“THE SABINE COUNTY PRANKSTER”
Times were much slower and laid back in the early days of East Texas. Most every small town had a prankster who enjoyed the thrill of pulling off a good joke on someone. One of the very best was a man from Hemphill, Texas, Drayton B. Speights, who lived near the Palo Gaucho Creek.
Drayton and my father-in-law were best of friends up until Drayton died in 1997. I recall on several occasions Bro. Clarence Howell repeating something that Drayton had told him about almost any topic with the caveat, “Drayton is one of the smartest men I know. You can trust what he says.” Drayton loved practical jokes.
One time he had a man weld a quarter to the head of a nail. The quarter was then nailed to the floor of a store. He loved to watch people try to pick up that coin without success. The prank considered by most people to be his best practical joke ever, involved an Unidentified Flying Object. In 1949 people began seeing strange events in the skies and speculation about UFOs was in the forefront of conversations in most small towns. While discussing these mysterious objects with fellow croquet playing friends, Drayton got a bright idea. He would have a flying saucer made and would let the croquet players examine it. The plan was put into action. Milton Woods, a mechanic, helped fashion a “flying saucer” out of sheet metal. It was about five feet across, and looked about like a chicken brooder. They placed an electric motor inside along with old radio tubes and electrical wires. The final touch was a glass vial with a piece of paper inside it. A doctor’s wife in Hemphill was from Europe and had friends in Czechoslovakia. Speights was given a letter from her friends which was written in Czech or Slovak. This letter was rolled up and placed inside the vial and inserted into the UFO. The flying object was now ready. Tom Parker told Speights where the croquet players were meeting the next night. After dark he drove the UFO to the driveway entrance of the home. He placed the object on the private drive very near the main highway. It was a narrow lane and the saucer was wide enough that no one could drive around it. Speights waited in the bushes but no one ever came out, so he went home. Ray Dent discovered the object as he exited the driveway. He summoned the other players who were afraid to touch the UFO. They pushed the object into the ditch with shovels and called the sheriff. The sheriff hauled the UFO into town and placed it on the courthouse grounds.
The next morning, the small town was abuzz - a flying saucer had been found in Sabine County. The word had spread. Newspaper and radio reporters from Shreveport and Beaumont were in town to view the object and send their stories out. Upon discovering the glass vial with the letter inside, it was decided that it should not be opened by hand because it might blow up or contaminate someone. So one fellow took the vial and threw it up against the courthouse wall. That way, if the thing exploded, all it would do was blow up the courthouse. They finally got the letter out but no one could read it.
A local grocer had the sheriff carry the saucer to his store, where it stayed on display for several days. People would poke around it, examine the thing, and guess whether it was made in such a way that it would really fly. After a week or so, a local attorney who knew about other languages discovered that the letter was written in Czech and not in a mysterious language of another planet. That revealed the hoax at last. Speights said he never knew what happened to the saucer.
Some years later Drayton had another opportunity for a prank. Word got out in Brookeland, Texas, a small community south of Hemphill, that a lion had escaped from a train carrying a circus, and was wandering about in the forest. He seized upon this opportunity by typing an official looking letterhead on onion skin paper “The Dallas County Zoo” a letter addressed to the mayor of Hemphill. The letter stated that the lion seen around Brookeland was no doubt the one that had escaped from the Dallas zoo. It was a female lion and most likely had two cubs and would therefore be extremely dangerous. The letter was ‘signed’ by Fritz Dobrinsky, director of the Dallas County Zoo. Drayton had an employee headed for Dallas mail the letter from Dallas back to Hemphill. People began seeing things and a couple of lion hunts were organized. An entire blackberry crop near Brookeland was lost because everybody was afraid to go out and pick them. Various people swore that they had seen the lion’s track and even heard it roar. A game warden finally debunked the lion scare by investigating and revealing that the Dallas County Zoo did not exist.
Drayton was truly an expert when it came to practical jokes and pranks, a man after my own heart. In today’s litigious society I doubt that anyone could get away with pranks such as he was able to back then. They do make for a good story of days gone by.