Elmer Winnfield tramped in clod hopper shoes behind his mule, Old Gray, as they broke ground for spring planting. They worked plowing Elmer’s forty acres just north of Coushatta, Louisiana in Natchitoches Parish. Leather reins that connected him to Old Gray draped over Elmer’s massive shoulders. By three in the afternoon in the middle of March the weather had warmed enough to cause the red bandana around Elmer’s neck to become soaked with sweat. His straw hat helped some, but bibbed overalls heated his corpulent body.
As Elmer and Old Gray plodded through the land to be cultivated, Elmer contemplated the hard times he and his wife Bertha had endured over the years. He imagined more hard times to come. About this moment, the strangest thing that ever happened to him in life occurred with out warning. A pair of women’s silk stockings gently drifted down from heaven and landed on Old Gray’s broad rump. This astonished Elmer. After Elmer regained his wits, he, being a churchgoing man, believed this must be some sort of a sign from heaven. He thought to himself, “But what a strange way to deliver a sign. God must have a sense of humor.”
I can only imagine the scene when Elmer rushed back to his cabin to share with his wife, Bertha, his manner from Heaven.
“Where did you get them fancy women’s silk stockings, Elmer.” A stony-faced, buxom Bertha asked her meek husband.
“They fell right out of the heavens, woman. I tell you it is a sign,” Elmer said as he described in detail the unusual event.
“That is the biggest cock-and-bull story you have ever told me, you sorry man,” Bertha retorted then continued. “You have been down to Spanky’s Fish camp on the Red River again drinking with them good-for-nothing friends of yours. You must have been cavorting around with some floozie woman.”
“That just ain’t so, woman. If’in I had been a fooling around, would I bring home the evidence to condemn me?” Elmer argued.
Well I know how those woman’s silk stockings floated down on Old Gray. The story started some time back.
From the time I turned fourteen until I entered college at seventeen, I all but lived at the old New Orleans Airport. The airport in the eastern part of town, jutted about a mile out into Lake Ponchartrain. The Huey Long administration provided the beautiful art deco building and statutes of nudes in the fountain in front of the classy terminal building.
But I didn’t go there to admire the architecture. I just wanted to fly with anyone who would take me up and let me drive their airplane a little. To this end, I joined the Civil Air Patrol so I could get some ground instruction and more time in the air.
In 1948, most of the Civil Air Patrol pilots who flew the airplanes given to us by the Army Air Force had survived combat in WWII. They were serving out the rest of their time or had decided to make a career of the Air Force. They accepted assignment to the Civil Air Patrol in New Orleans with joy.
Not an Air Force veteran, but a uniquely accomplished pilot, Erline Graves, became heavily involved with the girls in our Civil Air Patrol squadron. Her Air Force brethren respected her skills with an airplane, and enjoyed partying with the fun-loving Erline at the dark, cool lounge in the Art Deco Terminal Building at the airport. After flying was done for the day, Erline could party with the best of the men.
When Captain Ray Woodall became assigned to our squadron, he brought with him an AT 7. This twin engine, shiny aluminum beauty easily outshown the J3 Cub and L 14s and L16s liaison aircrafts the Air Force had given us. We all wanted to fly with Captain Woodall whenever we could. Captain Woodall also liked to party. He and Erline became friends right off.
One day Captain Woodall asked Erline and me if we wished to fly with him to Barksdale Field in Shreveport, Louisiana. I jumped at the chance. He planned to let 1st. Lieutenant Jerry Banks fly the left seat while he took the co-pilot seat. The next day we all arrived at New Orleans airport in our uniforms and hopped into the AT 7. This flight would provide training hours for Captain Woodall and Jerry so they could stay proficient and maintain their flying status. Cruising at 150 MPH we arrived at the huge Strategic Air Command base in just under two hours. I saw B 47s parked all over the base as we taxied to our assigned space.
But our only mission for the day was to go to the Officers’ Club for lunch. The club fascinated me. Decorated in faux leopard skin throughout, it made me feel like I was in some exotic jungle.
After lunch we re-boarded our little craft and received clearance to depart Barksdale Field. Jerry, still in the left seat, climbed us out to five-thousand feet and set a course for home. Once we reached altitude, Captain Woodall called me forward and surprised me by asking “Do you want to sit in the right seat and help Jerry drive this thing a bit?”
“Yes sir, I do.” I replied with trepidation and glee. This fifteen-year-old boy would not solo a J3 Cub for another year, but I jumped at the chance to touch the yoke of the AT 7.
Captain Woodall went in the back of the plane with Erline and I slid into the right seat and strapped myself in. In short order, Jerry turned to me and said, “She is all yours. Keep us at five-thousand and a heading of one-hundred-sixty degrees.” My inexperience with a twin engine hot aircraft caused me to be all over those North Louisiana skies. I rolled, pitched and yawed the sleek craft as the engines with variable pitch props moaned to keep up with my erratic movements. In a little while, I gained better control of the craft. Jerry, who was only about ten years older than me, seemed unconcerned about my clumsy handling of the plane. A veteran of flying C47s across “The Hump” from India To China during WWII, he had flown in much more perilous conditions than I presented. He just started to read the Police Gazette he had brought along.
The plane still seemed to be a little bit out of trim to me. I said to Jerry. “Do you think we need to trim this thing up some more?”
He just grinned and tossed his head toward the back of the plane as if to say, “It is what is going on back there.” The naive fifteen-year old next to Jerry still didn’t know what he was tying to tell me. Some years down the road, it finally dawned on me what Captain Woodall and Erline were doing in back of the plane to cause it to be a bit unbalanced. I imagine the gyrations I caused in the rear of the plane must have been quite a challenge for the activities going on with Captain Woodall and Erline. I guess it would be fair for one to conclude that a fifteen-year boy raised in The City That Care Forgot must be a slow learner not to know what was going on in back of the AT 7.
After a while Erline came to the cockpit with silk stockings in her hands. “These are torn. I don’t think we should leave them in the plane. Tom, would you please throw them out your little window there.” As requested, I slid the little window next to me back and let the slipstream carry the evidence out into the skies over North Louisiana.
I remember thinking at the time. “I wonder if anyone will find these silk stockings floating down from heaven?”