A strange, powerful beam of light was seen shooting up from a vacant lot on West Frontier Street Wednesday night causing a stir of speculation among residents.
Responding to calls of curiosity, Payson police and town officials arrived on the scene around 9 p.m. to find a large, cylindrical-shaped metal device that looked like something from a military surplus store.
Adding to the intrigue, the device bore a faded label that read: "Warning: U.S. Government Property."
U.S. Government Property
"It was a mystery to me," said Town Engineer La Ron Garrett, who went out to investigate. "It was an intense spotlight shooting straight up into the air. It seemed to have been there for a long time, but it's definitely something I've never seen before. I had no idea what I was looking at."
Garrett made a call to town employee Sheila deSchaaf. "She's the person we call whenever we have a light complaint," Garrett said. "She had never heard anything about it."
Police officers and curious residents began to gather at the top of the hill in the 800 block of W. Frontier.
"Cars kept going by while we were there," Garrett said. "You could see the light from anywhere on the south side of town. The police officers who patrol the area every night said they've never seen a light coming from this lot."
The full moon, combined with smoke from nearby Forest Service burns, made the scene reminiscent of a 1950s-era science fiction film.
In jest, Garrett declared, "I think we've got it figured out -- it's an alien landing site and they're scheduled to be here at midnight."
Not a UFO signal light
After further investigation, it was discovered that the vacant lot backed up to the home of Payson's longtime National Weather Service observer Anna Mae Deming.
"I didn't see the light until someone from the Payson Police Department or sheriff called me to tell me they saw this light," Deming said.
She explained that the device was very old. "It measures the height of the clouds. I haven't used it for about 10 years or so. During World War II, they put in the weather equipment here to help guide planes over the Mogollon Rim."
"It was installed in 1949 to measure cloud height," said Byron Peterson, data acquisition program manager for the National Weather Service in Flagstaff. "It hasn't been used in years. It was used for aviation observations, which are now done with automated equipment at the Payson Airport. The equipment at the airport uses an invisible laser beam with the thickness of a pencil lead, so nobody is going to see it."
Who turned on the lights?
As for how the obsolete unit mysteriously came on, Deming said it must have been an accident.
"The National Weather Service was checking my equipment. They do that often, because I report seven days a week, every day of the year."
Brian Klimowski, the meteorologist in charge of the National Weather Service in Flagstaff, said the unit, called a ceilometer, must have been left on by mistake.
"When our technicians were troubleshooting for Anna Mae last week, the machine was turned on and didn't get turned off. It's totally operational, but it's being considered for removal because it's no longer needed."
Klimowski said Payson was fortunate to have something no equipment could ever replace.
"Anna Mae is incredible. Few people have such a legacy with the weather service as she does. She's done a lot for the weather service and the people in Payson for a long, long time."