It was the middle of the night, as it always is, and Jim in Wolfville was on the line, calling all the way from Nova Scotia to Art Bell's home radio studio in Pahrump, Nev. (pop. 7,400), where Jim's and Art's voices were being beamed up to a satellite so they could be sent back down to about 500 radio stations across the United States and Canada.
Jim is one of us, one of 10 million or so listeners (occasional, frequent or obsessive) to the most outlandish long-running radio show anywhere, Coast to Coast with Art Bell, a five-hour program much loved by night workers, insomniacs and those who enjoy visiting the outer reaches of human credibility.
Bell may be the only broadcaster in the business who will never scoff at you when aliens land their ship in your backyard. He won't think you odd if you yearn for yet one more discussion of the famous 1957 Chevrolet that "just fell out of the sky" some years ago in Long Beach, Calif. On his show a typical caller begins, "I'm phoning about the stories about mysterious balls of light."
Jim was calling from Wolfville because he was bothered by some ghost voices, messages from the Beyond, that Art's guests of the evening had taped in graveyards and were now playing on the air. The spirits on the tapes said nothing interesting, of course. Like all dead people ever contacted by spiritualists, they apparently thought that just getting in touch was enough, like remembering to phone your Mom on Sunday. They certainly didn't feel called upon to communicate anything they had learned on the Other Side.
But Jim wasn't concerned about that. He was worried because he had distinctly heard the ghosts on the tapes ... breathing. As he said, "It is kind of interesting that the ghosts have to breathe. If that's the case, do they eat?"
I suspect Jim was a skeptic pretending to be innocent, but Bell took him seriously. He treats unbelievers and believers with the same genial tolerance. "Good point," he said. "After all, they're dead. What do they need with breathing sounds?"
One of the tape-collecting spiritualists was ready for that question. "To be honest," he answered, "I really don't believe they are actually breathing. I think it's a memory thing. They're remembering how they talked in life, and to do that, they had to breathe. That's how they communicate with us." Bell, who has been hearing creative explanations like that for more than two decades, pronounced this one good, in fact perfect. His voice conveyed his warm appreciation of a sure-footed researcher.
Bell himself is an object of curiosity to many listeners. Who is he, and does he believe what all those people tell him? He was born in 1945, to a father and mother who were both U.S. Marines. He worked as an operator in radio stations and finally landed an on-air job. He specialized in unexplained phenomena, from UFOs to spontaneous human combustion, because he realized no one else was mining those subjects. Now he sometimes limits callers to one topic ---- he'll open a specific phone line for, say, vampires, or time travellers.
His listeners' stories often sound true to him. He believes spaceships visit Earth, and thinks he's seen one. He takes a friendly interest in all the people who phone, whether he agrees with them or not.
"I help them tell their story and let the audience judge. I don't laugh at them. I listen." No one screens the calls.
The tales that come to life on Bell's show range from the eccentric to the downright creepy. The second category includes the Hale-Bopp comet in 1997. It was on Bell's show that someone first reported an alien spaceship was shadowing Hale-Bopp in the general direction of Earth. The rumour spread, and 39 members of Heaven's Gate, a California cult, killed themselves in the belief that the spaceship would take them to a better place.
Bell's fans don't blame Bell: He carried debunking material about the story as well as the story itself, and in any case the cultists had been waiting for a sign. They might just as easily have found it in the words of Stairway to Heaven.
In Austin, Milwaukee, Orange County and other places, Art Bell chat clubs have sprung up so people can get together and talk about what they've heard on his show. His listeners love to figure the angles on whatever phenomenon comes up. One of his callers, after hearing a program on people who died during operations and then came back to life, demanded to know why these were called "near-death experiences" when all the signs indicated the patients were in fact dead. Proudly, this caller announced that he'd worked out the answer: Insurance companies don't want to pay death benefits to the same person more than once.
Then there was the man who phoned to express his concern about cloning and criminal justice. Won't cloning mean that a person's DNA will be no longer be unique and therefore won't be admissible as evidence in criminal cases? Bell replied, "That is really an awfully good point. If you had a bunch of clones and there was a murder, you'd have no way of separating the suspects ... There would be no DNA evidence that would stand up in court." That sort of question would occur only to a Bell fan.
Stephen Osborne, the editor of Geist magazine in Vancouver, told me a few years ago that I should listen to Bell. Osborne occasionally passes on details of callers I've missed, such as the man who hit a 700-pound Sasquatch on a road in the Midwest last summer. He had moved it, with jeep and winch, to what he called his "Y2K-fallout shelter," and it seemed still to be alive. He wanted Bell himself to take charge of it. He didn't trust anyone else. Bell advised him to call a vet and promised to put him in touch with a Sasquatch expert. In Bell's world it is taken for granted that there's an expert on everything, whether the thing itself exists or not.