Peter Robbins was lying on the floor of his New York City apartment, reeling from memories of events more than a decade old that he had been able to sufficiently repress since they had occurred. The memories were making up for lost time, flooding back to him with such force that it was all he could do to move from the floor to the kitchen, fixing himself a cup of tea as he thought.
To this day, he doesn’t know why the memories came storming to him at that time, but he theorizes it was some combination of the natural maturation of adulthood, becoming more open-minded and being overworked and overtired. After a bit of time, he called his sister, Helen. After all, if the memories were accurate, she would have been with Peter when it happened. Peter and Helen were very close and trusted confidants of each other, born two years apart and both living the life of struggling artists trying to make it in New York City just a few blocks from one another. Perhaps more significantly in this moment, she was the second source, the one who could confirm the story or dispel it as a vivid dream of yore.
He began the call with a disclaimer: he had remembered something, and was going to explain his memory without giving it away, and she should interject whenever she felt it necessary with her reaction.
He nervously recounted the story to Helen. It was warm and sunny, the customary weather for a late-June, early 1960s morning in the Rockville Centre neighborhood of Long Island, New York. Peter, 14 years old, was out playing with Helen, 12, in the front yard of their home where they lived with one other sister and their parents, Allan and Marci Robbins. It was a quiet day, crucially without anybody else around besides the two of them, no passing cars or lawns being mowed. Then, he told her, something had appeared in the corner of his eye.
“Stop it,” Helen said, laughing at his caution. “I know what you’re talking about.”
Peter has now recreated the memory with three different hypnotherapists in an effort to gain a better understanding of what happened and see if there are any further details. While playing with his sister, he had seen five metallic disk-shaped objects in the sky, aligned in a perfect V-formation, moving at high speeds. They were close enough to make out details on the sides, though he said he couldn’t be sure of their size. They lingered for several minutes, an eternity in the mind of a kid, before Peter turned to run into his house. He didn’t make it, passing out cold and falling on the sidewalk. Helen’s memories went even further; she said she remembered being aboard one of the ships, interacting with the non-humans (“grays” is the technical term used in the UFOlogy field) and being examined by them on a table, a phenomena Robbins has found dozens of other times in the years since in interviews with other people who say they have had encounters. She later described them in drawings, and claimed she had heard their voices in her head while she was on the ship.
“It’s not even that I couldn’t believe it, it’s that this is the closest person in my life to me, my best friend,” he said. “We didn’t lie to each other.”
At the time of the actual sighting, Peter was in the throes of adolescence, admittedly led by the seminal desires of that era in life: to be cool and have sex. A self-proclaimed nerdy kid who’d spent more of his life in theaters than sports fields, he was admittedly at a disadvantage of achieving either of those two things, and babbling about seeing a UFO, he thought, probably wouldn’t help. So he didn’t talk about it, didn’t think about it, didn’t even remember it for years and years, until its weight finally crashed upon him, which led him to the floor of his apartment and the fateful phone call with his sister.
“Oh, my god, they’re real! Oh my god, they’re real,” he remembers thinking. With his sister’s corroboration, Peter Robbins changed virtually immediately. “I tried to find a way to dismiss it, but I couldn’t. People say their lives changed overnight. Mine changed in about 90 seconds.”
There are times, he said, when he does resent what happened to him and his sister that day. The pivotal recollection and ensuing breakdown came in the middle of Robbins seemingly beginning to realize his art aspirations – he was working as a framing carpenter during the SoHo building boom, while also teaching painting to a continuing education course at the School of Visual Arts and, most importantly, getting art pieces shown at downtown galleries, even selling a few of his works a year. Parts of that Peter Robbins still remain, like when his love of theater shines through in simple conversation. His house in Ithaca, where he now lives with his elderly, and recently published, father, is adorned with a few of his own paintings, some on the wall and some tucked into closets, and he still speaks with the projected voice of someone who spent years on or around a stage. But in the time immediately following when his memory resurfaced, it effectively destroyed his life-long aspiration of becoming an artist, as Robbins became ravenous to learn more about the subject, fueled by the constant tape-loop in his head.
As the years passed, Robbins became a renowned authority, researcher and expert on UFOs and instances of “gray” interaction with humans. He’s appeared on radio and television, written books, published research material, given lectures at conferences the world over, all as a UFOlogist and self-trained investigative journalist. It’s not a joke for Robbins. It’s not a scheme, either. To hear him describe it, even calling it a “job” might be ill-conceived. It’s his necessity and duty, something he reluctantly realized in the days and weeks after talking to his sister.
“I just wanted to be a painter, it was my passion in my heart of hearts, and now I was playing at it because something more important had come along, and it hurt,” he said. “I don’t love it. It’s an obsession.”
Obsession is a word Robbins, now in his 70s, uses quite a bit. In his early life he was obsessed with being a painter, that matched with an obsession for adventure which led him to a year-long traveling expedition and a job as a seaman on a Norwegian cargo ship before he began trying his hand at the arts. But he can also get bored easily, as he did with the the seaman’s job he once held. Yet something about his and Helen’s experience and the mystery that still surrounds it transcended his tendency to lose interest and move on, to the tune of 40 years strong spent researching, lecturing and writing.
The extent of UFO experiences in the UFOlogist community varies widely. Robbins said some people have stories of abductions, others have only seen unexplained aircrafts like he has, others still have never had contact and just believe there’s more to the story than what’s been told. Part of what fueled his interest for all these years is his own personal experience, but also he very much wanted to find some answer or explanation for what happened to Helen in particular, who went on to become a songwriter for the Blue Oyster Cult and lead singer of the Helen Wheels Band (“Hell on Wheels”). In his words, it displaced everything in his life. That didn’t shake even when she passed away in 2000 at Cayuga Medical Center, the result of a botched surgery performed elsewhere.
