Saturday, June 23, 2012

Read the Fax Romney Sent to a Laid-Off Worker

Posted by:  on May 21, 2012

Today, the Obama reelection campaign is going after Mitt Romney for the Bain-led bankruptcy of Ampad, a Marion (Ind.) paper company that Bain acquired in 1994 and that eventually went bankrupt, costing hundreds of workers their jobs. One of those workers was Randy Johnson, who went on to bedevil Romney’s political career, popping up at inopportune moments to remind voters of the bankruptcy. (Johnson will be speaking to reporters today on a call arranged by the Obama campaign.) Bloomberg Businessweek’s Paul Barrett wrote the definitive story on Romney, Ampad, and Johnson, which you can read here. Among the documents Barrett turned up is this fascinating fax that Romney sent to Johnson, quasi-apologizing—though still denying culpability—for the Ampad bankruptcy and his lost job:

    Mitt Romney's Box of Kryptonite

    By on February 23, 2012

    Randy Johnson organizes steel workers for a living. Before that he worked in a paper factory where he served as union steward. He has waved picket line placards, bellowed through bullhorns, and taken people out on strike. Along the way, he became Mitt Romney’s worst recurring nightmare.
    At his bungalow in a working-class town near Pittsburgh, sitting on a chocolate-brown leather couch in the living room, Johnson displays the mild manner of a back-office accountant. He wears gold-rimmed glasses, a pale blue dress shirt, neatly pressed chinos, and black football coach’s shoes. “Let me show you something,” Johnson says, rising to get his “Romney box,” a copier-paper carton he’s kept since 1994. “She’s tried to get me to get rid of the box,” he says, nodding toward his wife, Rita, who smiles tolerantly. “I won’t do it.”

    Johnson's pursuit of Romney has made him a union celebrity 
    Photograph by Mark Mahaney 
    Johnson's pursuit of Romney has made him a union celebrity

    The box contains records of a long-ago chapter in the history of Bain Capital, the Boston investment firm Romney led from 1984 to 1999. Back in 1992, Bain acquired a manufacturer called American Pad & Paper, or Ampad. Bain then used Ampad as a vehicle to buy and restructure similar companies. Following standard “roll-up” strategy, Bain closed factories and laid off workers in anticipation of selling off a leaner, more profitable company via an initial public stock offering.
    Two years into the roll up, Bain had Ampad acquire an office supplies plant in Marion, Ind., a manufacturing town 70 miles northeast of Indianapolis. At the time, Johnson worked the night shift making hanging files. “We come back from the July 4th holiday, and this is what we find posted,” Johnson says, producing from the Romney box a one-page notice: “As of 3 p.m. today, July 5, 1994, your employment with SCM Office Supplies Inc. will end.” Most of the 258 employees were allowed to reapply for jobs at reduced wages and benefits. Johnson’s pay fell 22 percent, he says, from $10.05 an hour to $7.88. Dismayed to see their old union contract torn up, the Marion workers negotiated with Ampad management for several months, then called a risky strike. In early 1995, Ampad called the union’s bluff, closed the plant, and laid off the remaining workers.
    “None of what happened in Marion in the 1990s would be very interesting,” Johnson notes, “if Mitt Romney had not built his entire political career on the claim that he’s a job creator.” By the same token, Johnson wouldn’t have become a character actor in the 2012 Presidential drama had Romney’s conduct not drawn the union man to the spotlight 18 years earlier. On and off since 1994, when the former Massachusetts businessman made his first run for public office, seeking to unseat Democratic Senator Edward M. Kennedy, Johnson has haunted Romney. During the hard-fought Senate race, Johnson led a “truth squad” of Marion workers who drove overnight to Boston to confront Romney. Kennedy’s campaign, recognizing a gift from the political gods, made a series of television commercials starring the unhappy Marion workers. The ads helped Kennedy pull out of a temporary slump and defeat Romney. In 2002, when the Republican ran for governor of Massachusetts, Johnson popped up again to remind voters about Marion. Better prepared, Romney weathered the attack and won the statehouse, vowing to improve the Massachusetts economy based on his business expertise.
    Now, as Romney battles to become the Republican Presidential nominee, Johnson is working with the Democratic National Committee to plague the politician yet again. Once an aggrieved line worker avenging what he considered an injustice, he is, many years and several campaigns later, a seasoned operative fluent in the language and tactics of political combat. Democrats, for obvious reasons, seek him out, and he seems happy to be sought. Since late last year, the DNC has shepherded Johnson around the country in a preview of President Barack Obama’s populist-tinged fall campaign. Johnson has visited Iowa, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Vermont, Maine, and Florida, talking to journalists and schmoozing state Democratic chairmen. In January, when Romney told an audience in Nashua, N.H., that he “enjoy[s] firing people,” Johnson cracked to reporters: “That’s not news to me. Mitt Romney fired me and everyone at the plant.” (He didn’t bother with the detail that Romney had been referring, however awkwardly, not to laying off workers but choosing among health insurers.)
    In their push to undermine Romney, the Democrats have received unexpected assistance from Newt Gingrich; allies of Romney’s rival for the nomination disseminated an attack video in January that included references to Ampad and other companies acquired by Bain that later suffered financial difficulties. Romney’s campaign, unsurprisingly, offers a starkly different account of the Ampad deal and the significance of the candidate’s career at Bain. Romney maintains his business career generated employment on an impressive scale. “The jobs created at Bain Capital by companies that we helped start or that we helped manage, those companies today employ well over 100,000 more jobs than those that were lost,” Romney told Bloomberg TV on Jan. 7.
    Asked for data to back up that claim, Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul points to comments the candidate made in Greer, S.C., on Jan. 12: “There are a number of businesses that we helped start which collectively … added well over 100,000 jobs. Staples (SPLS), Bright Horizons children centers, Sports Authority, Steel Dynamics (STLD). Those four alone added well over 100,000 jobs. And then the press has also reported on businesses that lost employment and that was a few thousand jobs that were lost. In each case, where there was job loss, there was an effort on the part of the management team to try and preserve the business to have a brighter future.” To this, Saul adds: “These experiences give Mr. Romney the unique skills and capabilities to do what President Obama has failed to do: focus on job creation and turn around our nation’s faltering economy.”
    Marc Wolpow, a former Romney colleague at Bain, defends the buyout business as promoting American competitiveness. The main goal at buyout firms, however, is never maximizing employment, he says. It’s maximizing returns for investors. “The facts,” Wolpow observes, “tend to get lost in the political spin.”

