Briar Patch

THE SPACEMAN'S LAST GASP

CRAIG RASPBERRY IS NINE YEARS OLD and strikingly reminiscent of Mr. Peabody's pet boy Sherman on the old Bullwinkle show, down to an air of scientific detachment which seems to be a trait he shares with his fellow citizens of Aurora, Texas, of whom there are not a great many. Aurora is a former small-potatoes boom town a little to the northwest of Dallas that was squeezed into virtual oblivion near the turn of the century when the railroad came to the bordering towns of Boyd and Rhome and siphoned out its lifeblood and its people, even its buildings. Now, 75 years later, Aurora is barely there at all, unmapped and largely unheard-of even by hard-core truckers.

But the ghost town image is not wasted, especially in light of the context it forms for what some people might consider some fairly spooky events.

In 1897, late in the spring and early in the morning, a large cigar-shaped aircraft came flying through the air over Aurora, powered by two propellor-type engines and displaying a row of windows on its bottom half. It was flying low enough to plow into Judge J.S. Proctor's 18 feet high windmill and explode in the air, scattering debris and burning out the better part of a hillside.

According to the story, which was recounted soon after in a Dallas newspaper, there was some sort of pilot inside, variously described by the people who saw it as non-human, charred, tiny, with a disturbing number of dismembered limbs. Eyewitnesses seem to drop out of the story here, but somebody apparently decided that, human or not, the thing deserved a decent burial and interred it in the Aurora cemetery, which was burgeoning from the effects of a spotted fever epidemic.

The newspaper story sparked a flurry of sympathetic sightings (including one in which the aliens wore sailor suits and told a farmer they were "off to bomb the Spaniards" in Cuba). But after the immediate concern wore off the event gradually wafted into a local legend, something colorful for the children of Aurora to grow up with.

But today, Aurora is a boomtown once again. A Dallas reporter named Bill Case came across the original newspaper story, made some investigations and came up with some odd-looking metal from the purported crash site, along with a reading from a metal detector that indicated the same substance was lying in an unidentified grave in the Aurora cemetery.

Coinciding with the resurrection of the UFO was the emergence of The Blob in nearby Garland, an unrelated slime mold that Could Not Be Stopped as it pulsated and mutated in Ms. Marie Harris' backyard. A dose of nicotine spray finally did it in about the time it was being pronounced harmless and terrestial by biologists. But it was enough to give the press a true-life double horror feature and focus still more attention on Aurora, whose bizarre and modest legend was now a global sensation. The town's occupants were either pestered or delighted by hundreds of reporters and UFO officials and roving sci-fi mongers.

Reports about the origin and composition of the metals come almost daily, with the UFO center in Oklahoma City consistently casting a debunking eye on any otherworldly attributes. Other UFO centers are not so sure and have expressed, at the least enthusiastic, "interest" in the fragments. More tantatizing is the possibility of the procurement of a court order to exhume the grave of the pilot, a project that at last report was still pending.

Craig Raspberry charges a dollar to take you on a tour of the major UFO attractions in Aurora, an itinerary with two stops, a visit to the crash site, which is now a chicken coop owned by Craig's grandfather, Brawley Oates, and to the famous grave, which until recently was under guard to protect it from premature necromancers.

For a nine-year-old boy with an even chance that someone from outer space bit the dust in his own back yard, Craig is peculiarly terse and skeptical. Maybe all the publicity, the dozens of people asking him What Do You Think? has dulled his willingness to fantasize.

"I don't know what it was," he says moderately, "something happened though."

Craig's grandmother, Bonnie Oates, doesn't seem to get too worked up about it either, just chuckles over her leatherwork at all the fuss and seems to enjoy it.

"They think they're going to find something from outer space. But how are they gonna know that that's what it is if they've never seen anything from outer space?"

The crash site looks like and is a chicken coop, and that's about it. It still has the base of Judge Proctor's windmill, but three-quarters of a century has replaced the charred grass and scattered or buried most other evidence. The accessible metal fragments have been dug up already and sent away to labs to be analyzed or to relatives for paperweights.

The alleged grave of the pilot is isolated under a large oak tree, haphazardly marked by two big rocks on which someone has scratched a just barely visible primitive depiction of the spaceship. According to the original account the pilot had a logbook with him, written in "hieroglyphics," which also went into the coffin, a courtesy that now seems a little exasperating.

C.C. Stephens was four or five when the spaceship crashed. Now he's over 80 and much-visited by the press, since he remembers when his father came home one morning and said that he'd seen something explode and burn over in Aurora, about three miles away. The next day he rode up to see what it was and found a ruin of debris and torn metal strewn over Proctor's land. He said nothing about a body.

"He didn't know anything about a man being in there. Nobody knew about that 'til lately."

Mr. Stephens is reticent about offering opinions as to what was going on back in 1897, he just remains philosophical about the

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