L.W. Aloft

Howard Bahr
as told to Ms. Kate Kirkpatrick

So far, I have written hardly anything to make you smile, which I certainly like to do, so I will tell a story featuring our late pal L.W. Thomas, one of the funniest boys who ever lived and a very nervous character who owned many peculiar phobias. For example, he was afraid of milk in any form. Also, when he bought a six-pack of beer at the Jitney Jungle, he would not touch the can with the price-tag on it (this, of course, was when things had price-tags). You could be sure L.W. would have a beer for you at his house, because there were always fifteen or so cans with the price-tag in his icebox. For Thomas, flying in an airplane was out of the question. Once, when he and Randy Cross and I flew on Delta Airlines to Washington, D.C., we had to render him comatose with three Ativan tablets before he would even get in the taxi to the airport.

Capt. Jung and his trusty Taylorcraft

Another late friend of ours, Captain R.A. Jung, owned a 1943 Taylorcraft tail-dragger (an old Army spotter plane) he named “The Yellow Peril.” She was canvas-covered (painted bright yellow) and could accommodate two persons in tandem seating. For instruments, she had an altimeter, an air-speed indicator, a horizon bubble, and a compass. That was it. We all enjoyed flying in this antique crate (sometimes we’d buy two or three bags of flour, then go hunting along the Illinois Central for a train to bomb), but, as you might expect, L.W. steadfastly refused to have anything to do with her. Finally, one evening at the local tavern, Captain R.A. Jung beguiled Thomas with the news that he had just installed a radio in the cockpit of “The Yellow Peril.” (Heretofore, the ship had been incommunicado, which meant the Captain could only land at strips without a tower.) This apparatus, claimed Captain R.A. Jung, made the old bird safe as a Chevrolet station wagon. L.W., girded with the bravado of a half-dozen draft beers, and no doubt embarrassed by his legendary reluctance, uttered the fatal words, “Why, there ain’t nothin’ I’d rather do than scale the airy heights with my old pal, Captain R.A. Jung. Excelsior!” After that, there was no turning back.

Next afternoon, a Sunday, the boys gathered at the Oxford airfield to see L.W. Thomas off on his maiden flight in the Taylorcraft. Having steeled himself beforehand with a half-pint of Cabin Still (no Ativan or Xanax in those days, and, at the moment, none of us had any reefer), Thomas squeezed into the cockpit and buckled himself in the rear seat, clutching to his chest a Gideon Bible he had swiped from some fleabag motel back down the line. Present as observers were Frank Walker, John Schorfheide, Steve Cook, Tommy Freeland, and I, each man enjoying the balmy day, each man uttering words of comfort and encouragement to our jittery comrade:

“C’mon, L.W.–if you crash, it won’t hurt–you’ll be killed instantly.”
“Don’t listen to him, pard–you’re back aft and may only be injured for life–”
“If that happens, man, try to keep your arms and fingers so you can play the
the guitar on the sidewalk by the bus station.”
“But . . . what if he’s only injured and the wreckage catches fire?”
“Good point! Lotsa guys survive a crash, only to perish in the flames.”

Meanwhile, Captain Jung ran through the pre-flight checklist:

Flaps: OK
Horizontal Stabilizer:  OK
Rudder: OK
Brakes: OK
Fuel: OK
Loaded Revolver Under Seat: OK
Peach Brandy: OK
Cigars:  OK
L.W. Thomas : Sitting quietly hating the Wright Brothers; hating Mr. Taylor who designed the Taylorcraft; hating all of us who, safely on Terra Firma, could afford to make light of hideous injury and death; most of all hating Captain  R.A. Jung who, when satisfied of the craft’s readiness spoke up as follows:

“Awright, girls–knock it off and pay attention.” He rummaged around under his feet and produced a mare’s nest of wiring from which, after a few minutes of muted invective, he extracted two sets of headphones fitted with throat mics. The leather earpads were cracked and dry, like the antique Bakelite mics and the confusion of black wires that connected one apparatus to the other, then disappeared beneath the instrument panel where, presumably, they were somehow connected to the generator[1]. Captain Jung explained that, while the device was not exactly a radio, it was a revolutionary, if makeshift[2], intercom system assembled from genuine WWII Naval Aviation components he’d discovered in a surplus store in East St. Louis, Illinois. As a result, the Captain pointed out, those in the cockpit would no longer have to scream at one another over the clattering of the engine and the wind howling through the wires and wing struts. L.W. Thomas–lucky boy!–was the first passenger to show up since the installation, and this flight would be the intercom’s initial trial.