    American Pad & Paper traces its roots to Holyoke, Mass., where in the 1880s the company introduced the yellow legal pad. In its heyday after World War II, Ampad made some 2,000 different paper products. By the 1980s, though, the small, independent office supply stores that had sold Ampad’s wares for generations were losing ground to big-box discounters, which had the muscle to squeeze manufacturers on price. Low-cost Asian importers simultaneously grabbed market share.
    In 1986, Mead, a conglomerate based in Dayton that sold paper products and also owned the electronic information services Lexis and Nexis, acquired Ampad for $118 million. The year before, Ampad had profits of $4.5 million on sales of $115 million. The combination didn’t gel. Six years later, Mead admitted that it had “difficulties integrating” Ampad and would sell the subsidiary to Bain Capital in a $40 million transaction.
    Bain put up only about $5 million of its investors’ money for the deal. It borrowed the rest, loading the debt on to Ampad and promising the paper company would repay the loans out of future revenue. In the 1980s and 1990s, this kind of acquisition was commonly called a leveraged buyout. If all went well, the acquiring firm would whip the target company into shape, sell it in an IPO, repay the debt out of the sale proceeds, and clear a handsome profit for its investors. If things went less well, the acquired company might end up in bankruptcy proceedings—but the LBO firm would lose only its modest equity investment. In more recent years, image-conscious LBO financiers have rebranded their businesses as private equity firms.
    Semantics aside, the founders of Bain Capital originally saw the firm not as an LBO or private equity shop, but as a venture capital concern. VCs provide seed money for promising startup ventures. Silicon Valley has flourished in part because of investments by venture capital firms. Both VC and LBO firms deploy money from wealthy individuals and institutional investors such as pension funds, insurance companies, and university endowments.
    Bain Capital began in 1984 as an offshoot of the corporate consulting firm Bain & Co. To lead Bain Capital, co-founder William Bain chose Romney, a 37-year-old Harvard Business School graduate whose auto executive father, George Romney, had served three terms as governor of Michigan. The initial plan was that Bain Capital would draw on Bain & Co.’s expertise to make VC investments. One early success was Bain Capital’s investment in 1986 of $650,000 in Staples, a low-price office supply store that over time would grow into a chain with more than 52,000 full-time employees.
    Romney soon steered Bain Capital toward LBO investments, which he viewed as safer bets than startups. “I didn’t want to invest in startups, where the success of the enterprise depended upon something that was out of our control, such as, ‘Could Dr. X make the technology work?’ ” Romney later said, according to The Real Romney, a new biography by Michael Kranish and Scott Helman. The 1992 Ampad acquisition appealed to Romney because traditional manufacturers of office supplies were selling cheap. Implicit in the roll-up plan was that a restructured Ampad would become strong enough to withstand pricing pressure from expanding discount chains such as Bain’s other investment beneficiary, Staples. The Romney campaign declined to make the candidate available to comment for this story.
    In June 1994, Ampad paid an undisclosed sum for SCM, the office supply business of Smith Corona, a fading typewriter manufacturer. Smith Corona owned the hanging-file and index-card factory in Marion. And so it was that Mitt Romney and Randy Johnson crossed paths.
    “We never heard of Bain,” Johnson says. “All we knew was that some company called Ampad took over the factory. … We were getting paid a lot less for working longer hours, and now we were paying big premiums we never paid before for health insurance.” The son of an Indiana gas station owner, Johnson graduated from high school in 1972. His career included painting locomotives and working in a concrete-block factory. In 1986 he landed at the brick-front Smith Corona plant in Marion, his first unionized shop. Other members of Local 154 of the United Paperworkers International liked the way he handled himself, and Johnson rose to become the union’s top on-site official, putting him smack in the middle of the Ampad takeover.
    “The workers were all fired up” by the ensuing pay and benefit cuts, Johnson says. All-night negotiations with management representatives did not produce compromise. On Sept. 1, 1994, he led a strike, the first of his life, and one in which the union didn’t enjoy a strong bargaining position. Employees from the much larger General Motors (GM) stamping plant across the road took up a collection for the paper workers. A local McDonald’s (MCD) sent over free hamburgers. Then something unusual happened. “Three weeks in,” Johnson says, “my thermal fax machine starts up, and here comes a Boston Globe article telling us that Bain Capital is the one behind Ampad, and Mitt Romney, who’s running for senator from Massachusetts, is the man behind Bain Capital.”

    After enjoying extraordinary financial success at Bain, Romney decided to emulate his father’s move into politics and public service. In late 1993 he took a leave of absence from Bain and, running as a moderate Republican, announced he would challenge Kennedy for his long-held Massachusetts Senate seat. Romney portrayed Kennedy, 62 at the time, as a weary liberal. Democrats nationally were on the defensive in the 1994 midterm elections, which would eventually result in a shift of the U.S. House of Representatives to Republican control.
    As summer turned to fall, Romney was running ahead of Kennedy in opinion polls, and an upset seemed possible. It was the Kennedy campaign that brought the situation in Marion to the attention of the Globe. And just one week after Johnson’s fax transmitted the Boston newspaper’s report on the Romney-Bain-Ampad connection, Kennedy himself showed up in Marion to meet with union officials. A few days later, a Kennedy film crew arrived to record interviews with striking workers. Ads appeared on television in Massachusetts, featuring the striking Marion paper workers. “I’d like him to show me where these 10,000 jobs that he created are,” one said of Romney. “I’d like to say to the people of Massachusetts,” another striker added, “if you think it can’t happen to you, think again.”
    The onslaught stunned Romney. In a 2002 interview with Bloomberg News, C. Kevin Landry, then chief executive of rival private equity firm TA Associates, recalled Romney telling him: “I was a deer in the headlights.” The rookie candidate could have avoided the ambush, his former Bain colleague Wolpow says. A political independent who backed Romney in 1994 “out of friendship,” he remembers warning the Republican not to portray LBO investing as aimed primarily at boosting employment. “I believed he was making a mistake by framing himself as a job creator,” says Wolpow, who is co-CEO of Audax Group, an investment firm in Boston. “That was not his or Bain’s or the [buyout] industry’s primary objective. The objective of the LBO business is maximizing returns for investors, and those investors include union pension funds.”
    Wolpow proved prescient. The Massachusetts media gave copious attention to Kennedy’s attack on Bain and Romney. The Democrat came roaring back and in November beat the upstart 58-41. Wolpow, who voted for Obama in 2008 and has not made up his mind which candidate he’ll support this November, argues that Romney was not to blame for what happened in Marion. “Mitt’s role was entirely appropriate,” he says. “This was a declining industry. Jobs were being lost in the U.S. Indonesians were producing paper products at a much lower cost.” By buying and combining financially troubled companies, Bain thinned a dying herd and gave the survivors a chance to stay in business. “From the narrow perspective of the union workers involved, the deal was a disaster,” Wolpow acknowledges. “They lost their jobs.” He says the workers were the unfortunate victims of “creative destruction,” a term popularized by the late economist Joseph Schumpeter to describe the sometimes brutal manner in which capitalism sloughs off less competitive businesses.
    The leverage in LBOs can accelerate the Darwinian sorting process, heightening pressure to eliminate slower-performing operations. Bain Capital boosted Ampad’s debt from less than $20 million in 1994 to $450 million in 1995. During the period it controlled Ampad, Bain charged the company roughly $15 million in fees.
    In December 1995, Ampad said it would shut down the Marion plant unless the union made even more concessions. Johnson called for a vote. At an emotional meeting, some employees said they’d live with lower pay and benefits; they pleaded to be allowed to go back to work, especially with Christmas coming. As he recalls the debate, Johnson’s voice catches. “You got people thinking about feeding their kids,” he says softly. He sensed the plant was doomed because the new management had already begun removing valuable automated machinery and shipping it to other Ampad facilities. But as a matter of principle, he pushed for a walkout, and the final vote was 156-14 to reject management’s demands. Ampad closed the plant on Jan. 15, and 240 people lost their jobs.

