. Shrum fired two more arrows at Mr. Roboto with much the same results. He also seems to have backed off to a safer distance after being hit three times, but sources are vague.
When the three beings came back, Shrum lit his baseball cap on fire and threw it down at them. It was quite flammable as it was soaked with the grease which was commonly used by men to style their hair at the time (ew). They all backed away from the flaming hat, and the “mother ship,” which had been hovering off to the side this whole time, suddenly took off at an incredible speed and was gone from sight in less than a second.
The four of them then settled into a routine which would last the rest of the night until just before dawn. The “robot” would “breathe” a puff of smoke up at him which would immediately knock him unconscious, his belt being the only thing saving him from falling. When he came to, the two humanoids would be trying to climb the tree and he would scare them off by lighting a branch or pinecone or pieces of his clothing on fire and throwing it down at them. They would then back off until another cloud of knockout gas was sent his way. Shrum doesn’t believe that he was ever out for very long since every time he regained consciousness the humanoids were just beginning to try to climb the tree.
With almost nothing left to burn, he even tried throwing some change from his pockets down at them, and then wrapped his compass in a strip of cloth, lit it on fire and threw it into some bushes in the hope of starting a larger fire to attract attention and bring help. It didn’t work, and the two humanoids carefully gathered up all of the coins and compass.
After hours of this standoff and with Shrum having set fire to all but his jeans and t-shirt, a second robotic figure emerged from the woods. It stood face to face with the first one and some type of energy transfer seemed to take place between them, after which a larger cloud of smoke was sent up toward Shrum, again rendering him unconscious. When he awoke, he was dangling from the tree by his belt. The predawn light was already creeping over the horizon, and all of the beings were gone.
Relieved but exhausted, he climbed down the tree and made his way back to camp where his friends were waiting for him. It turned out that Alvarez had also seen the “mother ship” from near their camp but had lost sight of it as it moved over the forest, probably just before it launched the smaller craft.
Keep the Change
Shrum and friends returned to the scene of the incident to look for any physical evidence for what had happened. They didn’t find any. They also didn’t find a single coin that Shrum had thrown down from the tree. The beings had apparently found and taken every last one. What they did find were lots of charred pinecones and bits of clothing that Shrum had lit and dropped, but none of those proved anything. They also found two of the three arrows that he had fired. Shrum says that he located the third arrow on a subsequent hunting trip later that year.
We shouldn’t be surprised that they took the coins and compass. The alleged “aliens” and even the enigmatic Men in Black are often reported to be unusually fascinated by simple items like ballpoint pens and watches. They sometimes take these with them when they leave. What is surprising is that they obviously weren’t interested in the arrows, but someone else was.
Shrum told his family what had happened, and his mother-in-law made the mistake of telling an astronomer that she knew from a local college under the misguided notion that he might be able to help. He immediately ratted them out to the Air Force, and someone from nearby McClelland Air Force Base soon contacted Shrum to set up a meeting between him and two officers at an empty house in an off-base housing development. They listened to his story, took the two arrowheads (one of which had metal shavings stuck to it from the “robot”) and tried to persuade him that the event as he remembered it never happened. They tried to convince him that there were other perfectly logical explanations for what had happened, such as it being a group of Boy Scouts playing a prank and some other equally preposterous scenarios. At least they didn’t yank his security clearance or tell on him to Aerojet, so he was able to keep his job until retiring 40 or so years later.
The cynics naturally find this case to be one of the easiest to discredit. There was only one witness, no physical evidence, and no apparent point to the whole affair. Why would presumed aliens from another planet engage in such a trivial and idiotic waste of time? How could advanced beings from another world have managed to cross vast interstellar distances to get here, only then to be stymied by their intended victim climbing a tree? Seemingly good questions, until you look at the broad spectrum of UFO lore. It turns out that the UFO literature is full of cases of strange and sometimes seemingly incompetent beings behaving in completely nonsensical ways, sometimes to the point of comic stupidity.* The better question might be to ask ourselves why anyone would make up such a story. Sure, there are mentally unstable people out there, but they’re usually pretty easy to spot once you start talking to them. On the other hand, there have been many respectable people who have had nothing to gain and plenty to lose who have come forward with such tales. I suppose that it’s easy enough to dismiss them all on the basis that only crazy people would tell such crazy stories. I have no honest choice but to side with the cynics on this at least a little since I have to regularly remind myself that there’s just no way to know why some people do some of the things that they do. Still, I wonder a bit – especially when some of the crazy stories turn out to have elements in common. Maybe, just maybe, it isn’t the witnesses who are the crazy ones.
And this story does have some things in common with other cases – specifically otherworldly beings using knockout gas on their victims. One such case is that of a scoutmaster named Sonny Desvergers who was camping in the woods with a group scouts in Florida in 1952. When he went to investigate a strange light in the woods, he came upon what he determined to be some sort of craft unlike anything that he had ever seen before. On top of the object was a turret with a horrible looking being inside. The craft emitted a ball of red fire which spread out into a cloud and knocked him unconscious when it reached him. In 1947 in Italy, something similar happened to R. L. Johannis as he was painting near a remote mountain stream. He saw a bright red, lens-shaped object about 30 feet across land nearby. He then noticed two odd looking “dwarves” with large heads standing next to it. He called out to them, but they didn’t seem happy to see him. One of them touched his belt, which emitted a beam of vapor toward the artist. Johannis felt something like an electrical discharge, became disoriented and fell to ground, but remained conscious. The beings then walked toward him, took his easel, then went back to their ship which immediately flew away. And let’s not forget our old friend Spring-Heeled Jack. While there were no reports of him being associated with any UFO type objects, he was said to have breathed a plasma-like blue and white fire in a few people’s faces which either caused them to become confused or left them unconscious.°
Another “crazy” aspect of Shrum’s story is the robot, but those have also been reported in other UFO encounters.† What strikes me the most about this one is how much his drawings of the thing resemble the typical sci-fi movie robots of the time. Some will say that this is because Shrum lacked imagination and was just copying the stereotypical image of a robot in the 1960s, and that’s fair enough. On the other hand, we could also consider that the UFO phenomenon has a habit dating back at least 150 years of mimicking the imagined technology considered to be coming in the very near future at the time. People in the 1960s thought that we would have robots all over the place by now, and they thought that they would all look like Robbie from Lost in Space. Even Jack was seen arriving in Louisville, Kentucky in 1880 flying through the sky by pedaling his little heart out on what appeared to be an early forerunner of a gyrocopter. The first known gyrocopter flight by humans didn’t take place until January of 1923.
In any case, whether he’s lying or crazy or telling the truth, Donald Shrum is sticking to his story more than 50 years later. Even a cynic should be able to respect that on some level.
*Actually, some ufologists are just as critical and dismissive of such stories as the cynics and refuse to print them because they are so inconsistent with their “aliens from space” preconceptions.
†Just to be clear, Shrum never said that this thing was a robot, just that this was the impression that he got. He said that it could have been another of the humanoid creatures in a different sort of suit since they were all about the same size.
° There was also the Mad Gasser of Mattoon, but I don’t think that he should be included in this category. I’m not sure what he was so mad about, but most seem to agree that he (or she) was just a deranged prankster with a good working knowledge of chemistry rather than anything out of this world.