Thomas revealed later that, in that moment, he did not feel lucky; his confidence was further eroded by the knowledge that Captain Jung had installed the rig himself. Not that the Captain wasn’t handy! It was he who built a muzzle-loading black-powder cannon from a length of steel pipe, so effective it could fire a dirt-packed tomato sauce can clear across the Mississippi River. His work with plunger-activated black-powder aerial bombs was pure genius.[3] However, the Captain’s craftsmanship was generally applied to automobile repair, heavy machinery, and crude explosive devices; his experience with electricity was limited to hot-wiring cars in his youth. Thomas was aware of this deficiency, but his thought was, What could possibly go wrong with an intercom?

Now, to start the motor of the Taylorcraft, a ground crewman had to turn the propeller until he felt pressure on the pistons, whereupon that person would announce “Contact!” whereupon Captain Jung would flip the magneto and reply “Switch on!” whereupon the ground crewman would grasp the propeller blade and give it a heave counterclockwise. This is a very old-timey way to start an airplane, but she was a very old-timey airplane. After the engine was started and the prop spinning, pilot and ground crewman would exchange a hearty thumbs-up and “Cheerio!” (see illustration below), Captain Jung would take a draught from his flask of peach brandy, and off he’d go.

Capt. Jung in the cockpit, the author giving him a thumbs up.

So it went on the day of L.W.’s first flight. We watched the little machine trundle onto the grass runway–in a moment, she began to roll forward–Captain R.A. Jung opened the throttle–the mighty sixty-five HP engine began to buzz–the tail came up–and in a moment “The Yellow Peril” was gracefully aloft and disappearing southward over the trees. Meanwhile, the boys walked back to the office to drink coffee and listen as the airfield manager, the late Mr. Jeff White, told us tales of flying in World War II.

Well, I started out with the intention of telling about the time our friend S. Cragin Knox beguiled L.W. Thomas into accompanying him to Texas to work on an oil exploration crew, and the foreman out there gave Thomas the job of driving the dynamite truck, which made Thomas very nervous indeed, especially when, one day, and without thinking, L.W. Thomas flicked his cigarette out the open window of the truck cab–but now I am all tangled up in the story of L.W. Thomas and the Taylorcraft. However, as I think about it, the two stories have a similar narrative thread. As a modern person (no offense), and especially a modern person (no offense) married to an Air Force fireman, you might question the wisdom of L.W. Thomas smoking a cigarette while driving a dynamite truck. Also, you might contemplate the photo above and ask yourself, “Should Captain R.A. Jung really be smoking a cigar in the cabin of a fabric-covered airplane swirling with gasoline fumes that is about to sail into the Wild Blue Yonder?” This behavior was perfectly routine in those times; today, it would most likely be considered poor judgment, if not moronic.