    Romney wrote to Johnson the day the plant closed 
    Photographs by Jeff Morehead/Chronicle-Tribune (2)Romney wrote to Johnson the day the plant closed

    During the final days of the standoff, Johnson sent Romney a letter, asking him to intervene and save the Marion factory. By then, Romney had lost to Kennedy and was back at Bain. On the day the plant closed, Johnson says, he received a faxed response from Boston. He pulls the aging paper from the Romney box. “There is probably no one in Massachusetts who wishes more than I that union leaders like you and company officials had settled their differences,” Romney wrote. He said he was sorry about the situation but that his lawyers had advised him not to get involved. Asked about this exchange, Romney spokeswoman Saul offered no comment.
    “It was a lot of song and dance,” Johnson says. “I mean, here’s the boss, and he’s acting like he’s got nothing to do with the situation.” Though Bain Capital signed off on the plant closure, Ampad was run by a separate group of paper industry executives based in Dallas. Ampad’s chairman and CEO, Charles Hanson III, told the New York Times in October 1994 that since Romney and his partners had bought the company, profits at its three other factories had grown, as had employment, from 728 jobs to 850. “People of entrepreneurial bent took [Ampad] over and made it successful,” he said.
    Johnson was out of work for five-and-a-half months before he found a job fixing engines at a used-car lot. His leadership in Marion and willingness to confront Romney did not go unnoticed; the United Paperworkers offered him a job as a full-time staff organizer, and that post led to his current assignment with the United Steelworkers in Pittsburgh.
    The Ampad roll up, meanwhile, continued. In October 1995, Bain acquired Williamhouse-Regency of Delaware for $300 million. Nine months later, in July 1996, Bain began cashing out of the investment by arranging for an IPO of Ampad that raised $234 million from investors. Ampad announced it would use money from the IPO to repay $107 million in bank debt. An additional $70 million of IPO proceeds were used to redeem notes and pay related fees. Bain took a $2 million fee for arranging the IPO, on top of the roughly $50 million it collected by selling some of its Ampad shares.
    Bain and its investors realized $107 million on the firm’s $5 million equity investment, according to a private prospectus prepared by Deutsche Bank (DB) in 2000 for clients looking into Bain Capital. The annual rate of return on the Ampad deal totaled 130 percent—impressive even in the rarefied world of LBOs. The Deutsche Bank analysis covered the years 1984 through 1999, most of the period when Romney led Bain. “Bain Capital’s first five private equity funds achieved an annualized rate of return of approximately 173 percent per annum on all realized investments,” Deutsche Bank said. “These returns are among the highest returns in the private equity community over the 16-year period during which Bain Capital has been investing.”
    Ampad wasn’t so fortunate. After the IPO, it continued to expand and borrow heavily, even as its profits were pressured by Staples and other powerful customers. In its first consolidated financial report following the IPO, Ampad reported that for the second quarter of 1996 its sales had nearly tripled, to $114 million. But it posted a loss for the quarter, reversing its 1995 second-quarter net income of $1.9 million. By 2000, Ampad could no longer make timely interest payments on its debts, so bondholders forced the company into Chapter 11 court proceedings. After it shed some of the units that Bain had bolted together, Ampad was acquired out of bankruptcy by American Tissue of Hauppauge, N.Y. In 2001, American Tissue filed for Chapter 11 protection from its creditors.
    The Ampad story illustrates why Mitt Romney has struggled to portray his private equity success as an inspirational tale instead of a cautionary one. Leveraged restructuring is an unsentimental, often harsh business. Sometimes it results in a second chance for a failing company. Other times it leads to collapse, because of bad luck, recklessness, or miscalculation. Either way, there are clear winners and losers—and the biggest winners tend to be investors who often make money whether the bought-out company thrives or fails. This would be a difficult thing to explain for even the nimblest of politicians, which Romney is not. Instead of mounting a vigorous capitalist defense of creative destruction, he has glossed over messy details to insist improbably that most of all, his years in business taught him how to create jobs.

    By 2002, Romney had left Bain with a fortune he now estimates at as much as $250 million. He was still determined to serve in public office. His goal was the Massachusetts governorship, and that spring he told Bloomberg News he wouldn’t repeat the mistake of failing to answer those who said he destroyed jobs. “I’m proud to take responsibility for my own record as a manager,” he said. “I can’t possibly take the blame for all 200 companies in Bain Capital’s portfolio, any more than I am going to take credit or blame for all the investments in my 401(k).”
    His Democratic opponent, State Treasurer Shannon O’Brien, ran ads reprising the complaints of former Ampad workers. At a press conference in Boston in October 2002, Senator Kennedy appeared along with Johnson and several other veterans of the Marion plant closure. “We don’t want to see what happened to these workers happen in Massachusetts,” Kennedy said, according to the Globe. Johnson remembers receiving a skeptical greeting from journalists. “The reporters were demanding, ‘Who paid for you to be here?’ ” He told them the Democrats had covered his travel expenses, but nothing more. “Did that taint my story? I don’t think so. I just said what had happened.”
    Johnson has a thick skin for criticism. He enjoys the political skirmishes and media attention. And why not? Here’s a guy who might have scraped by as just another Rust Belt refugee, but instead transformed himself into a union hero and minor celebrity, courtesy of a brush with Bain Capital and a fax from Mitt Romney.
    In 2002, Romney gave as good as he got, accusing his opponent, O’Brien, of “exploiting” the former Marion workers and “filling their heads with things that are not true,” the Globe reported. He emphasized that he’d been on leave from Bain when critical decisions were made about the Marion labor controversy. “I had no involvement whatsoever,” he said.
    Hanson, who as Ampad’s Dallas-based CEO had defended Romney back in 1994, changed his tone eight years later. In 1998, Bain asked for Hanson’s resignation. In 2002 he told the Globe that he had “no doubt Romney approved of” the roll-up strategy that would result in consolidation and layoffs. “Any significant direction we received would certainly have been authorized by him,” Hanson said.
    After completing his four-year term as Massachusetts governor in 2007, Romney set his sights on the Republican Presidential nomination. Emphasizing his Bain experience, he conceded that occasionally LBOs can cause discomfort. “Sometimes the medicine is a little bitter, but it is necessary to save the life of the patient,” he told the New York Times in June 2007. Speaking at a retirement community in South Carolina in January 2008, he said, “We fought every time to grow employment.”
    Johnson, watching from his perch at the Steelworkers, readied his Romney box. But Romney’s rival for the nomination, John McCain, soon pulled ahead decisively, and Johnson sat out the race. He favored Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primaries, getting behind Obama only after he became the party’s nominee.
    Johnson says he hadn’t focused closely on the battle for the 2012 Republican Presidential nomination until ABC News called late last year to ask if he’d do an interview about the Marion episode. Leo Gerard, the president of the Steelworkers, gave his permission. That led to an invitation from The Ed Show on liberal-leaning MSNBC. Then the DNC asked if he’d like to go to Iowa and New Hampshire, where the Democrats were road-testing anti-Romney messages. At a press conference in Des Moines, he said, “I really feel he didn’t care about the worker.” By e-mail, Saul, the Romney spokeswoman, says: “Mitt Romney spent 25 years as a businessman and entrepreneur. At Bain & Co., a management consulting firm, he helped lead a successful turnaround. At Bain Capital, he helped launch and guide a private equity and financial services firm. Bain Capital invested in many businesses; while not every business was successful, the firm had an excellent overall track record and created jobs with well-known companies.”

