Friday, July 27, 2007

Oshkosh Diary - Multi-tasking

Every now and again at Oshkosh -- and it's usually about this time in the week -- I see or hear something that causes me to note, "I didn't expect that. Sure enough, right on schedule... an Oshkosh moment.

I walked into the showers in the campground today and immediately came face to face with a, um, naked old man toweling off. This caused the panic button in my brain to engage, thus interrupting the reflex cycle, keeping me from verbalizing my thoughts so that nobody actually heard the screaming that I heard in my head that said, "Wow...I didn't need to see that."

Now keep in mind, I come from the "eye's front, soldier!" school of etiquette in these situations, but as I was heading for the shower, I noticed another man -- this one with a short haircut, wearing dogtags, and, umm, naked, look at the old man I didn't need to see, and say... "it's Doug, right?"

"Huh?" the old man said.

"It's Doug, right?" he repeated.

"Why yes, Doug (I didn't catch the last name)."

"Do you remember, me?" he asked.

Now, let me just say that among the things a naked man should never say to another naked man, is "do you remember me?" First,it conjurs up images of two dogs meeting in the park and, second, well, you know.

"You look familiar," he said, which almost caused me to burst out laughing as I headed for cover.

"Do you remember when you (unintelligible verb) my Piper Cub in Lansing, Michigan?" he said.

"Why, sure I do," the old man said and as I showered I overheard the conversation, which sounded like a lot of other conversations in Oshkosh during AirVenture, but which I've never heard in the showers of Oshkosh before. (I pause here only to note that most of the conversations in the showers of Oshkosh start with, "Man, these showers are really creepy.") They were talking about how to do this or that to get this or that problem in a Piper Cub solved and they were discussing various idiosyncracies of the Piper Cub, without once stopping -- apparently -- to consider that maybe two naked men standing in the middle of a freakin' shower in Oshkosh talking about some type-specific aviation situation was, itself, a tad idiosyncratic.

And then the third man showed up.

Now, if you go into the vendor hangars at Oshkosh, you'll notice that a number of exhibitors have no one stopping to talk to them. As soon as someone does, however, a crowd soon develops.

This phenomenon -- or as someone might suggest... this "crime against nature" -- was now taking place in the showers of the campground, for apparently this third guy -- have I mentioned he was naked, too? -- was also a Piper Cub afficionado and wanted to get in on this discussion, ostensibly to learn the wisdom the naked old-timer was imparting.

Upon showering, I returned to the area -- double-checking that my towel was firmly secured around myself -- grabbed my clothes and headed for another part of the building -- stopping only long enough to note that three naked men, all facing each other in close proxmity, were in animated conversation about valve covers and leaky gaskets.

It was then and there I vowed to myself that I will never -- ever -- fly in a Piper Cub.


It rained most of yesterday evening, though the heavy storms that materialized never seemed to hit us, and a few things in the tent got a little soggy, but nothing we haven't experienced before, and nothing that caused any panic. The big tent we used for the RV BBQ on Wednesday evening was still in place as I returned from dinner last night, but one tent and one old, beat up truck that appeared to be home to someone, was now under it, as they sought shelter.

They were still there this morning -- sleeping, )they were up talking until about 3 a.m. I know that because even the rain, and thunder, and the air horns from every yahoo trucker who drives by during AirVenture, couldn't drown their voices as I tried to sleep) when the crew from Karl's Events came to take the "big top" down.
They said they'd come back later and as I peered into the truck to see who was in it, I saw the largest person I think I've ever seen. He looked like that guy you see in movies. He usually drives a motorcycle, has tattoos everywhere, has a shaved head, and looks like he'd kill you if it weren't for the fact -- it usually turns out -- that he's a big old softy with a fondness for ballet and fine arts.

I was pretty sure, though, that this guy was on the run from the law and ducked into Camp Scholler because it's the perfect place to hide. And there he was, under my tent, probably passed out after a night of heavy drinking; a tradition he started after the first time he'd spent a day robbing banks and killing puny men whose only crime was to ask him to move his motorycle and truck from underneath a tent.

So I did what any self-respecting man with a zest for life and desire to see tomorrow did. I wrote a note and duct-taped it to the shoes he'd left outside his truck asking him to move, and I left.

