By M.L. LYKEPeter Davenport's speech is academic, detailed, almost painfully precise. Only his kinetic hands and headlight eyes suggest the intensity of his mission.
"Why is the government not squaring with the American public? Why take the posture the UFO phenomenon is not occurring?" asks the director of the National UFO Reporting Center, headquartered in the basement of his U-District home since 1994.
"In a system that purports to be free, to have a representative government, why isn't the government telling us the truth? Why?"
Newspapers, too, irk the man of a million questions.
"Why is the press sitting on its thumbs on the UFO issue? Why have journalists become milquetoast lapdogs?"
The UFO center made national headlines last year with the news that residents in Washington state, home of the first modern "flying saucer" report in 1947, called in more UFO sightings on its hot line than any other state in the country - sightings skeptics generally chalk up to an active night sky and an overactive human imagination.
And the center isn't the only one getting calls.
"Our department is barraged all the time with all kinds of claims, some of them clearly ridiculous ... like a green martian that looks like Elvis and lands in a backyard, speaking tongues," says University of Washington astronomer Don Brownlee, who fields a rash of "sightings" whenever Venus is bright.
"It's difficult to filter out the outrageous reports from the interesting."
Difficult, but for ufologists, essential.
It's a subject loaded with enough emotional baggage to sink the Titanic. But Davenport, whose heavyweight resume includes master's degrees in biology and business, is after hard, dispassionate data.
"We have the evidence," he says, "but we do not have the proof."
Proof. Incontrovertible proof. It's what ufologists, 50 years after that first flying saucer sighting, still search for.
It's what skeptics still demand.
Davenport makes requests of visitors to the UFO center. Some photos are OK. Those that identify the location of his home are not. There have been threats.
And no names, please. Callers who dial the center's 24-hour hot line to report UFOs are promised anonymity - even though Davenport suspects the lines are bugged by a U.S. government intent on keeping alien visitations under wraps.
UFOs flying overhead. Threats. Government conspiracies. Media censorship. Sounds like a script for "The X-Files," the paranoidal, paranormal pop TV series based on the premise "The truth is out there."
But Davenport, 49, is far too complex for a sci-fi soap opera. His eclectic background includes stints as college instructor, Russian translator, marketing consultant, corporate executive, commercial fisherman, Republican candidate for the Legislature - and, now, dogged UFO researcher.
It is, for the moment, all he does, paying for the center out of his personal savings.
"I recently acquired a small amount of personal independence that has allowed me to do this," he said, "... but I am trying to make the center financially self-supporting. I am not a person dedicated to financial self-immolation."
As visitors watch, Davenport traces a string of successive sightings across a map. His brow wrinkles eagerly. This is the evidence, the juice, the bottom line.
"Seventeenth of November, 1995, "he begins. Many of his conversations begin with dates."We were inundated with calls, dozens of calls, all coming in within minutes."
Davenport details the reports. Two airline pilots sighted "what looks like UFOs" over Long Island at 10:20 p.m. Within minutes, similar reports flooded in from states stretching from Maine to Florida, and within an hour reports were coming in from Seattle.
"Up to six objects were reported to be skulking up and down the East Coast of the United States," says Davenport.
Unidentifiable objects - or identifiable?
Leaders of the 5,000-member Mutual UFO Network, the world's largest UFO organization - based in Seguin, Texas - estimate that well over 90 percent of all reported UFOs are, in fact, IFOs - identifiable flying objects such as airplane landing lights, meteors, ball lightning and weather balloons.
It's that remaining 10 percent that fires Davenport's zeal.
"If the planet Earth is being visited by other intelligent creatures - and it appears to me that that is occurring on a regular basis," he says, "clearly, without any ambiguity, this is a subject of interest to not just all humans, but to all living things on this planet."
The National UFO Reporting Center was founded in Seattle in 1974 by Robert Gribble as a clearinghouse for UFO information and home of the national UFO hot line - 722-3000.
Gribble answered the phones for 20 years before searching for someone to take over the work. When others declined, the center was shut down. Two days later, Davenport says, he agreed to take it over and the hot line was back.
"If I had known what I was about to do to my peace of mind, my sanity, my treasury," he says now, "I would have turned my back on it." But he continues to do it, he adds, because "it is my passion and my duty to the American people."
The center's dozen volunteers record all calls, taking dates, times, descriptions. They listen for clues to identify hoaxers.
"You develop a knack - like an investigator or a journalist," says Davenport.
Up to three-dozen calls a day come in from 911 emergency dispatch centers, national Weather Service offices, military facilities, law enforcement agencies, Federal Aviation Administration officials and airline pilots, as well as UFO enthusiasts - and overenthusiasts.
"Woman reports seeing 'round, flashing lights' moving south to north while in hospital," reads one unconvincing entry in the logs.
Two witnesses report seeing "red blinking and solid white light moving over the Cascade Mountains." The calls came from SeaTac.
Once collected, information is entered into a computer database, to be sorted by state, city and date. As quickly as possible, it is posted on the center's Web site.
"We do not hoard data," says Davenport. "Data doesn't do any good if it sits in box. It has to be handed off, investigated, the circle has to be completed."
Davenport's policies win high praise in UFO circles.
"We all think Peter Davenport is doing a tremendous service, handling it in a very professional way," says Mutual UFO Network investigator Jim Clarkson, by day an officer with the Aberdeen Police Department. Clarkson investigates intriguing cases for the center, including animal mutilations in the Gray's Harbor area. Many UFO devotees believe aliens are conducting experiments on Earth's animals, carving out tongues, eyeballs, sex organs.