    Wayne Seybold, the former Olympic figure skater and hometown hero who serves as the mayor of Marion, wishes his city of 30,000 were famous for something other than a nearly two-decade-old plant closure. A Republican now in his third term, Seybold works hard to bring business to Marion. In an interview at City Hall, he notes that if you drive past the old Ampad factory today, you’ll see the building has a new occupant: Nova Packaging, which manufactures corrugated boxes. A dogged optimist, Seybold says the town has bounced back since unemployment hit 17 percent in 2004: “We range from the high 9s to about 11 percent.”
    After additional corporate convolutions, Ampad, still based in the Dallas area, was acquired in 2010 by Esselte, a $1 billion office products company with subsidiaries in 31 countries. Owned by the private equity firm J.W. Childs Associates, Esselte does not talk to the media and wouldn’t say how many people Ampad employs today. On an affiliate’s website, Ampad advertises its envelopes and pads under such brands as Gold Fibre and Envirotec.
    As much as Seybold may want to leave Marion’s past behind, Johnson and his political handlers are determined to make sure that doesn’t happen. When Johnson traveled to New Hampshire to make his case against Romney, he was accompanied by Brad Woodhouse, communications director for the DNC. The Democratic spokesman declined to comment on how his side might deploy the union organizer in a potential race against Romney in the fall. Woodhouse didn’t deny, however, that Ampad probably would surface if Romney gets the GOP nomination. “I’m ready if they need me,” Johnson says.
    His guerrilla activism has already made him a target of certain conservatives. In a column on the Human Events website, pundit Ann Coulter referred to him as “bitter and lying.” For a while, “Bain led Ampad to thrive,” she wrote. “Alas, people kept using those damn computers and shopping for discount paper at Staples and similar stores.”
    Johnson seems amused by the vituperation. He says he agrees with one thing Coulter said in her column: “Bain’s acquisition of Ampad is the Left’s best shot against Romney’s business career.” Coulter doesn’t think that shot adds up to much. Johnson says he’s got ammunition in reserve, in the Romney box.

    Mystery Spots: Places Where Bizarre Forces Obscure Reality

    By Anna Goldwater Alexander Email  
    Area 51

    Lat: 37.254" N || Long: -115.806" W
    Area 51
    Groom Lake, Nevada—Government-run alien crash pad

    The Mystery: For conspiracy theorists, Area 51 has been ground zero for the nation's secret military projects since U-2 spy planes were tested there in the 1950s. But as any sci-fi fan knows, it's also a hot zone for the extraterrestrials recovered from an unidentified space vehicle rumored to have crash-landed in nearby Roswell, New Mexico, in 1947. Over the past few years, several former Area 51 workers have tried to sue the government for exposure to toxic materials (presumably not from Mars), but they've been thwarted by presidential exemptions allowing the Air Force to keep its operations hush-hush.

    The Reality: Aliens make for great TV but are otherwise pure fiction. Really.
    Photo Portfolio: Uta Kögelsberger

    Area 51
    Uta and Uwe checked online maps to see how close they could get to Area 51. They learned their best bet for getting insider information was at the Little A’Le’Inn motel in Rachel, Nevada.
    Area 51
    Little A’Le’Inn hotel gift shop.
    Staying at the motel provided them with no shortage of rumors, including one of listening devices placed throughout the area to track potential intruders. Also, the boundary markers are placed so that they are very hard to recognize, yet, says Uta, "if you aren't careful, you can easily cross the barrier. And if you cross, the guards are allowed to shoot to kill."
    Area 51
    Groom Road, a dirt road on the way to Groom Lake/Area 51. "The implied danger is quite strongly felt. You get a sense that the folklore has built a much stronger fence than would be physically possible to construct," Uta says.
    Area 51
    The sky above Area 51 at night.
    Area 51
    Groom Road on the way to Groom Lake/Area 51.

    View My Saved Places in a larger map

    Mystery Spots: Places Where Bizarre Forces Obscure Reality

    By Anna Goldwater Alexander Email 


    Lat: 30.3402  N || Long: -104.1298 W

    Texas—Hovering orbs of light in the night sky

    The Mystery: Each evening, along a certain stretch of US Route 90, the Marfa Lights cast a delicate glow along the Texas horizon. Appearing one or two at a time, each sphere appears to hover at eye level and sparkle like a disco ball. Since these elusive beams were first documented in the late 19th century, theories abound—there are at least 75 local folktales suggesting the lights are everything from little volcanoes to St. Elmo's fire.

    The Reality: In 2005, a team of physics students at the University of Texas at Dallas found that "all the lights reliably observed during the experiment were car headlights." A logical assertion today, but what about their first appearance in 1883?
    Photo Portfolio: Uta Kögelsberger

    Uta says she took this photo from the Marfa Lights viewing platform with a digital camera set at a six-minute exposure. Uta says the lights were at least a mile away and that "they were probably car headlights." Regardless, she did meet locals who said they've seen them, including a bartender who told Uta a disturbing story of being "followed by the lights." True story or just a tall tale to enhance the local folklore?
    US Route 90 on the way to photograph Marfa Lights in Marfa, Texas.

    Plaque in the Marfa Lights View Shelter in Marfa, Texas.

    Marfa Lights view shelter.

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    Mystery Spots: Places Where Bizarre Forces Obscure Reality

    By Anna Goldwater Alexander Email 
    Lake Toplitz

    Lat: 47°38'36.29" N || Long: 13°55'32.22" E
    Lake Toplitz
    Austria—Sunken Nazi treasure

    The Mystery: A seemingly serene lake nestled in the mountains about 50 miles southeast of Salzburg is believed to hold some of the Nazis' darkest secrets—and the promise of sunken treasure. Hitler used the 350-foot-deep lake to test underwater missiles for use on submarines. But as the war ended, the SS allegedly dumped millions of dollars' worth of looted goods in wooden cases.

    The Reality: In summer 2000, 60 Minutes II enlisted the assistance of Oceaneering Technologies, the high tech salvage crew that worked on the space shuttle Challenger and TWA Flight 800 crashes. Over the course of four weeks, they uncovered piles of bogus British pound notes—but nothing else.
    Photo Portfolio: Uta Kögelsberger

    Lake Toplitz
    Uta sets up her next shot in waist-deep snow. After Uta and assistant Lynne Marsh (also a photographer) arrived in Austria, it snowed for the next three days. "You can't drive through the snow, so you have walk in it up to your belly to scout locations," Uta says, laughing.
    Photo: Lynne Marsh
    Lake Toplitz
    Snow falls in Lake Toplitz. Uta says the night shoots were particularly difficult: "Snow isn't good for camera equipment."
    Lake Toplitz
    Reachable only by a dead-end road, the isolated mile-long lake features gorgeous scenery and one small restaurant called the Fisherman's Hut. The owner admitted to Uta that building up the mystery of the lake certainly helped his business.

