Sunday, August 14, 2005

The Kelly ‘Commotion'

Kelly Aliens

By Jennifer P. Brown
Kentucky New Era

     If Lonnie Lankford had been a little older, his mother might not have pushed him under the bed that night she thought she saw an alien outside her bedroom window.

     It was the evening of Aug. 21, 1955, and Glennie Lankford was trying to protect the children in the little farmhouse off Old Madisonville Road at Kelly. So, Lonnie, who was 12 years old, was scrunched under the mattress with his brother, Charlton, 10, and sister, Mary, 5.

     He never saw the little creatures that frightened his mother and sent his older half-brother, Elmer "Lucky" Sutton, running for a shotgun.

     But Lonnie Lankford heard plenty, both that night and in the days and weeks that followed, and he remains clear about what did and did not happened that night 50 years ago.

     His mother saw a space creature outside her window, not a cat or a monkey or a bird. There were more in the yard and on the roof.

     The creatures were sliver, not green. They were small, about 3 feet tall, and had webbed hands and feet, and big round eyes,.

     Shots were fired at the creatures, but there was no raging gun battle that went on for hours.

     Most important, Lonnie says, no one was drinking at the house that night. No beer, or liquor or moonshine was allowed inside. That was Glennie Lankford's rule.

     "I remember the commotion and the hollerin' and screaming," Lonnie, 62, said Friday afternoon. "I didn't see them, but my momma did, and I believe her because she was a religious woman and she wouldn't lie."

The Legend of Kelly

     Today, the world knows the Kelly story as the tale of the Little Green Men, or the Kelly Green Men.

     In the days following the first news story of the family's report, published on Aug. 22, 1955, in the Kentucky New Era, the world beat a path to Kelly, a tiny community about 5 miles north of Hopkinsville.

     The New York Daily News reported on its front page, "Spacemen Take Kentucky." A headline in the Los Angeles Times read, "Kentucky Gains New Fame."

     Someone -- maybe a headline writer -- couldn't resist the word play on Kelly and Green, and the little men changed colors, from silver to green. (A French journalist, Yann Mege, who traveled to Hopkinsville in 2000 to research the story, has theorized that the phrase "little green men" originated from the Kelly story.)

     The family, embarrassed by reports that they were drunk or simply pulling an elaborate prank that night, rejected the attention and turned away reporters. While the world laughed, they were often insulted.

     The Kelly incident became a legend that grew over time. It remains a classic chapter in the U.S. Air Force's "Project Blue Book," a catalogue of more than 12,000 UFO sightings in the United States between 1952 and 1969.

A different time

     In the summer of 1955, air conditioning was rare in Christian County homes and highly prized in public places such as theaters, stores and churches. People spent a good amount of time simply trying to endure the heat and humidity, said William T. Turner, county history. Fans blew in hallways and at night people often slept, or languished, on pallets on their porches.

     The First Presbyterian Church in Hopkinsville was running a newspaper ad that touted its air-conditioned sanctuary. Window air conditioning units were selling for $169 at Keach Furniture.

     Many people in Hopkinsville had black-and-white television sets and received antenna signals for three stations, channels 4, 5 and 8, all out of Nashville, Tenn. At 7 o'clock on Saturday nights, they watched "The Lawrence Welk Show."

     Six movie theaters, including three drive-ins, were showing westerns, romance stories, monster movies and science fiction. The Alhambra had "Rainbow Over Texas," starring Roy Rogers, Dale Evans and Trigger. The Family Drive-In was showing "Daltons Ride Again," and the Skyway Drive-In had "Revenge of the Creature" and "Flying Saucers."

     The Shrine Circus came to town, featuring clowns, dancing dogs, elephants and ponies. Hopkinsville resident Margaret Rash played the organ for the circus.

     There were parties at restaurants -- the Coach and Four in Hopkinsville and Gray's Steak House out on Madisonville Road.

     One day, people stood in line to apply for jobs at the new Moe Light Plant of Thomas Industries.

     At Buddies restaurant next to the fire station on East Ninth Street, people paid 10 cents for a hamburger.

     Former Gov. A.B. "Happy" Chandler campaigned at the courthouse for another term in office. His opponent, Bert Combs, courted voters at the Memorial Building.

     Dalton Bros. Brick was developing a new subdivision on South Jessup.

     Almost everybody in Christian County, even the ones in Hopkinsville, still had a connection to farming. They worked on farms, or in tobacco warehouses, or they worked for businesses that couldn't survive without the money generated by farming.

     Many families, like Lonnie Lankford's, lived on small farms and lived a modest life.

The Kelly sighting

At Glennie Lankford's house, there was no indoor plumbing. There was an outhouse in the back. Water had to be toted from an outdoor well.

     Billy Ray Taylor, a visitor from Pennsylvania and friend of "Lucky" Sutton, was going to the outhouse when he saw a light streak through the sky, said Lonnie, who related the story Friday at his home off U.S. 68 near the eastern edge of the Hopkinsville city limits.

     Taylor saw a spaceship land in a field of sagebrush, but he didn't tell anybody what he saw when he returned to the house.

     Then Lonnie's mother screamed. She had seen a space creature through the bedroom window. "Lucky" ran for his double-barrel shotgun and fired at the creature. It retreated, but was not hurt.

     Stepping outside on the small front stoop, "Lucky" felt a tug at his hair. One of the creatures had reached for him from the roof, Lonnie said.

     "Lucky" backed into the yard and saw four or five aliens on the roof. He fired a few shots. Again, the creatures seemed to retreat but were not hurt.

     Later, according to the family's story, everybody in the house, including Glennie, the three children, "Lucky" and his brother, J.C. Sutton, and Billy Ray, loaded up in a couple of vehicles and headed for Hopkinsville.

     At the Hopkinsville Police Department, they asked Police Chief Russell Greenwell for help.

     Police officers, Kentucky state troopers and soldiers from Fort Campbell converged at the Lankford place that night and searched for a spaceship and aliens. They found nothing, according to the report in the U.S. Air Force "Blue Book."

     Over the years, Lonnie has heard the speculation that his family actually saw some escaped monkeys from the Shrine circus. He laughs at the suggestion.

     "I ain't ever seen a silver monkey, or a green one," he said.

     Lonnie concedes that his older brother, "Lucky" had a reputation for telling tales and that he drank. But on that night, "Lucky" wasn't drinking and he didn't invent a story about space creatures.

     "He was one of the biggest liars in Hopkinsville, but he didn't lie about that," Lonnie said.

     To this day, Lonnie wishes he had not crawled under the bed after his mother screamed.

     "I wish I had seen one of them, but I didn't and I'm not going to lie about it," he said.

     It's hard to tell, Lonnie said, how many people have made money off the Kelly Green Men since that night in 1955. It seems like everybody but his family made something off the story.

     "Here I sit, broke and poor, and I ain't made nothing off it," said Lonnie, who is disabled after years of manual labor. He worked so many different jobs, it's hard to list them all … roofer, gas station attendant, truck driver, saw mill hand.

     But Lonnie still has a sense of humor about his family's brush with fame. Three years ago, he went to a Halloween dance at the Hopkinsville Elks Club. He dressed as an alien. Hardly anyone knew the story behind the mask and cape that night.

     Lonnie has been looking for his costume this week. Next weekend, for the Little Green Men Festival's Alien Ball, he'd like to go as an alien.

More . . .


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