I’m only so much of a people person, and being out on tour requires you to be a people person’s people person. Every minute you’re not flying, you’re face to face with one (friendly, courteous, gracious) stranger after another. After another, after another. They’ve come out to see the planes and they’re excited as a kid on Christmas morning and They Want To Tell Me About It. I understand, I get it. I’m like that, too. But I am one person, and they are way up there in the hundreds, maybe thousands. I spent six hours yesterday running admissions at the gate and fielding purchases at the PX. A handful of actual WW2 veterans with amazing stories to tell, probably a dozen folks with a family logbook or dog tag or newspaper photo from when their father or uncle got shot down. Some truly inspiring and heartbreaking stories. And hundreds and hundreds of people just like me who are so freakin’ excited to be here, to see and touch the planes, to crawl around inside them, and to hear the engines start up when we launch.
But really – I’m only so much of a people person. Four or five hours into the admission gate and I was more than ready to crawl into a corner and hide. But I couldn’t, because we were shorthanded, and Mac and Pappy had their hands full at the PX, and Kerry and Robert needed to fly the B-25, and Fred was stacked with back-to-back Mustang flights.
I know the local TV station in Lafayette was trying to do us a favor by running a segment on the tour. But when they got to the part about admission being $12 for adults, $6 for kids and free for WW2 and Korean War veterans, they shortened it to just “free for veterans.” Which was awkward, because half this town seems to have served in one branch of the Armed Services or another.
You know how I am about avoiding conflict – I want everyone to be happy. And with that disposition, it’s tough to be the guy who has to explain, over and over again, to folks who have put their lives on the line for our country that we can’t let them in for free. Awkward and uncomfortable.
I found that the older fellows, the Vietnam vets, were the most understanding when I tried to explain. A lot of them simply waved their hands and said “Don’t worry, I get it.” Many even told me to keep the change from their $20.
“Sure – we did our part then,” one told me. “But you’re doing yours now.”
I protested that I have not, to my knowledge, had anyone shoot at me, but he insisted. “Doesn’t matter. You’re doing something important here. I want to support that.” I shook his hand, thanked him and told him I wished I knew how to make a proper salute.
I think it was most often the younger vets, whose military service was still a recent memory, who got upset at the “clarification.” Most were okay, but there were a few who insisted, “Dude – the TV said.”
I chose not to delve into the wisdom of accepting everything on TV as gospel truth, and instead tried, briefly, to review the finances involved. We were a non-profit, touring the country with four aircraft which each gulp an average of $2000 of fuel per hour. Not to mention basic maintenance costs: the Mustang’s engine overhaul after each tour costs $250,000. The engines on the B-17 and B-24 are less, but they’ve got four each. Everything runs on money, and if we didn’t charge admission, we couldn’t keep this living history – their living history – alive.
“But dude – the TV.”
I squirmed a little more and looked at the line backing up behind him. Folks with antsy kids, elderly men in wheelchairs. It was time for a judgment call.
“Okay – let’s just go with $6 each for you guys.” I thought it prudent to skip mentioning that I was just tallying them up at the children’s rate.
Those of you who know my disposition are cringing at the thought of me doing this over and over again for five hours. Yeah. I’ll admit I spent the better part of the day asking myself what the hell I was doing, asking myself why I come out on tour, telling myself that no amount of stick time was worth the introvert’s nightmare of being “on” for so long.
It was a blessed relief when we finally ushered folks off the flight line at 4:00 to do our afternoon rides. A couple of laps out and back, loading patrons and sponsors in back of the ’17 and flying low over the countryside, sun slanting majestically on the Americana spread out below us. Mac has been letting me hand fly most of these legs, taking the controls only for the taxi out, takeoff and landing. I don’t have much time to look over my shoulders as our passengers scampering around, climbing up into the top turret, dropping down and crawling forward to the bombardier’s post way out in the nose. But occasionally I catch a giggle and a glimpse of the ear-to-ear smiles; yes, I’m helping them live one of their dreams – they’re flying in a genuine B-17. Yeah, this is good.
But it’s really only after the flight is over that it hits. Mac is taxying us back to the ramp, and I’ve finished with the boost pumps, cowl flaps and the rest of the post-landing checklist. The only thing left to do is slide the window back and wave at the wall of spectators, three deep with cameras and kids held high as we taxi past. Look, Suzy – that’s a B-17!
I remember being that kid. I remember my mother indulgently taking me to airshow after airshow. I remember snapping roll after out-of-focus roll of the planes, the real live WW2 planes. I remember those pilots sliding the canopy back and waving out at us. And I remember a deep longing: knew I couldn’t imagine what it felt like to be one of them, one of the privileged few who flew those magnificent, historic steeds and waved out at us, the mesmerized crowd. Maybe it’s the same feeling that some people have when watching Brad Pitt or Angelina Jolie and thinking Someday, someday I’m gonna be in the movies.
I remember wondering what it was like. And in an instant, the days of lugging gear, setting up, tearing down and setting up again, the hours of overwhelming face time are all worth it. Because right now, with one hand out of the cockpit waving as we roll by, our four 1820’s rumbling like tired stallions, I know that I just have helped another ten folks in back live one of their dreams. And I’m still living my own.