Saturday, December 3, 2016

New Management Abruptly Cuts Popular Column

Whenever I’m in town and needing to kill time, a bookstore serves me well. It’s the perfect place to feed a wandering mind. My friends are there, too.
One you can always find in the bookstore is Budd Davisson. Look through enough publications, and you’ll find multiple examples of his work. My favorite has always been the final page of Plane & Pilot, “Grass Roots."
Here’s how it ends up in my hands.  I walk into the store and stroll casually by the over-hyped books printed for the masses. Staying the course, business, philosophy, history, photography, and politics all get their moment of consideration as I travel to my destination; an isle of photos and captions. There, the simple mind is free to run wild. The heavy subjects which came before are forgotten.
Of course, being increasingly pressed for time, the herd thinning begins. Air & Space, the NPR of aviation, is booted because one writer has covered the same story a million times. Flying, well, there’s Martha and Peter. Unfortunately, a few buoyant lifesavers can’t float concrete and I move on. Aeroplane? I remember when they were cool.  Oh look, fifteen warbird magazines covering the same planes in rotation. Moving on I see something bizarre. It says Plane and Pilot, but the cover looks more like a fashion magazine. “How can that be?” I ask. Peeling back the cover gave me a clue. Pop culture and global warming creatives with a fetish for safety had surely taken over.

That actually was my reactive guess, from the cover alone. Looking up Madavor Media, I laughed out loud. I can smell them from two sectionals away. Sure enough, they fit the bill. So does management.
Fighting the urge to set it down, I thumbed pages to see what had always been the bright spot, Budd’s article. Hastily flipping open the back cover, I found he wasn’t there. “Maybe they redid everything and his piece is now in the middle?” I wondered. Nope. He was nowhere to be found.

Setting it down, I stared at it. Considering aviation may be in the final throes of self-immolation, I stepped back as if to avoid the heat.

Next, I sent a text, “What happened to your piece in Plane and Pilot?”  What I got in return was more evidence of my suspicion, “Last Grass Roots was June issue. 46 years to the month. That wasn’t written to be the final Grassroots. It was just the next one in line when they pulled the plug. Which I think is so apropos.” Along with the surprise cutoff, I learned the new editor had offered a brief statement about writing styles. Then, with that, it was over.

Why did Budd describe it all as “apropos?” I searched for the article and am including it below. With no warning, it was his last piece in P&P. On the upside, the new editor may have done us all a favor. Closing the door on “Grass Roots” was notification, whether you noticed it or not, that you and I no longer fit their target demographic. Therefore, we never have to bother picking it up again.

Always working.
Photo: Rich Davidson (Oshkosh 2016)

“The Last Flight  –  by Budd Davisson
*Everything has an end but too often we don’t know it’s coming.

Our Christmas morning wasn’t what it should have been: we got a call early on that my ex-brother-in-law had just unexpectedly died. He was only two years older than I am and a health freak. The net effect on me was stronger than I would have expected. It was as if the concept of mortality suddenly became real and I began looking at my life with a different eye. I thought back on that this morning, as I strapped in to fly, and a thought clicked through my mind that was as bright as a neon sign, “Someday you’re going to fly for the last time. Is this that time?”

There’s an old, rather macabre saying that the only thing worse than knowing the next flight will be the last is NOT knowing that it’ll the last one. Frankly, I think not knowing would be a blessing of sorts. I can’t imagine going through the boarding dance and the strapping-it-on ritual knowing for a fact that will be the last time I ever taste flight while at the controls. As I’m sitting here typing this, part of my brain is refusing to wrap itself around the inevitability of that thought.

This puts me in mind of the conversations I’ve had with former military pilots, especially fighter/attack types. They may have disliked the BS so often attached to a military existence, but they lived for getting the gear in the wells. They loved the flying and dearly miss the “squadron feeling” of being with kindred souls. Each of those guys knew ahead of time when they were prepping for the last time that they would be astraddle a high-Mach column of fire, a Nomex-clad Zeus who was master of the heavens. You’ll not talk to one of them, no matter how old, who says they don’t miss it. Unfortunately, there’s a last time for everything, both aeronautical and otherwise.

I so clearly remember the last time I hugged my Mom. She didn’t really recognize me but, in the midst of the hug, she pushed back, looked me squarely in the eyes and the lights come on for a fraction of a second, as she said, “You know I love you, right?” and smiled that impish, almost devilish grin of hers. Then the lights went out and the veil of dementia was once again smothering the brilliant woman who had raised me. That was the last time we truly connected and I still get choked up thinking about it.

When you’re young, the concept of a final anything exists only as an existential, theoretical understanding, not an emotional one that connects with every fiber of your being. When you’re young, the concept of time is meaningless because there’s so much of it out there in front of you. When you go blazing through middle age, the reality of time nibbles at the edge of your consciousness but it doesn’t do much more than tiptoe into your thoughts now and then. However, Christmas morning the limits time places on us suddenly vaulted over the barriers I had erected around my thoughts and every minor movement during my days since then has been seen in a different light.

I now actually grin a little in anticipation, as I push the hangar door open for the first flight of the day. The low morning sun paints my little fabric-covered friend the color of wet lipstick and I can’t adequately explain how that makes me feel: it feels so good, it’s almost silly! It’s a wonderfully clean portrait not only of flight, but of a segment of life that I wish could go on forever. But, I know it can’t. On the one hand, that flat pisses me off, but, at the same time, it makes me more appreciative of the moment.

Then, there is that magical instant, when, amidst the thunder that fills the cockpit, I feel the Earth give up its grasp allowing me and my mechanical friend to leap free. And believe me, my friend knows how to leap much better than most. It’s not so much a take off as it is a release, a step through an invisible portal into another world where we are king and gravity is only a temporary inconvenience.

If it’s an early morning takeoff, I’m blessed with a golden sunrise much earlier than those below. Many are still sleeping and others are just arousing to a day that is still hidden in Earth’s shadow. Climbing up into a sunrise is a moment only pilots know and I sometimes feel sorry for those who don’t experience it.

The bottom line is that time respects no man. We clearly know when our time began but we don’t have a clue, when it’ll run out. Worse, we never know when time will begin to erode the person that we have been. Regardless, a last flight is a foregone conclusion. The key is to enjoy every flight as if it’ll be the last and take nothing for granted. Time is our friend at the beginning, but slowly turns into an aggressive enemy. For that reason alone, I’ve always lived by the mantra, “When you’re running as fast you as you possibly can, it does no good to look at your watch.” So, just keep running. You’ll get more done and it makes you a moving target. “
Thanks to Budd for writing what may have been the last true aviation column that was human, personal, and deeper than three drops in a thimble. Unforced and genuine, it was a unique holdout in a world driven to "replace what works with what sounds good."

One of Budd's many talents.


Unknown said...

Thank you Rich for writing such a thought provoking article that connects so well with fellow aviators and how most of feel about our love affair of flying.
Tim Gibson

Anonymous said...

All along I thought I've been reading Plane and Pirate but I was somehow left disappointed. Now I know why. You made me realize that I'm dyslexic. I've been actually reading Plane and Pilot (though only in the dentist office waiting room). Now I know how I ended up becoming a pilot. I got in the wrong line. Could have swore the sign said "Get Your Pirate's License Here".

Pete Christensen
(On FB)

Anonymous said...

I've been reading Budd's articles since the 60's Air Prog One Instructors Opinion (In secret as i wasn't an instructor.) His rating on my mostly respected scale of aviation's greatest writers....St. X,Ernie Gann, Budd Davisson,Bach....
Mark Trier
Dedicated Aviologist