The Sabine County prankster was the best

Times were slower in the early days of East Texas. Most small towns had a prankster who enjoyed pulling off a good joke on someone. One of the best was Drayton B. Speights from Hemphill who lived near the Palo Gaucho Creek.

Drayton and my father-in-law were best of friends until Drayton died in 1997. I recall on several occasions Bro. Clarence Howell repeating something Drayton had told him with the caveat, “Drayton is one of the smartest men I know. You can trust what he says.”

Drayton once had a man weld a quarter to the head of a nail, nailed it to the floor of a store, and enjoyed watching people try to pick it up.

The prank considered by many to be his best involved an “unidentified flying object.” In 1949, people saw strange events in the skies and speculation about UFOs was conversation in small towns. Discussing mysterious objects with fellow croquet playing friends, Drayton got the bright idea to have a flying saucer made and let the croquet players examine it. The plan was put into action.

Milton Woods, a mechanic, helped fashion a “saucer” from sheet metal. It was about five feet across, and looked like a chicken brooder. An electric motor was placed inside with old radio tubes and wires. The final touch was a glass vial containing a letter.

A doctor’s wife in Hemphill from Europe had friends in Czechoslovakia. Speights was given a letter from her friends written in Czech or Slovak which was rolled up, placed in the vial and inserted into the saucer. The UFO was ready.

Tom Parker told Speights where the croquet players were meeting the next night. After dark, he drove the UFO home and placed it in the private drive near the main highway. It was narrow, 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 others who were afraid to touch it. 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, Hemphill was abuzz; a flying saucer had been found in Sabine County. The word spread. Newspaper and radio reporters from Shreveport and Beaumont came to view the object and report their stories.

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 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 it, and guess whether it would really fly.

After a week or so, a local attorney who knew other languages ​​discovered the letter was written in Czech and not in a mysterious language of another planet. The hoax was revealed. Speights said he never knew what happened to the saucer.

Some years later, Drayton pulled another prank. Word got out in Brookeland, 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 on this opportunity by typing an official looking letter on onion skin paper from “The Dallas County Zoo” addressed to the mayor of Hemphill. It stated that the lion seen around Brookeland was no doubt the one that had escaped from the Dallas zoo. It was a female lion that most likely had two cubs and was therefore dangerous. The letter was ‘signed’ by Fritz Dobrinsky, director of the Dallas County Zoo. An employee of Drayton’s headed for Dallas mailed the letter back to Hemphill.

People began seeing things and a couple of lion hunts were organized. An entire blackberry crop near Brookeland was lost because everyone was afraid to go out and pick the berries. People swore that they had seen the lion’s track and even heard it roar. A game warden finally debunked the lion scare by revealing that there was no Dallas County Zoo.

Drayton was truly an expert with practical jokes and pranks, a man after my own heart. In today’s litigious society, I doubt anyone could get away with pranks like Drayton could back then.

They do make for a good story of days gone by.

*Thanks to Bill Speights and Leon Hale for their contributions.

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