By TRACY MARHAL
SHEBOYGAN - While fans of a good story are gearing up for the rerelease of the movie "E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial," similar stories have been circulating closer to home. And these stories, witnesses say, aren't based on fiction.
Sheboygan resident John Hoppe was 14 or 15 years old when he saw what he describes as a glowing orange-red ball, about the size of a basketball, bobbing on the lake. Hoppe swam out to get a better look. "I started moving out and it started moving away," he said. But when he headed back to shore, the ball followed him. Again he headed towards the ball, and again it moved away. The ball then began to hover above the lake. "I was like, "Oh my God, I'm getting out of here,'" Hoppe said.
At that point he and his friends fled the scene, heading to a local McDonald's for refuge. But about 18 years later, Hoppe would be visited by the object again. This time, however, he was watching for it.
Benson's Hideaway, a restaurant and bar in Dundee that touts itself as a UFO headquarters, was hosting UFO days, a gathering for people interested in the subject to discuss it and share their experiences.
"We all sat out and watched the skies for UFOs," Hoppe said.
The attendees got what they wanted when a glowing orange-red ball, like the one Hoppe had seen years ago, gave those watching a show. It crossed the Long Lake area from south to north and even responded to a light flashed by passers-by on a pontoon boat. The object eventually split into two pieces, Hoppe said, one heading to the north and one hovering for hours in the sky.
"What do I think it was? I don't know," he said.
But he did know that a Web site would be a good venue for people with similar experiences to anonymously share them, which is why he created http://www.ufowisconsin.com/index.html. Hoppe was hoping to get a total of 1,000 hits on his site when he started it in September. It now gets about 700 hits per day.
Wisconsin had the second highest number of UFO sightings when the U.S. Air Force was studying the subject for Project Blue Book, which began in the 1950s, Hoppe said. New Mexico ranked No.1 in that category.
As out of this world as this Web site might sound, Hoppe is very grounded in his take on the subject.
"I strongly believe there is stuff going on in our skies," he said, but noted that he doesn't think the unidentified flying objects are always space ships. Planets, military machines or lights on kites can all be perceived as UFOs.
"I'm trying to be very scientific about it," Hoppe said.
Still, a lot goes unexplained.
UFO reports for Waukesha County listed on the site date as far back as a 1960 sighting of a white, circular craft in New Berlin, and as recent as a Menomonee Falls sighting last month of a bright light over Lake Michigan.
"Makes you wonder," the anonymous author wrote after that description.
Ed Churchwell, an astronomy professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who teaches a course on extraterrestrial life, also wonders, from a scientific standpoint.
"I make a very strong distinction between primitive and advanced life forms," he said. For example, it's possible another planet could hold a simple, or one-celled, life form.
What makes the Earth unique in its ability to sustain life is the processes it has gone through, such as the movements of the plates making up the planet's crust and the ice ages. The ability for life to thrive on Earth also is aided by the its protection from asteroids and comets.
Churchwell said evidence that supports advanced extraterrestrial life forms is not based in science.
"Science depends on being able to establish, by observation and proof, that something actually occurs," he said.
Some UFOs might be aircrafts piloted by beings from other worlds, but the cards are strongly stacked against that theory for many reasons. One reason is that physics as we know it would makes such space travel impossible. The distance and energy necessary to travel from a star to the Earth is "mind-boggeling," Churchwell said.
"A civilization would have to want very, very, very badly to get here, and have the energy at their disposal," he said. "We can't come close to that at the moment."
Many UFO sightings are simply Venus or Jupiter. Churchwell said he's also heard about incidents where a flock of birds was mistaken for a UFO, or a light atop a hill.
"There is a psychology that one has to be aware of, that one has to explain the unexplained," he said. "UFOs are an easy explanation."
There's no easy explanation for what Dale Goretske saw in 1986. The Pewaukee resident, whose experience is documented on UFOWisconsin, has had years to think about it and still doesn't know who or what was controlling the UFO he saw one November night.
"It could be a UFO as you would think, an alien thing, but that's pretty far-fetched because of space travel," Goretske said. "I really don't know. The verdict's still out."
While heading west on Main Street in Waukesha, Goretske saw the red and white lights of what appeared to be a car accident.
"I realized that the accident scene was in the sky and not on the ground," he said.
As he drove closer, Goretske pulled into the Don Jacob's car lot on highways 164 and 59 to get a better look at the rotating, triangular craft that he said was about the size of a two-story house.
Goretske stared at the UFO for about 30 minutes, looking close enough to see what looked like portholes. The craft then slowly moved northwest, staying at tree-top height, and appeared to land in a nearby salvage yard. But when Goretske tried to track its destination, the UFO was nowhere to be found.
"I was up for a while after that," he said.
The then 29-year-old completed a series of interviews with the media, including The Freeman, and UFO reporting agencies. He was told that same night there had been rash of sightings along Highway 45.
"All you can do is keep reading about it and see what else is out there and if there's any new information on UFOs," he said. "Now I keep an eye on the sky."
In 1960, Delores Bauer-Finney, then a 21-year-old New Berlin resident, had her eye on the sky over Milwaukee, in anticipation of the Fourth of July fireworks. She said she looked up and saw a white craft float overhead, heading north, and then "blink out."
"It was not just a light, this was huge," Bauer-Finney said.
The following day, she and others nearby witnessed a similar craft, but with a green tint, over Lake Michigan. It was being chased by an airplane.
"I didn't know anything about UFOs before that," said Bauer-Finney, who now resides in California and has made herself somewhat of an expert on the topic. Even after studying the topic for more than 40 years, Bauer-Finney can't say exactly what she saw.
"There's no way to come to specific conclusions," she said.
Hoppe would like to get as many reports as possible from people like Goretske and Bauer-Finney. Eventually he'd like to be able to research the sightings examining patterns to UFO flight paths. In the meantime, the UFOWisconsin Web site can be a destination people go to to affirm their sanity.
"It seems like they want some validation that they're not crazy," Hoppe said.
(Tracy Marhal can be reached at email@example.com
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