(At this point, I should insert an apologetic parenthetical. Beloved niece, you could not be blamed for assuming our gallant band were naught but a crowd of dissipated low-lifes and scoundrels. In fact, we were all in college at Ole Miss, save Schorfheide [a railroad detective on the Cotton Belt RR in Memphis] and Captain Jung, who, when he was not adventuring, worked as a millwright at a steel mill in Granite City, Illinois. Walker was an ex-Marine, Schorfheide and I were Vietnam veterans; Jung had served his Army time in Alaska as a ski-trooper; Steve Cook would become chairman of the graduate art program at Mississippi College. Tommy Freeland was a poet and intellectual from an old Mississippi family; he would grow up to become an excellent attorney, marry my ex-wife, and die of a heart attack at a tragically young age. S. Cragin Knox, in spite of his lowly beginnings slinging cable on an exploration crew, eventually became the State Geologist of Mississippi. As for L.W., he was a graduate student in theatre at Ole Miss, a musician, a restaurateur, and a fine writer. He died in his sleep at age fifty-two in ’02 as his beloved wife Jeanne watched by the bedside. Life was never the same for us after L.W. Thomas crossed the river, and I do not believe a man can own a higher accolade. The same can be said of Captain R.A. Jung, who was killed in the crash of “The Yellow Peril” on [fittingly] November 11th, 1976, just seven months after the events recorded here. These were lads who lived authentic lives, and I am proud to have been one among them, and I miss them greatly. Thus, though sometimes we were dissipated low-lifes and scoundrels, misbehavior was only part of the adventure.)

Anyway, since I am thus far into the airplane story, I will stick with it.

Time and again, we hear persons complain that Life is Unfair, and certainly it seems so at times. Some point to Fate; the Calvinist attributes every misfortune to God’s Inscrutable Plan; sensible people have no other recourse than to mutter the well-worn phrase, “Shit just happens.” Whatever one’s philosophy, it does seem patently unfair that events surrounding “The Yellow Peril” on that balmy April morning in ‘75 came to pass with poor ol’ L.W. Thomas, of all people, in the catbird seat.  (As a writer, you will recognize this paragraph as intended to “stretch out the story” and “build up suspense” in order to delay the climax of the tragedy, so I will mention the wholly superfluous fact that, like old-timey barnstormers, Captain R.A. Jung always carried a number of wooden tomato stakes and a rolled-up bundle of cord affixed with colorful pennants like you might see at the state fair, a used-car lot, &c. so that, should he land in a cow pasture, as he often did, he could stake out a perimeter of wavy little flags around the ship. Remember that cows, though not very bright, are curious creatures; remember also that Captain Jung’s Taylorcraft was covered in a fabric treated with sealant [pilots call it “dope”]. Naturally, the local bovines would saunter over to investigate the big yellow insect that had buzzed down into their pasture; if Captain R.A. Jung neglected to set out a perimeter of wavy little flags to confuse them, the cows would commence to snack on the tasty, dope-covered fabric so that when Captain Jung returned from the nearby grocery with his sack lunch, he might well find a more or less portion of his fuselage gnawed down the the ribs[4]. I always wanted to use this arcane fact in a novel, but never found the opportunity.)

In any event, but a few minutes after takeoff found our intrepid aviators at a thousand feet and crossing over the Yokona River[5]. L.W. Thomas, of course, was not feeling intrepid. Below him lay the thin brown thread of the river, the greening woods, the checkerboard of cotton fields soon to know disc and plow, a sprinkling of white houses and, here and there, a wisp of cloud: truly a magical scene stretching to the blue hills and the world beyond. Alas, these aesthetic delights were not for Thomas. Later, he would freely admit that, from the moment the tail wheel lifted off the grass strip in Oxford, he shut his eyes tight and kept them shut. He white-knuckled the Gideon Bible and felt the rapid beating of his heart. He listened keenly to every variation in the motor’s rhythm and waited for the moment when it must surely quit altogether, all the while painfully aware that only a bit of wood and fabric lay between him and a thousand feet of empty air. Meanwhile, Captain Jung’s voice chattered amiably through the headphones clamped over Thomas’s Baltimore Orioles cap. Heretofore, L.W. had ignored the Captain’s observations, thinking them no more than the utterance of a madman indifferent to his own mortality. Now, high over the fields of Lafayette County, the Captain said something that made L.W. open his eyes and take notice: “Hey, man,” spake the Captain, “whatever you’re smoking back there smells like shit!”

