Obvious as it may sound – and it is – life in Mississippi, and all of America of course, was different in the ‘50s. World War II was fresh in the country’s memory, baby boomers had just been born and in a pre-internet world of post-war euphoria, things were just more lax.
At Mississippi State, specifically, much was different even in the layout. Where the mammoth-sized Dorman Hall now stands on the south side of campus used to be nothing but grass, running straight from South Farm to Davis Wade Stadium. Behind Dorman’s current location and to the south were the old football practice fields. Laying to the north is the original site of Dudy Noble Field – home plate actually sits about 50 feet from where the doors of Dorman now open and shut.
Those who tailgate in The Junction before MSU football games this year will see a large new plaque at the south end commemorating the old site of Dudy Noble, a home plate lain where the original used to be.
One of the men who used to watch games at the old site – and played football on the nearby fields – is one any who have around MSU for a while are familiar with. Charlie Weatherly has done just about everything at State, from playing football to becoming executive director of the Alumni Association, with much in between as well as a good deal before and since.
And it was he who was there for one of the odder moments in MSU’s long athletic history, back in 1956 as he recalls it, when he was one of the maroon-clad footballers out on the practice field one sunny afternoon.
The story requires a touch of background, the first being some geographical information. See, at the time, the nearby Tombigbee Waterway was not yet a thing, so flooding was a very serious problem in the area, and that year was a particularly troublesome one.
The second is the need to know another Bulldog by the name of Cliff Gookin, who some may recognize as the namesake of Gookin Boulevard in Tupelo, Mississippi. Gookin had graduated the year before and gone into the working world, but he missed his friends and old teammates back in school.
One day, the memories grabbed so tight a hold, as Weatherly tells it, that Gookin decided to visit.
“So, Cliff decided to get in one of the bi-planes at work and fly over to Starkville,” Weatherly said. “He probably told them he was going to survey the flood area, but I think that was just an excuse to fly over us.”
So, as practice finished up that afternoon, Weatherly and his teammates saw a low-flying plane approaching from the north. Quickly, they recognized the pilot as their old teammate Gookin.
“Someone yelled, ‘I think he’s going to land that thing on the field!’” Weatherly recalled.
And sure enough, that was the plan. Luckily, the baseball team had already finished and no one was on that field, and the football team had mostly cleared their 100-yard space. Except for a couple obstacles Gookin hadn’t thought about.
As the Bulldogs watched, the plane flew out over South Farm, turned in a big loop over the crops and pastures and began its northbound descent onto the practice field.
“Now, what Cliff forgot,” Weatherly said with a laugh, “is the goal posts on either end of the field.”
At the very last moment, Gookin must have realized his error and Weatherly and his teammates got a kick out watching the nose of the plane turn up as quick as can be, barely sneaking over the goal posts.
So the second try at a showy landing came. After all, Gookin had 100 yards of “runway” to work with.
“Well, practice was over,” Weatherly said, “but we hadn’t completely cleared the field yet and there was this whole line of tackling dummies stretching across the middle of the field.”
One more time, as the plane was coming into land, the nose jumped back into the air again and just snuck over the second obstacle.
Celebration of avoided disaster only lasted a moment, however. Still flying low, straight and right down the center of the field, the north goal posts sat dead ahead of Gookin and he was closing in. Fast.
“He picked the plane up,” Weatherly remembers, “but he didn’t have time to get over the posts, so he took a hard left. And he almost got out clean. But not quite.”
The very tip of Gookin’s right wing caught the left upright of the goal post, the beginning of the final time that plane would head for the ground.
Weatherly and his teammates, who had climbed up on the first base line bleachers of the baseball field to watch the daring act, quickly realized their perch was no longer a safe area. In fact, it had become the unintentional target.
“There were all these bushes underneath the stands,” Weatherly explained, “and they were full of thorns. Sharp ones that really hurt if they stuck you. Well, we had no choice, we dove into them and landed in the thorns on our hands and knees.”
From the prickly ground, they watched as the plane came in, but somehow, with the touch of a professional, the plane landed soft as could be right on top of those bleachers.
It was a crash landing without the crash, and Gookin stepped out, equal parts triumphant and relieved.
Years later, Gookin turned out to be a man of great influence in the political world, helping direct funds to his beloved alma mater, bringing jobs, money and opportunity to the state of Mississippi throughout his career.
His former teammates, on that day, may not have quite expected the successes to eventually come for Gookin.
“I’m not sure if he kept that first job or not,” Weatherly finished with another laugh. “But everything definitely worked out for him.”