    View My Saved Places in a larger map

    Mystery Spots: Places Where Bizarre Forces Obscure Reality

    By Anna Goldwater Alexander Email 
    Racetrack Playa

    Lat: 36°40'53.96" N || Long: 117°33'45.66" W
    Racetrack Playa
    Death Valley, California—Self-propelled rocks

    The Mystery: In the vast, flat desert of Death Valley, a series of colossal boulders, weighing up to 700 pounds each, appear to move on their own. There are no traces of bulldozers, footprints, or tire tracks. Not only that, these sliding rocks leave behind deep "scars" that disappear in less than seven years. Gravity was once thought to be the culprit, until researchers discovered that many of these massive stones were skittering uphill.

    The Reality: One recent study using differential GPS and rock-trail analysis suggests that a potent combination of blasting winds, whirling dust devils, and the slick playa surface causes the rocks to inch ever so slowly along the desert floor.
    Photo Portfolio: Uta Kögelsberger
    Racetrack Playa
    Racetrack Playa is a flat lake bed located between the Cottonwood Mountains and Last Chance Range. This trail sign at Teakettle Junction in Death Valley points toward the playa.
    Racetrack Playa
    Racetrack Playa is a very remote place. To find it, you have to travel almost 60 miles past the Death Valley Visitor Center, then go 30 more miles down a rough dirt road, and hike half a mile from the parking lot. Uta says it was very peculiar to come across dozens of photographers in this vast, stark landscape kneeling with their cameras to shoot photos of the rocks.
    Adding to the strangeness was the noise of jets from Edwards Air Force Base breaking the sound barrier above their heads. "Being in the middle of nowhere with a military exercise going on above my head was spooky," says Uta.
    Photo: Uwe Zirpner
    Racetrack Playa
    The rocks trails aren't permanent. A rainstorm can wash away the paths of smaller rocks, and none last more than six to seven years.

    Mystery Spots: Places Where Bizarre Forces Obscure Reality

    By Anna Goldwater Alexander Email 

    Bermuda Triangle

    Lat: 25°12'26.43" N || Long: 69°30'17.93" W
    Bermuda Triangle

    Atlantic Ocean—Vanishing ships and planes
    The Mystery: On December 5, 1945, five torpedo bombers took off from a US Naval base in Florida for a routine training flight and were never seen again. That's just one of about 70 such incidents that have fueled the legend of the Bermuda Triangle, a roughly 450,000-square-mile area of sea between Miami, Bermuda, and Puerto Rico. Mariners and aviators alike fear an "electronic fog" in the region's atmosphere that some say spins compass needles, jams radar signals, and consumes planes and ships.

    The Reality: Statistical coincidence and sloppy research, according to the US Navy, which doesn't recognize the existence of the Bermuda Triangle.
    Photo Portfolio: Uta Kögelsberger

    Bermuda Triangle
    In broad daylight, the Bermuda Triangle just looks like the ocean. So photographer Uta Kögelsberger waited until nightfall to coax whatever creepy aura she could from the mysterious deep. "When we are in the darkness," she says, "the brain fills in what the eye can't see. Darkness is a fundamental instrument to induce terror, it can trick our minds into thinking a simple creak in a floorboard is an intruder."
    Bermuda Triangle
    Uta photographs the Bermuda Triangle from Miami Beach. She and assistant Uwe Zirpner scouted locations along the Florida coast as far south as Key West to look for the right spot for the shoot.
    Photo: Uwe Zirpner
    Bermuda Triangle
    A woman sunning herself on Miami Beach, the Bermuda Triangle in the distance.
    Bermuda Triangle
    The Bermuda Triangle at dusk, as seen from Miami Beach before the sweepers arrive.
    Bermuda Triangle
    A cruise ship sets out into the Bermuda Triangle from Miami Beach.

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    Mystery Spots: Places Where Bizarre Forces Obscure Reality

    By Anna Goldwater Alexander Email 
    Mexico City  
    Lat: 19°25'48.61" N || Long: 99°10'0.92" W
      Mexico City

    Mexico—UFO-sighting central

    The Mystery: Is Mexico City the go-to destination for intergalactic tourists? In July 1991 a total solar eclipse darkened the city's sky, and many residents claimed to have seen a UFO dangling near the blotted-out orb. The capital—and the country—has been popular with sky-watchers ever since. In 1999, a whopping 60 percent of denizens in a nearby town said they spotted a UFO, and there are currently 3,000-plus YouTube videos "documenting" Mexico's sightings.

    The Reality: It could be a perceptual illusion known as the autokinetic effect, which makes stationary light in dark skies appear to move. According to UFO enthusiasts, Mexico City is not considered to be a "real" alien hot spot.
    Photo Portfolio: Uta Kögelsberger
    Mexico City
    Uta traveled directly to Mexico City from Miami Beach and said the contrast was a shock. The glittering wealth of Miami stood in sharp contrast to the poverty of most of Mexico City's inhabitants, particularly in areas away from the city center.
    Mexico City
    Uta had four days in Mexico City. She called on a friend, a local photographer, who helped locate the downtown furniture store rooftop where the shoot took place.
    Photo: Uwe Zirpner
    Mexico City
    Mexico City at night — orb free, but still eerie.

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    The Georgia Guidestones may be the most enigmatic monument in the US: huge slabs of granite, inscribed with directions for rebuilding civilization after the apocalypse. Only one man knows who created them—and he's not talking.
    Photo: Dan Winters
    The strangest monument in America looms over a barren knoll in northeastern Georgia. Five massive slabs of polished granite rise out of the earth in a star pattern. The rocks are each 16 feet tall, with four of them weighing more than 20 tons apiece. Together they support a 25,000-pound capstone. Approaching the edifice, it's hard not to think immediately of England's Stonehenge or possibly the ominous monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Built in 1980, these pale gray rocks are quietly awaiting the end of the world as we know it.
    Called the Georgia Guidestones, the monument is a mystery—nobody knows exactly who commissioned it or why. The only clues to its origin are on a nearby plaque on the ground—which gives the dimensions and explains a series of intricate notches and holes that correspond to the movements of the sun and stars—and the "guides" themselves, directives carved into the rocks. These instructions appear in eight languages ranging from English to Swahili and reflect a peculiar New Age ideology. Some are vaguely eugenic (guide reproduction wisely—improving fitness and diversity); others prescribe standard-issue hippie mysticism (prize truth—beauty—love—seeking harmony with the infinite).
    What's most widely agreed upon—based on the evidence available—is that the Guidestones are meant to instruct the dazed survivors of some impending apocalypse as they attempt to reconstitute civilization. Not everyone is comfortable with this notion. A few days before I visited, the stones had been splattered with polyurethane and spray-painted with graffiti, including slogans like "Death to the new world order." This defacement was the first serious act of vandalism in the Guidestones' history, but it was hardly the first objection to their existence. In fact, for more than three decades this uncanny structure in the heart of the Bible Belt has been generating responses that range from enchantment to horror. Supporters (notable among them Yoko Ono) have praised the messages as a stirring call to rational thinking, akin to Thomas Paine's The Age of Reason. Opponents have attacked them as the Ten Commandments of the Antichrist.
    Whoever the anonymous architects of the Guidestones were, they knew what they were doing: The monument is a highly engineered structure that flawlessly tracks the sun. It also manages to engender endless fascination, thanks to a carefully orchestrated aura of mystery. And the stones have attracted plenty of devotees to defend against folks who would like them destroyed. Clearly, whoever had the monument placed here understood one thing very well: People prize what they don't understand at least as much as what they do.