When he came back later, he was awake, and having accepted the idea that this would be my last day to live, I made peace with my God and went over to introduce myself. And just like in the movies, he turned out to be a nice guy from Oregon who had, in fact, been camping nearby and came to the RV BBQ (I invited all "neighbors" to come as our guests) and he just wanted to thank me for the hospitality, noting that the RV builders he met seemed like pretty nice people "for RV builders."

Supressing all other thoughts, I thanked him, offered him whatever beer was left over, while supressing the instinctive desire not to add "if you just let me live."

The fine arts never came up, however.


I was going to head down into the AirVenture grounds -- I hadn't really been there since Monday when I covered the Cirrus news conference -- to poke around a little and maybe take in a fiberglass workshop, when Glenn Brasch called to see if I wanted to join him, his son, Michael; and Roger Everson. As they are the heart and soul of AirVenture as far as I'm concerned, I jumped at the chance to head to a drive-in near Lake Winnebago -- you know, waitresses on roller skates, '50s music, and the whole thing.

So there we sat, in the back of Glenn's pick-up, eating and sipping our root-beer floats, as plane after plane flew overhead on short final for the runway at Oshkosh.

There are times I feel guilty for having such a good life.


Among my few disappointments this week was not seeing the 35-ship formation of RVs that flew over Oshkosh several times. You can find the names of the RVers here ( ). Opening the AirVenture newspaper today, however, there was a terrific picture of the formation front and center on the gallery page.

I don't "get" formation flying, myself, because it's nothing a pilot like me should ever get close to, but I do know it well enough to know that flying wingtip to wingtip with another person requires more than knowing how to fly wingtip to wingtip with another person. It requires, it seems to me, some serious guts.

Lacking a plane, knowledge, and -- oh yeah -- guts, it's just not something to which I aspire, but it's not hard to appreciate, especially after I talk to fighter-jocks around here and I tell them that I'm building an RV airplane and they always -- always -- remark about these guys who fly formation at Oshkosh. If you've got the respect of fighter jocks for your ability to fly precision formation, man, there isn't much more to accomplish on Planet RV.

By the way, there are pictures all over the Internet of this. RV Builder's Hotline, Rob Riggen told me earlier this week, has some video of what the formation looked like from the cockpit of one RV.


The story goes -- although I'm taking some liberties with this -- that when God created the words "gentleman" and "courteous," he created Jerry Hansen, Chuck Busch, Paul Ross, and Sid Tolchin to help explain to the universe what the words mean.

The four, of Trio Avionics, invited me to dinner last evening. We stopped for happy hour at the house they're using this week on the shore of Lake Winnebago. To our left a C-5 (C-5A?) Galaxy C-17 Globemaster was performing at the airshow, occasionally roaring by (below the tree line, of course) near us. To our right, seaplanes were landing at the AirVenture seaplane base. Ahead of us was a gorgeous lake, said to be miles and miles in length, and I believe it.

Then we headed to Kodiak Jack's steakhouse. The wait -- it's one of the more popular restaurants here -- was an hour and half, so we waited in the bar, and chatted about all the things people chat about. Put simply -- and, I'm sorry to say, far less eloquently than they deserve -- they are some of the nicest and warmest people I've met at an event that seems to have no shortage of nice and warm people.

I first met them at the '06 BBQ, the one where a downpour began about the same time the BBQ did. We were staring face-to-face with disaster, and disaster didn't appear to be ready to blink. As we tried to keep things from falling apart before they could start, the Trio folks showed up and offered nothing but support and patience and encouragement, when it would have been just as easy to roll your eyes and wonder who the guys from Hooterville were that thought they could put on a BBQ.

Sid, who for 40 years was a Navy flight surgeon, and Jerry, who was in the Army yet is still allowed to associate with the Navy guys, both took the opportunity to offer encouragement for my bout with Meniere's Disease. Keep in mind a year ago at this time, I was sitting here at the world's greatest aviation event, trying to reconcile it with the very real possibility that my flying days were over.

"It'll go away," Sid said. Words that I've remembered every day since. And he was right.

We sat and chatted for an hour-and-a-half, though to me it seemed like just a few minutes. I won't tell you all the fascinating stuff I learned because I didn't ask their permission, but their backgrounds are incredibly fascinating. They were all Cozy builders -- that's how they met each other.

I learned Sid led a Navy expedition to the South Pole, and even parachuted out of a plane at the South Pole. "What was that like?" I asked, exhausting my quota of stupid questions fairly early in the evening. "Cold," he said.

