Aliens take over roadside attraction

Michael Stockinger

The city of Lathrop, tucked in between Stockton and Manteca, is a small city with a population of only 12,500 residents, plenty of open space and access to the San Joaquin Delta.

Its rural country space and unknown location is the perfect site for the stereotypical UFO sighting or UFO crash scenario, and that is exactly what has happened in Lathrop.

Lying right off Interstate 5 is the city’s only Tower Mart, a gas station with a unique feature: a giant plate-shaped UFO sticking out of its roof with aliens standing on top, looking out beyond the parking lot, as if it had only just crashed there.

“We bought this store like this from what I understand,” said store manager Wendy Raney.Strange symbols decorate the bottom of the UFO and people stop to look or take pictures of this unique building, but inside it is much more colorful and bizarre.

“Since the spaceship was a permanent part of the building, they decided to keep and not remove it,” Raney said.

The other half of the UFO is embedded in the wall above the doors with a gaping hole in its side, exposing electrical wires, machinery and an alien peering out.

Green aliens with five antennae, one spring-like suction cupped leg, and either red, purple, blue, or yellow bulbous eyes stand everywhere inside the dome shaped building.

“The previous owner, I believe, was at a Hollywood party and the aliens were props which he got to keep,” Raney said.

Many aliens stand on the rafters above or on the freezer boxes, looking down at customers, holding milk cartons, bags of chips, wearing colorful alien jewelry, chewing gum and blowing bubbles.

Hovering above it all are small silvery spiked spaceships that look like they are filled with gumballs. A child is sucked through a beam from a UFO and a small astronaut dog floats near the chips.”There are a lot of people that come in to take pictures,” Raney said. “They meet here to fill up because we are the halfway point between the Bay Area and ski resorts.”

Nick Battaglia, the general manager of Tower Mart stores, said in a telephone interview that the store was bought seven years ago from the Customer Company in Benicia.

“They had around 20 different stores with different themes, like a beach or a circus, but they have since gotten out of the business,” Battaglia said.

For the first couple of years Tower Mart owned the store, there were many comments about it.”People would call to say that they went by it on purpose, but we’ve owned it for so many years it’s not a highlight to us anymore,” Battaglia said.

Roadside attractions such as Tower Mart, once a major part of road trips and summer getaways, are now a thing of the past.

“They’re a dinosaur,” said Nick Trujillo, a communications professor at Sac State and popular culture expert. “They used to be everywhere when I was growing up and it was a blast. – You’d see signs for miles that advertised whatever the attraction was.”

Trujillo’s favorite roadside attraction as a child: “The Thing.”

“On the way to L.A. from Las Vegas there were signs advertising ‘The Thing,'” Trujillo said. “I couldn’t tell you what it was; it was a slimy, lizard, snake, scorpion thing ?” it looked like paper mache.”

Trujillo said improvements in transportation have led to the decline of roadside attractions.”I think the building of the interstate has lead to the decline of roadside attractions,” Trujillo said. “We’re a fast food, fast culture. Who really has time to stop anymore?

“With interstates, you can drive 99 miles per hour to go wherever you want to go. I think it’s mostly nostalgia that we tend to romanticize roadside attractions, thinking it was a better time when they were part of the road trip.”

Trujillo said aliens and UFOs remain a popular part of people’s imagination.

“There’s still an interest in life on other planets, just look at the movies that have been coming out,” Trujillo said. “The novelty has definitely worn off though.”

Things have definitely changed since the ’50s and it’s UFO hysteria, when the Roswell, N.M. incident supposedly occurred.

“When Roswell happened it was shocking,” Trujillo said. “There were many conspiracy theories of government cover-ups ?” there hasn’t been an event like that for some time.”

Trujillo said Lathrop seemed like a good place for a UFO sighting, and at the same time, sides with the aliens for crashing their ship.

“I don’t know why they would want to abduct anybody in Lathrop though,” Trujillo jokingly said. “Have you ever met anyone from Lathrop? I’d rather crash my ship.”

The Tower Mart is located on 192 Lathrop Road right off of Interstate 5.

Michael Stockinger can be reached at [email protected]