    The story of the Georgia Guidestones began on a Friday afternoon in June 1979, when an elegant gray-haired gentleman showed up in Elbert County, made his way to the offices of Elberton Granite Finishing, and introduced himself as Robert C. Christian. He claimed to represent "a small group of loyal Americans" who had been planning the installation of an unusually large and complex stone monument. Christian had come to Elberton—the county seat and the granite capital of the world—because he believed its quarries produced the finest stone on the planet.
    Joe Fendley, Elberton Granite's president, nodded absently, distracted by the rush to complete his weekly payroll. But when Christian began to describe the monument he had in mind, Fendley stopped what he was doing. Not only was the man asking for stones larger than any that had been quarried in the county, he also wanted them cut, finished, and assembled into some kind of enormous astronomical instrument.
    What in the world would it be for? Fendley asked. Christian explained that the structure he had in mind would serve as a compass, calendar, and clock. It would also need to be engraved with a set of guides written in eight of the world's major languages. And it had to be capable of withstanding the most catastrophic events, so that the shattered remnants of humanity would be able to use those guides to reestablish a better civilization than the one that was about to destroy itself.

    Monumental Precision

    Built to survive the apocalypse, the Georgia Guidestones are not merely instructions for the future—the massive granite slabs also function as a clock, calendar, and compass.
    The monument sits at the highest point in Elbert County and is oriented to track the sun's east-west migration year-round.
    On an equinox or solstice, visitors who stand at the west side of the "mail slot" are positioned to see the sun rise on the horizon.
    An eye-level hole drilled into the center support stone allows stargazers on the south side to locate Polaris, the North Star.
    A 7/8-inch hole drilled through the capstone focuses a sunbeam on the center column and at noon pinpoints the day of the year.
    Text: Erik Malinowski; illustration: Steve Sanford

    Fendley is now deceased, but shortly after the Guidestones went up, an Atlanta television reporter asked what he was thinking when he first heard Christian's plan. "I was thinking, 'I got a nut in here now. How am I going get him out?'" Fendley said. He attempted to discourage the man by quoting him a price several times higher than for any project commissioned there before. The job would require special tools, heavy equipment, and paid consultants, Fendley explained. But Christian merely nodded and asked how long it would take. Fendley didn't rightly know—six months, at least. He wouldn't be able to even consider such an undertaking, he added, until he knew it could be paid for. When Christian asked whether there was a banker in town he considered trustworthy, Fendley saw his chance to unload the strange man and sent him to look for Wyatt Martin, president of the Granite City Bank.
    The tall and courtly Martin—the only man in Elberton besides Fendley known to have met R. C. Christian face-to-face—is now 78. "Fendley called me and said, 'A kook over here wants some kind of crazy monument,'" Martin says. "But when this fella showed up he was wearing a very nice, expensive suit, which made me take him a little more seriously. And he was well-spoken, obviously an educated person." Martin was naturally taken aback when the man told him straight out that R. C. Christian was a pseudonym. He added that his group had been planning this secretly for 20 years and wanted to remain anonymous forever. "And when he told me what it was he and this group wanted to do, I just about fell over," Martin says. "I told him, 'I believe you'd be just as well off to take the money and throw it out in the street into the gutters.' He just sort of looked at me and shook his head, like he felt kinda sorry for me, and said, 'You don't understand.'"
    Martin led Christian down the street to the town square, where the city had commissioned a towering Bicentennial Memorial Fountain, which included a ring of 13 granite panels, each roughly 2 by 3 feet, signifying the original colonies. "I told him that was about the biggest project ever undertaken around here, and it was nothing compared to what he was talking about," Martin says. "That didn't seem to bother him at all." Promising to return on Monday, the man went off to charter a plane and spend the weekend scouting locations from the air. "By then I half believed him," Martin says.
    When Christian came back to the bank Monday, Martin explained that he could not proceed unless he could verify the man's true identity and "get some assurance you can pay for this thing." Eventually, the two negotiated an agreement: Christian would reveal his real name on the condition that Martin promise to serve as his sole intermediary, sign a confidentiality agreement pledging never to disclose the information to another living soul, and agree to destroy all documents and records related to the project when it was finished. "He said he was going to send the money from different banks across the country," Martin says, "because he wanted to make sure it couldn't be traced. He made it clear that he was very serious about secrecy."
    Before leaving town, Christian met again with Fendley and presented the contractor with a shoe box containing a wooden model of the monument he wanted, plus 10 or so pages of detailed specifications. Fendley accepted the model and instructions but remained skeptical until Martin phoned the following Friday to say he had just received a $10,000 deposit. After that, Fendley stopped questioning and started working. "My daddy loved a challenge," says Fendley's daughter, Melissa Fendley Caruso, "and he said this was the most challenging project in the history of Elbert County."

    Construction of the Guidestones got under way later that summer. Fendley's company lovingly documented the progress of the work in hundreds of photographs. Jackhammers were used to gouge 114 feet into the rock at Pyramid Quarry, searching for hunks of granite big enough to yield the final stones. Fendley and his crew held their breath when the first 28-ton slab was lifted to the surface, wondering if their derricks would buckle under the weight. A special burner (essentially a narrowly focused rocket motor used to cut and finish large blocks of granite) was trucked to Elberton to clean and size the stones, and a pair of master stonecutters was hired to smooth them.
    Fendley and Martin helped Christian find a suitable site for the Guidestones in Elbert County: a flat-topped hill rising above the pastures of the Double 7 Farms, with vistas in all directions. For $5,000, owner Wayne Mullinex signed over a 5-acre plot. In addition to the payment, Christian granted lifetime cattle-grazing rights to Mullinex and his children, and Mullinex's construction company got to lay the foundation for the Guidestones.
    With the purchase of the land, the Guidestones' future was set. Christian said good-bye to Fendley at the granite company office, adding, "You'll never see me again." Christian then turned and walked out the door—without so much as a handshake.
    From then on, Christian communicated solely through Martin, writing a few weeks later to ask that ownership of the land and monument be transferred to Elbert County, which still holds it. Christian reasoned that civic pride would protect it over time. "All of Mr. Christian's correspondence came from different cities around the country," Martin says. "He never sent anything from the same place twice."
    Daybreak: A carefully cut slot in the Guidestones' center column frames the sunrise on solstices and equinoxes.
    Photo: Dan Winters