Paul has restored two Swifts, Chuck served on Trident submarines. Jerry is from Nebraska originally and says he never lost the "gee whiz" part of aviation. And this was a particularly interesting part of a splendid evening.

I asked how each got into aviation. Sid was 11 years old in Pennsylvania, where he delivered newspapers and he won a contest in which the winning prize was a ride in an airplane. When Chuck talked about this recurring dream in which he -- and I'm probably telling this wrong -- would run and fly...up over his house and neighborhood -- Jerry said, "I have the same dream." "So do I," said Sid.

Those words "gee whiz" are at the heart of aviation, and for me, at the heart of the frustration at my complete inability to explain to non-pilots what AirVenture is like. I had wanted this week to take a stab at it for my day job but finally gave up this morning for two reasons: (1) I can't objectively or fairly assess an event in which I'm so obviously involved but (2) I can't find the words to explain this. There is no way to explain the magnitude of this event in context of aviation. You can, perhaps, bite off a small morsel of it, but you can never adequately describe the dinner. Never.

Sure we try, Google search AirVenture and see for yourself. But, trust me, even those of us who at least think we can make words do tricks are pikers at this. And yet, what's fascinating about it is there were already two words available: "gee whiz."

Anyway, it was a wonderful evening spent with fine individuals for whom I have a new appreciation and affection. I can't wait to see them again, next year.

RV vs.T-6

I'm sure I'm telling this incorrectly, too, but Jerry (I'm pretty sure it was Jerry) told me about an incident here in which a T-6 was holding short of the runway before getting permission to taxi across it to get somewhere else. This was at the departure end of the runway. Having permission to taxi across it, the pilot instead turned and took off on the runway, into the path of the landing airplanes, including an RV-4, the pilot of which was quick-thinking enough to coax it back into the air, eluding the warbird (I think it was a T-6 but can't recall).

If that was your RV-4, I'd love to chat with you. I'm going to guess that, at least at that moment, the two words of prominence were not "gee whiz."


I will probably leave in the morning, and by Sunday I should be in full Oshkosh withdrawal, when -- if history is any guide -- I'm sitting on my beloved bench (, and realizing the cacophony of silence. No helicopter flying nonstop around the "pattern" of the campground, giving their first helicopter rides to --usually -- wide-eyed kids and family. No outboard-motor sound of the Goodyear blimp (did you know it doesn't fly in the rain because the weight of the raindrops would bring it down?). No crescendo of a fighter jet as it makes its low pass and then bombards you with the noise of the afterburners as it turns out over Lake Winnebago. No putt-putt noise from scooters going up and down Camp Scholler... now occupied by two (usually a young man and a young woman who didn't know each other a few days ago). No sound of the schoolbus as it drops another load of weary campers from the flight line after a day of trying to do the impossible -- take it all in. No slam of the Porta John door in the middle of the night. No rustling from the plastic tarp you put up to keep rain from coming in your tent, no nauseating hum of a generator from blocks away, and worst of all -- no voice of a someone you used to know as someone who builds airplanes but you now think of as family -- inviting you to sit down and visit for awhile.

In the next few days -- again if history is any guide at all -- there will be threads on most of the various bulletin boards. Some old-timer will talk about the old days, about how EAA is too commercial, or has lost touch with the average builder, or costs too much, or whatever whine of the moment happens to motivate one to waste precious time on such things.

Trust me. They're wrong. They're not intentionally wrong. They're not ignorantly wrong. They're just wrong.

Everything that aviation is, is still here, from the "gee whiz" of an 11 year old paperboy in Pennsylvania getting his first ride in an airplane, to the delight of a man from France camping in his car for a week in the middle of a field in eastern Wisconsin(ask Dana Overall), delighted that new rules -- LSA-like rules -- there are restoring the dream old rules took away. From waitresses on roller skates bringing root-beer floats to a bunch of aviators in the back of a pick-up truck, to the one-week love affairs of early teenagers, in the shade of a tree in the shade of a wing of a Ford TriMotor flying overhead. From the twinking eyes of an 85 year old war veteran, too old to fly, barely able to walk, but momentarily transformed when a B-17 passes overhead, to a 21 year old kid.

I haven't left the place yet... and I already miss it.

1 comment:

  1. Bob,
    I about asphyxiated myself when I read your bit about the Piper Cub guys in the shower! I laughed so hard I couldn't breathe! You nailed it buddy! Thanks for a WONDERFUL BBQ at OSH!
    Scott VanArtsdalen