This remark was an eye-opener for Thomas–first, because he wasn’t smoking at all, and, second, because he, too, all at once detected an unwelcome odor; i.e., the acrid smell peculiar to electrical fires. As the cabin began to fill with blue smoke, Thomas understood that the moment he’d feared was arrived at last, a realization confirmed by the Captain’s next announcement: “Well, hell, Thomas–we are on fire. Help me look for a place to set her down.”

Looking “for a place to set her down” was not among L.W. Thomas’s various array of skills. He’d never needed to “set down” from anyplace higher than his own bed, nor supposed he ever would. In addition, obeying the Captain’s order meant L.W. would actually have to look out the window! This he tried manfully to do, but the attempt was cut short when he realized (as he would later remark) that the distant ground, scary as it was from the sealed double-paned window of an airliner, was a hundredfold more so viewed through a vibrating half inch of cracked and oil-smeared plexiglass howling with wind. Thomas, heart palpitating, closed his eyes again and exclaimed “Oh, Jesus!” just as “The Yellow Peril” made a sudden stomach-churning drop. The Captain had chosen a field of broomsage nigh the river, and toward this he descended with dispatch, at the same time banking the ship hard over on her starboard wing in order to land into the wind, which direction he perceived by the smoke of a burning brush pile. The little machine hit hard, bounced high, hit and bounced again, and at last found her footing among the muddy ruts of the field. In a moment, she had rolled to a stop, whereupon Captain Jung shut off the engine and bailed out of the cabin door, pulling after him the still-smoldering remains of the intercom system, including L.W.’s headset. To say that Thomas was not far behind is to diminish the speed and agility of his exit.

Later, L.W. would admit that, once free of the cabin, he fell to his knees, pressed his cheek to Mother Earth’s welcoming bosom, and promised never again to leave her. It was, he said, not one of his finer moments.

For a time, Thomas and the Captain lounged under the wing, sipped peach brandy, and basked in the warmth of danger passed, peril overcome. Luckily, the Taylorcraft suffered no damage beyond a little bubbling of paint on the instrument panel; the intercom system, however, was hors de combat. One can imagine how, in that field to this very day, fragments of wire and Bakelite are turned up by harrow or plow, unseen and unlamented, their history lost to time like artifacts from a remote civilization. Here we must leave them, and here we must leave our tale of two gallant flyers–save for a final contemplation. When you feel safe, when the world seems in order at last and the Almighty has apparently wrapped you in His protecting arms–then look out, for the Cosmos is about to slap you up side the head. L.W. Thomas was still congratulating himself on his narrow escape when Captain R.A. Jung stood up, brushed off the seat of his pants, lit a fresh cigar, and said, “Awright, buddy–you ready to go?” Only then did Thomas comprehend that “The Yellow Peril,” having landed, must now take off again. With him aboard. True courage means that, when you’re scared shitless, you go ahead anyhow. This Thomas did, clutching his Gideon Bible as the ship bounced across the muddy broomsage field and struggled aloft. The last thing Thomas heard before he fell asleep was the brush of the landing gear through the greening branches of the trees.

The author with the irrepressible L.W. Thomas

[1] The generator was fixed under the starboard wing and had its own little red propeller. In flight, the wind spun the little red prop, and the generator generated.
[2] When he told the story later, L.W. Thomas used a more colorful synonym for “makeshift,” i.e. “nigger-rigged.” Regrettably, the term has since fallen out of common usage.
[3] In fact, we only had one; it was stoppered by a wooden plug so wouldn’t disintegrate; It made a most satisfying thump when dropped on an empty field, but when we landed, we had to get in the car and go retrieve it. The bomb in its experimental form wouldn’t hurt anyone, unless it hit him on the head. However, should any bad guys–Russians, Yankees, &c.–invade North Mississippi, we were ready to provide air support. Today, we’d be arrested as terrorists.
[4] When I was a little boy in Primary School, certain children from poor families (known as “clay-eaters”) would eat library paste and even dirt from the playground to satisfy the cravings of vitamin deficiency. Perhaps this helps to explain cows’ tendency to chew on airplanes.
[5] Originally called the Yoknapatawpha and so named in Faulkner’s novels and stories.

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