    The astrological specifications for the Guidestones were so complex that Fendley had to retain the services of an astronomer from the University of Georgia to help implement the design. The four outer stones were to be oriented based on the limits of the sun's yearly migration. The center column needed two precisely calibrated features: a hole through which the North Star would be visible at all times, and a slot that was to align with the position of the rising sun during the solstices and equinoxes. The principal component of the capstone was a 7\8-inch aperture through which a beam of sunlight would pass at noon each day, shining on the center stone to indicate the day of the year.
    The main feature of the monument, though, would be the 10 dictates carved into both faces of the outer stones, in eight languages: English, Spanish, Russian, Chinese, Arabic, Hebrew, Hindi, and Swahili. A mission statement of sorts (let these be guidestones to an age of reason) was also to be engraved on the sides of the capstone in Egyptian hieroglyphics, classical Greek, Sanskrit, and Babylonian cuneiform. The United Nations provided some of the translations (including those for the dead languages), which were stenciled onto the stones and etched with a sandblaster.
    By early 1980, a bulldozer was scraping the Double 7 hilltop to bedrock, where five granite slabs serving as a foundation were laid out in a paddle-wheel design. A 100-foot-tall crane was used to lift the stones into place. Each of the outer rocks was 16 feet 4 inches high, 6 feet 6 inches wide, and 1 foot 7 inches thick. The center column was the same (except only half the width), and the capstone measured 9 feet 8 inches long, 6 feet 6 inches wide, and 1 foot 7 inches thick. Including the foundation stones, the monument's total weight was almost 240,000 pounds. Covered with sheets of black plastic in preparation for an unveiling on the vernal equinox, the Guidestones towered over the cattle that continued to graze beneath it at the approach of winter's end.
    The monument ignited controversy before it was even finished. The first rumor began among members of the Elberton Granite Association, jealous of the attention being showered on one of their own: Fendley was behind the whole thing, they said, aided by his friend Martin, the banker. The gossip became so poisonous that the two men agreed to take a lie detector test at the Elberton Civic Center. The scandal withered when The Elberton Star reported that they had both passed convincingly, but the publicity brought a new wave of complaints. As word of what was being inscribed spread, Martin recalls, even people he considered friends asked him why he was doing the devil's work. A local minister, James Travenstead, predicted that "occult groups" would flock to the Guidestones, warning that "someday a sacrifice will take place here." Those inclined to agree were hardly discouraged by Charlie Clamp, the sandblaster charged with carving each of the 4,000-plus characters on the stones: During the hundreds of hours he spent etching the guides, Clamp said, he had been constantly distracted by "strange music and disjointed voices."

    The team that built the Guidestones didn't know who was financing the project—just that it was the biggest monument in county history. Local banker Wyatt Martin inspects the English lettering with sandblaster Charlie Clamp before the 1980 unveiling.
    Photo: Courtesy of Fendley Enterprises Inc.

    The unveiling on March 22, 1980, was a community celebration. Congressmember Doug Barnard, whose district contained Elberton, addressed a crowd of 400 that flowed down the hillside and included television news crews from Atlanta. Soon Joe Fendley was the most famous Elbertonian since Daniel Tucker, the 18th-century minister memorialized in the folk song "Old Dan Tucker." Bounded by the Savannah and Broad rivers but miles from the nearest interstate—"as rural as rural can be," in the words of current Star publisher Gary Jones—Elberton was suddenly a tourist destination, with visitors from all over the world showing up to see the Guidestones. "We'd have people from Japan and China and India and everywhere wanting to go up and see the monument," Martin says. And Fendley's boast that he had "put Elberton on the map" was affirmed literally in spring 2005, when National Geographic Traveler listed the Guidestones as a feature in its Geotourism MapGuide to Appalachia.
    But many who read what was written on the stones were unsettled. Guide number one was, of course, the real stopper: maintain humanity under 500,000,000 in perpetual balance with nature. There were already 4.5 billion people on the planet, meaning eight out of nine had to go (today it would be closer to 12 out of 13). This instruction was echoed and expanded by tenet number two: guide reproduction wisely—improving fitness and diversity. It didn't take a great deal of imagination to draw an analogy to the practices of, among others, the Nazis. Guide number three instructed readers to unite humanity with a living new language. This sent a shiver up the spine of local ministers who knew that the Book of Revelations warned of a common tongue and a one-world government as the accomplishments of the Antichrist. Guide number four—rule passion—faith—tradition—and all things with tempered reason—was similarly threatening to Christians committed to the primacy of faith over all. The last six guides were homiletic by comparison. protect people and nations with fair laws and just courts. let all nations rule internally resolving external disputes in a world court. avoid petty laws and useless officials. balance personal rights with social duties. prize truth—beauty—love—seeking harmony with the infinite. be not a cancer on the earth—leave room for nature—leave room for nature.
    The message of the American Stonehenge also foreshadowed the current drive for Sustainable Development. Any time you hear the phrase "Sustainable Development" used, you should substitute the term "socialism" to be able to understand what is intended. Later in this syllabus you will read the full text of the Earth Charter which was compiled under the direction of Mikhail Gorbachev and Maurice Strong. In that document you will find an emphasis on the same basic issues: control of reproduction, world governance, the importance of nature and the environment, and a new spirituality. The similarity between the ideas engraved on the Georgia Guidestones and those espoused in the Earth Charter reflect the common origins of both.
    Yoko Ono, the widow of John Lennon, was recently quoted as referring to the American Stonehenge, saying:
    "I want people to know about the stones ... We're headed toward a world where we might blow ourselves up and maybe the globe will not exist ... it's a nice time to reaffirm ourselves, knowing all the beautiful things that are in this country and the Georgia Stones symbolize that. " (1) 

    What is the true significance of the American Stonehenge, and why is its covert message important? Because it confirms the fact that there was a covert group intent on

    (1) Dramatically reducing the population of the world.

    (2) Promoting environmentalism.

    (3) Establishing a world government.

    (4) Promoting a new spirituality.

    Certainly the group that commissioned the Georgia Guidestones is one of many similar groups working together toward a New World Order, a new world economic system, and a new world spirituality. Behind those groups, however, are dark spiritual forces. Without understanding the nature of those dark forces it is impossible to understand the unfolding of world events.
    The fact that most Americans have never heard of the Georgia Guidestones or their message to humanity reflects the degree of control that exists today over what the American people think. We ignore that message at our peril.
    Copies are available for researchers from Radio Liberty.

    The Age of Reason was a book written by Thomas Paine. Its intent was to destroy the Judeo-Christian beliefs upon which our Republic was founded.