During his career, Robbins has unearthed scores of documents he says support the theory that there is life on other planets. Early reports from the Pentagon and associated think-tanks from the 1940s through the 1960s that confirm strategies of telling, or not telling, the public certain information, and even speculating that the advent of the atomic bomb might provoke more UFO encounters: “We should, therefore, expect at this time above all to behold such visitations.” With his writing specifically, Robbins doesn’t want to get someone to believe, just open their mind. His hope, he said, is to get you to question; from outside of the house to through the front door and into the foyer.
Despite how long he’s spent at it, the work is somewhat thankless outside the UFOlogy community. Robbins has never been able to support himself financially through his work, sustaining his life in New York City, before eventually moving to Ithaca, through work as an off-Broadway stage manager, as an art teacher, helping people move, ghostwriting, painting apartments, etc. There were no ego-fueled reservations, Robbins said, as long as it could be used to fund the important work he felt he was doing. And of course, there’s always doubt and ridicule closely associated with work in the UFOlogy field, which only gets worse if someone of Robbins’ stature makes a mistake or has to backtrack on a claim.
Such a situation was the source of his lowest moment professionally, when he had to disavow portions of his best-selling 1997 book Left at East Gate, a recounting of the 1980 Rendlesham Forest Incident he co-authored with a former US Air Force Security Policeman named Larry Warren which took nine long years to complete, plenty of trips to the United Kingdom and was completely self-funded. He holds that the Rendlesham Forest Incident (sometimes called “Britain’s Roswell”) did happen, but that Warren stretched or fabricated parts of his story. Robbins maintains the portions of the book he wrote academically, and without Warren’s influence, are accurate and valuable, but that he has also asked the publisher to take it out of print. Warren, for his part, has fiercely and publicly stood by his story.
Robbins gets it. He understands that right now, at least, he’s on the losing end of this debate. He says just to be involved in the field, one has to have a certain ability to laugh at themselves while still believing in the nature of their mission. Through any derision he’s received, Robbins has remained convinced of what happened to him and Helen, and remained devoted to his work, thinking its importance outweighed the occasional mockery of others.
“The best people in the work have great senses of humor, we have to to survive,” Robbins said wryly. “We’re grown-ups who think flying saucers are real. Holy s---, how crazy are we?”
For a long time, trying to change the tide of American, and somewhat worldwide, opinion on the validity of UFO experiences has been a fruitless effort. But Robbins sees glimmers. He thinks there may be some more allowance in the minds of the younger generation for believing in life from other planets, though he acknowledges that may be a product of a general acceptance that there is information the government doesn’t tell the public. Maybe the most significant progress came last December: the New York Times, the usually condescending “nemesis of rational UFO study in the Western world,” Robbins said, released a well-received story about a Pentagon program dedicating tens of millions each year from 2007-2012 at least to investigating UFO encounters on the front page of its Sunday edition, a step that stunned and subsequently reinvigorated many in the UFOlogist community after years of futile toil (alas, the article’s subject was roundly dismissed by NYT columnist Ross Douthat in an opinion piece the following week called “Flying Saucers and Fairy Tales.”)
The logical coda to Robbins’ life and career is a union between his passion and his obsession, rectifying the balance that was tipped so many decades ago. They’ve briefly crossed paths before, like when Robbins created an art project consisting of a sand-pit in which tanks were fighting among the sand mounds while a UFO perched and watched from a larger hill in the center. But while he’s also mulling a memoir, Robbins has set to writing a two-act, one-man play aimed at celebrating and factually retelling the life of the nation’s first Secretary of Defense James Forrestal, someone Robbins deeply admires and whose life intertwines with the very earliest inklings of the potential UFO cover-up, as Robbins terms it (Many UFOlogists, Robbins included, theorize that Forrestal may have been assassinated to silence his knowledge of UFOs from a public still reeling from World War II.) He’s tested the production recently in Rochester, and intends to have a finished script before the end of 2018. In a way, it’s an attempt to rectify his life’s actual dedication with what he first wanted his life’s dedication to be.
“I’ve been trying to find a way to bring this information to another kind of audience,” Robbins said. “When I speak at conferences, when I do radio shows, when I publish something, I’m almost always preaching to the choir [...] I want to see if I can create something in between a theatrical event and a serious lecture.”
To a certain extent, it also signals what could be a returning balance for Robbins between art and UFOlogy. When he looks back on his life, Robbins sees that he did get some of the things he wanted from art out of his research career: he’s lived an interesting life, he’s talked to interesting people, and he’s been able to help people who may be at the same point as he was as a young adult, lying on the floor of his apartment wondering if he was crazy. The ordeal he went through during the last calendar year, with the souring of his relationship with Warren and the “tremendous embarrassment” he endured in the UFOlogy community (though also met with a good amount of support that let him know he had not lost his “circle of respect” within the community), made him question whether this is what he should spend the rest of his life doing. He doesn’t wake up and go to sleep thinking about UFOs anymore, he can come and go from his work more easily now. But for the time being, he still draws enjoyment and excitement in the small study in his house that doubles as a studio, lined with hundreds of UFO books and research files from both his pen and others. And he still believes he holds a necessary role in the fight for belief, and against conspiracy.
“Maybe part of it is just stubbornness, but I think over the next few years I can continue doing this, possibly with a less-concerned attitude,” he said. “If I leave at this point, that’s one less semi-articulate, not-stupid voice that’s no longer going to be heard.”