Davenport is one of them. He whips out newspaper photos of a short-finned pilot whale being dumped into the Atlantic Ocean from a military helicopter. The photo captions say the animal is one of a pod that was treated for curvature of the tail and released.
Why, he asks, use military helicopters? Why fly 150 miles out to sea? "Could it be the government was trying to hide evidence of alien tampering? Could the government be retrieving whales that bumped into a UFO?"
The Northwest has long been recognized as a leader in UFO research, says Davenport. It is also internationally recognized as a hotbed of activity.
Fifty years after the first flying saucer sighting at Mount Rainier, the Seattle-area boasts support groups for alien abductees, UFO discussion groups, groups sending signals to UFOs with strobe lights, crop-circle investigators, groups attempting to communicate with extraterrestrials telepathically.
And interest keeps growing.
In the past few years, the local chapter of the Mutual UFO Network has grown to become one of the largest in the country. Boeing engineers, college professors and law enforcement officials swell the ranks - along with increasing numbers of what's known in UFO circles as the "lunatic fringe.''
"We have people who come to our meetings who are not rational at all," says the network's western regional director, Marilyn Childs. "A lot of kooks and nuts have gotten into it."
The fallout - and the tabloid sensationalism that surrounds the subject - can undermine more serious-minded ufologists. Many are belittled. Some lose their jobs. Most learn to guard their words.
And all know the sting of ridicule.
"If you're not willing to stand up to an unstinting brunt of ridicule and skepticism, stay out of the field of UFO research," says Davenport.
"You've got to have the type of thick skin that will cause it not to sink into your bones - and even then sometimes it gets to you."
Davenport estimates that only one in a million sightings are ever actually reported.
"For a hundred different reasons, people will discount their sightings, or not know where to report them," he says.
He remembers his own first sighting, in vivid detail.
He was age 6. The year was 1954. He was sitting in a 1953 Studebaker with his mom and brother. They were at the Jet Cinema Drive-In in St. Louis.
"I saw an orange-red disc, blindingly bright, cast a red pall all over the ground. Then suddenly it zipped, off - whoooosh - across the horizon," he says, hands describing the motion.
"I had no idea what it was."
He still doesn't.
But he wonders about his several sightings over ensuing years, and about all the others.
"There appears to be an event taking place that falls outside the scope of normal human experience," he says, choosing his words carefully. This is the lapdog press he's talking to.
"I don't pretend to understand it better than the next person walking down the sidewalk. But could it be we're on the edge of an extraordinary phenomenon, an extraordinary awakening?"
Davenport cuts the speculation short. There's work to be done. If the truth is out there, the proof must be down here, somewhere. He's determined to find it.
He is, admittedly, exhausted.
Flooded with e-mail, media requests, juggling a packed speaking schedule and still working the hot line, he says he has never worked so hard in his life. He is putting in 100-hour work weeks, for zero pay.
"This has done what an amoeba does to its prey - it has swallowed me," says Davenport.
But there's no time to waste.
No time, even, to fritter on TV shows like "The X-Files."
"When you do this all day," Davenport says, "fiction doesn't mean a thing to you."
The most recent Gallup Poll on UFOs, conducted Sept. 3-5, 1996, shows:
87 percent of Americans have read or heard about UFOs.
12 percent have seen something they thought was a UFO.
45 percent think UFOs have visited Earth in some form.
48 percent believe UFOs are "something real;" 31 percent think they are "just people's imaginations."
72 percent believe there is life of some form on other planets in the universe.
38 percent think there are people somewhat like ourselves living on other planets in the universe.
71 percent believe the U.S. government knows more about UFOs than it is telling us.
"Two possibilities exist: either we are alone in the universe or we are not. Both are equally terrifying." - Arthur C. Clarke, science-fiction writer
"(Aliens) are here for their own reasons. And I'm not sure what those are." - Budd Hopkins, UFO researcher
"The person may be in their bedroom quite wide awake. The beings show up. And there they are, and the experience begins."
- John Mack, psychiatrist and alien abduction specialist
"If someone came to me with compelling, bona fide evidence that we're being visited, my reaction would be, `Whoopie!'"
- The late Carl Sagan, astronomer
"The UFO problem, far from being the `nonsense problem' it has been labeled by many scientists, constitutes an area of extraordinary scientific interest."
- James E. McDonald, physicist
"The idea of wondrous spaceships from a distant civilization really is a fairy story that is tailored to the adult mentality."
- Philip J. Klass, UFO debunker
"Any extraterrestrials reported are always described as essentially human in form, which is so unlikely a possibility that we can dismiss it out of hand."
- Isaac Asimov, author
"Our galaxy is some 10,000 million years old and contains something on the order of 100,000 million stars. It is hard to believe that in all this myriad host of suns and throughout all these countless millennia not one race has developed without achieving a degree of practical interstellar (spaceflight) capability."
- John W. Macvey, astronomer
"No more stories, just the goods."
- Paul Horowitz, physicist
(1) GRANT M. HALLER/P-I: Peter Davenport, director of the National UFO Center here in Seattle, traces the paths of two UFO flights along the East Coast on November 17, 1995.
(2) PAUL TRENT: A McMinnville, Ore., farmer snapped this picture of a "flying saucer" soaring over his farm in 1950.
(3) 12 percent of Americans report seeing UFOs similar to this one spotted over Santa Ana, Calif., in 1965.
(4) This human-like alien creature was drawn by David Chace, who interviews abductees and draws pictures of the beings they describe.