    The hole that you see in the stone was drilled in the Center Stone so that the North Star could be visualized through it at any moment. This was one of several requirements stipulated by R.C.Christian for the building of the American Stonehenge and reflects his obsession with the alignment of the stars, the sun, and the moon. Occultists often worship the alignment and movement of heavenly bodies as part of their religious ceremonies
    Even as locals debated the relative merits of these commandments, the dire predictions of Travenstead seemed to be coming true. Within a few months, a coven of witches from Atlanta adopted the Guidestones as their home away from home, making weekend pilgrimages to Elberton to stage various pagan rites ("dancing and chanting and all that kind of thing," Martin says) and at least one warlock-witch marriage ceremony. No humans were sacrificed on the altar of the stones, but there are rumors that several chickens were beheaded. A 1981 article in the monthly magazine UFO Report cited Naunie Batchelder (identified in the story as "a noted Atlanta psychic") as predicting that the true purpose of the guides would be revealed "within the next 30 years." Viewed from directly overhead, the Guidestones formed an X, the piece in UFO Report observed, making for a perfect landing site.
    Visitors kept coming, but after several failed investigations into the identity of R. C. Christian, the media lost interest. Curiosity flared again briefly in 1993, when Yoko Ono contributed a track called "Georgia Stone" to a tribute album for avant-garde composer John Cage, with Ono chanting the 10th and final guide nearly verbatim:
     "Be not a cancer on Earth—leave room for nature—leave room for nature." 
    A decade later, however, when comedienne Roseanne Barr tried to work a bit on the Guidestones into her comeback tour, nobody seemed to care.
    Christian kept in touch with Martin, writing the banker so regularly that they became pen pals. Occasionally, Christian would call from a pay phone at the Atlanta airport to say he was in the area, and the two would rendezvous for dinner in the college town of Athens, a 40-mile drive west of Elberton. By this time, Martin no longer questioned Christian's secrecy. The older man had successfully deflected Martin's curiosity when the two first met, by quoting Henry James' observations of Stonehenge: "You may put a hundred questions to these rough-hewn giants as they bend in grim contemplation of their fallen companions, but your curiosity falls dead in the vast sunny stillness that enshrouds them." Christian "never would tell me a thing about this group he belonged to," Martin says. The banker received his last letter from Christian right around the time of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and assumes the man—who would have been in his mid-eighties—has since passed away.

    Joe Fendley of Elberton Granite Finishing posing with his masterpiece.
    Photo: Courtesy of Fendley Enterprises Inc.

    The mysterious story of R. C. Christian and the absence of information about the true meaning of the Guidestones was bound to become an irresistible draw for conspiracy theorists and "investigators" of all kinds. Not surprisingly, three decades later there is no shortage of observers rushing to fill the void with all sorts of explanations.
    Among them is an activist named Mark Dice, author of a book called The Resistance Manifesto. In 2005, Dice (who was using a pseudonym of his own—"John Conner"—appropriated from the Terminator franchise's main character) began to demand that the Guidestones be "smashed into a million pieces." He claims that the monument has "a deep Satanic origin," a stance that has earned him plenty of coverage, both in print and on the Web. According to Dice, Christian was a high-ranking member of "a Luciferian secret society" at the forefront of the New World Order. "The elite are planning to develop successful life-extension technology in the next few decades that will nearly stop the aging process," Dice says, "and they fear that with the current population of Earth so high, the masses will be using resources that the elite want for themselves. The Guidestones are the New World Order's Ten Commandments. They're also a way for the elite to get a laugh at the expense of the uninformed masses, as their agenda stands as clear as day and the zombies don't even notice it."
    Ironically, Dice's message has mainly produced greater publicity for the Guidestones. This, in turn, has brought fresh visitors to the monument and made Elbert County officials even less inclined to remove the area's only major tourist attraction.
    Phyllis Brooks, who runs the Elbert County Chamber of Commerce, pronounced herself aghast last November when the Guidestones were attacked by vandals for the first time ever. While Dice denies any involvement in the assault, he seems to have inspired it: Spray-painted on the stones were messages like "Jesus will beat u satanist" and "No one world government." Other defacements asserted that the Council on Foreign Relations is "ran by the devil," that the 9/11 attacks were an inside job, and that President Obama is a Muslim. The vandals also splashed the Guidestones with polyurethane, which is much more difficult to remove than paint. Despite the graffiti's alignment with his views, Dice says he disapproves of the acts. "A lot of people were glad such a thing happened and saw it as standing up against the New World Order," Dice says, "while others who are unhappy with the stones saw the actions as counterproductive and inappropriate."
    Martin winces every time he hears Dice's "Luciferian secret society" take on the Guidestones. But while he disagrees, he also admits that he doesn't know for sure. "All I can tell you is that Mr. Christian always seemed a very decent and sincere fella to me."

    A worker uses a special burner to finish a slab of Pyramid Blue granite.
    Photo: Courtesy of Fendley Enterprises Inc.

    Dice, of course, is far from the only person with a theory about the Guidestones. Jay Weidner, a former Seattle radio commentator turned erudite conspiracy hunter, has heavily invested time and energy into one of the most popular hypotheses. He argues that Christian and his associates were Rosicrucians, followers of the Order of the Rosy Cross, a secret society of mystics that originated in late medieval Germany and claim understanding of esoteric truths about nature, the universe, and the spiritual realm that have been concealed from ordinary people. Weidner considers the name R. C. Christian an homage to the legendary 14th-century founder of the Rosicrucians, a man first identified as Frater C.R.C. and later as Christian Rosenkreuz. Secrecy, Weidner notes, has been a hallmark of the Rosicrucians, a group that announced itself to the world in the early 17th century with a pair of anonymous manifestos that created a huge stir across Europe, despite the fact that no one was ever able to identify a single member. While the guides on the Georgia stones fly in the face of orthodox Christian eschatology, they conform quite well to the tenets of Rosicrucianism, which stress reason and endorse a harmonic relationship with nature.
    Weidner also has a theory about the purpose of the Guidestones. An authority on the hermetic and alchemical traditions that spawned the Rosicrucians, he believes that for generations the group has been passing down knowledge of a solar cycle that climaxes every 13,000 years. During this culmination, outsize coronal mass ejections are supposed to devastate Earth. Meanwhile, the shadowy organization behind the Guidestones is now orchestrating a "planetary chaos," Weidner believes, that began with the recent collapse of the US financial system and will result eventually in major disruptions of oil and food supplies, mass riots, and ethnic wars worldwide, all leading up to the Big Event on December 21, 2012. "They want to get the population down," Weidner says, "and this is what they think will do it. The Guidestones are there to instruct the survivors."
    On hearing Weidner's ideas, Martin shakes his head and says it's "the sort of thing that makes me want to tell people everything I know." Martin has long since retired from banking and no longer lives in Elberton, yet he's still the Guidestones' official—and only—secret-keeper. "But I can't tell," the old man quickly adds. "I made a promise." Martin also made a promise to destroy all the records of his dealings with Christian, though he hasn't kept that one—at least not yet. In the back of his garage is a large plastic bin (actually, the hard-sided case of an IBM computer he bought back in 1983) stuffed with every document connected to the Guidestones that ever came into his possession, including the letters from Christian.
    For years Martin thought he might write a book, but now he knows he probably won't. What he also won't do is allow me to look through the papers. When I ask whether he's prepared to take what he knows to his grave, Martin replies that Christian would want him to do just that: "All along, he said that who he was and where he came from had to be kept a secret. He said mysteries work that way. If you want to keep people interested, you can let them know only so much." The rest is enshrouded in the vast sunny stillness.