Our Second (assisted) Alien Invasion
Rick Copp’s mother told him that it was okay to climb up Fool’s Hill once, but a mistake to camp there. Rick’s single trip up Fool’s Hill happened in the summer of 1966, between his sophomore and junior years at Hillsdale High School.
Rick’s family lived above the Campus Laundry, their family business located close to the McIntyre Residence at Hillsdale College. Mrs. Copp and the kids shared the job of washing and ironing an endless supply of laundry from the college students. But all was not work. There were abundant good times with Rick’s two bosom buddies. Dan Haynes lived on Willow Street, and on Logan Street lived Wayne Conley a.k.a. Hop-a-Long, so named because a case of polio when he was a pre-schooler left him with one weakened leg that required a brace. Hop-a-Long’s neighborhood of three or four houses was called Tin Can Alley because of the abundance of trash that got left there. And Hop-a-Long’s mom had a reputation with the boys as being more tolerant of less-than-responsible behavior than their own parents. (That’s an important part of this story.)
On March 21, 1966, the coeds in McIntyre Residence, looking out of the second floor windows, saw a eerie sight. Hovering over the swampy pond in the Arboretum were flashing lights. A call to William “Bud” VanHorn, Hillsdale County civil defense director, eventually resulted in the arrival of Bud, a Hillsdale police car and two State Police units. Word spread quickly—even without social media—and about 150 people observed the phenomenon. Saucer fever infected Hillsdale in the days that followed the newspaper report of the incident. Hundreds of people cruised the streets of Hillsdale hoping to catch a glimpse of the mysterious lights, and police were kept busy chasing down leads phoned in by the “saucer watchers.” J. Allen Hynek, a Northwestern University astrophysicist and scientific consultant for the U.S. Air Force’s Project Blue Book, was summoned and concluded in his report that the decomposition of “rotting vegetation produces marsh gas, which can be trapped by ice and winter conditions. When a spring thaw occurs, the gas may be released in some quantity.”
It was a major disappointment to the community—and a conclusion that, to this day, many refuse to accept. Rick, Danny and Hop-a-Long couldn’t resist the opportunity to capitalize on the lingering hysteria about the “alien invasion” that gripped Hillsdale. A magnificent prank emerged in the summer after the supposed sighting.
Flying saucers required saucers, of course. Shiny aluminum snow saucers from their garages were their first acquisitions. M-80s and 50 to 100 fire crackers were purchased from one of the hardware stores, but whether from Katzenmeyer’s or Gelzer’s is lost from memory. Four flares were acquired legitimately … or perhaps were “borrowed” from the railroad. Armed with their props they set off for an area that had been their own private playground since they were young boys.
At that time Lake Winona, running behind the football field of Hillsdale College, wasn’t choked with the masses of lily pads that later took over. A spit of land reached into the lake that the boys called Skunk Island. It was remote and unpleasant to reach because of the marshy land, but to three adventuresome kids it was heaven. Rick, Danny and Hop-a-Long, in great anticipation, hauled their loot to Skunk Island. It was close to midnight on a hot and humid night, and the boys were determined to resurrect the excitement created by the original “alien” sighting at the college. Rick and Danny climbed a tree with the flares and M-80s while Hop-a-Long, unable to climb because of his leg brace, stayed on the ground with the fire crackers. The aluminum saucers were hung from the tree and the show began. Flares fired above the lofty resting spot of Rick and Danny turned the night red and smoky as M-80s exploded. Down below, Hop-a-Long set off firecrackers. The reaction was more rewarding than the boys could have imagined. On “Mortgage Heights,” the line of homes along Lombard Street that looked down on Lake Winona, screaming could be heard as porch lights flashed on and off. The boys were delighted. Their prank was more than a success. They imagined everyone having a good laugh about it in the morning.
But that wasn’t the way it went at all.
Suddenly sirens were heard in the distance, and soon police cars from Hillsdale, nearby towns and the Sheriff’s Department could be seen on Lombard Street. The boys realized they were in trouble, big trouble. Darting from dark area to dark area they made their way at a run toward State Street, with the idea that they would go to Hop-a-Long’s house on Logan Street to lay low. Hop-a-Long, fired with the same adrenaline as the other two boys but physically unable to keep up, finally put his hands on the helping shoulders of his friends and was partially dragged, partially carried up the hill. Realizing that three running kids would be a dead give-away of their guilt, they slowed at State Street to a nonchalance that fooled everyone. In the darkness of Marion Street they sped up again and finally arrived at Hop-a-Long’s house.
They were hot, sweaty and very thirsty. They had enough money to send Hop-a-Long’s mom to the store to buy beer for them … and some Boone’s Farm for herself. Rick disliked the taste of beer, but after such a macho production how could they just drink water or soda? They spent the rest of the night playing Spades, their card game of choice that summer.
Unbelievably, no one discovered the detritus of their successful undertaking, left on Skunk Island in their panicky flight to distance themselves from the scene of their “crime.” And even though teenage boys don’t always have the best judgment, Rick, Danny and Hop-a-Long knew beyond a doubt that their little prank had to remain unclaimed by them. They swore an oath to never speak of it, and they never did. It was alluded to in an article written for the Hillsdale County Historical Society Newsletter and later posted on its website, but names were never given.
With the 50th anniversary for the Hillsdale High School graduating class of 1968 coming up in 2018, members were asked to reveal a high school secret they had kept. Rick, urged by his wife, Darlene, to come clean decided to break his silence. Afraid that he had inflated the ultimate prank, he contacted Dan Haynes to confirm that his memory was correct. Dan agreed with Rick’s account, and here it is.
This was Rick Copp’s one trip up Fool’s Hill. He didn’t give up pranks. He just learned to consider the consequences more carefully before embarking on them. His mother would be proud.
As told by Rick Copp to JoAnne P. Miller