Budd Davisson, December, 1991

Who Is That Guy In The Mirror?

"Mr. Potato Head Re-evaluates His Professional Image"

Okay, we're going to play a game. The name of the game is, "Who is that person in the mirror?"

The rules are this: You get a maximum of two seconds to look and three seconds to answer. Ideally, it will be done on the spur of the moment. You know, where you glance up just as a passing mirror throws an image back at you long before you're ready to look. The game won't work, if you saunter into the bathroom all prepared for a long hard scrutiny. In that situation, your mind is already in "ready to see me" mode. It knows what to expect and is preconditioned as to what to think. Nope, its only in an unexpected reflection that the brain kicks back a true answer.

Yeah, right, someone out there is saying Where is this leading? Now that you've asked, I'll tell you. This is leading into the opening scene of the familiar well-now-that-I'm-grown-how-come-I-don't-know-who-I-am syndrome.

This train of thought started as I was waddling into the pilot de-fueling station prior to a dual hop. I was busying myself while trying to figure out which way the zipper zipped, when I glanced up at this person in front of me. My first thought was "Who the hell is that!" His Mr. Potato Head face was stuffed into the top of a too-small turtle neck, which in turn was crammed into a bright, bright red snow suit. His hair was too long, too full of static and too kinked from wearing a helmet to want to lay down. He looked like an over-weight nine year old heading out to make snow angels.

At first, I wanted to say, "Oh that's so and so. He's the this or that," and suddenly I realized I couldn't do either. Yes, I recognized the face, but it was only a caricature of the one I had known before. It was as if someone had jammed an airhose up his nose and pumped in 5 psi too much. But, even though the face was pumped up tight, It still had a herd of wrinkles in it. Skin that was puffed so tight it should have been as smooth as a nickle balloon was as wrinkled as an albino raisin. Gheez, I don't know when all that happened! The last time I seriously looked at that face, it was nearly normal. Now I was looking at a long haired, puffed up, wrinkled Mr. Potato Head. Not a pretty picture.

The face and the girth of the red bunny suit were something I'd grown accustomed to seeing. Those changes had already assumed the same profile as the pile of socks in the bedroom corner: After you've looked at them long enough, they look natural, like they belong there. Same thing with the puffed, wrinkled skin.

That didn't upset me. What really rattled my cage, however, was the second question: Who and what the hell is this guy? I had been seeing him in mirrors for half a century, but during the brief instant I saw him in the airport head, I suddenly realized I couldn't identify him. I couldn't give an exact answer as to who he was or what he did. It was a little spooky. Very unnerving.

In a few minutes, the answers to the questions became entirely irrelevant to the task at hand. My left fist was bent forward and I was focused on the back of the student's head. My peripheral vision was fixated on the few runway lights in sight,as they raced passed. I used them as data points as I willed the nose of the Pitts to stay directly in front of me. What ever thoughts I had had about identity and profession disappeared because, for the next hour, the guy in the mirror was a Pitts instructor. Nothing else. To do it right and to teach it right, nothing else could exist in the same brain cage.

When I came back down, however, the same guy was in the mirror. He still looked over-stuffed, but this time at least there was a quirky little satisfied grin on his lips. Pitts Specials do that to you.

Unfortunately, I still didn't know who he was. And, if I don't, no one else has a prayer of figuring him out either.

Sound familiar? It ought to. Anyone over the age of 12 or 13 runs into that person in the mirror periodically and has to ask the same questions. What we have here is Installation No. 238 ( or 239, depending on when you started counting) of the on-going mid-life identity crisis. It is entitled "Who am I and why should anyone give a damned?"

In my case, it seems I've been battling the identity problem since I got my learner's permit. For a long time, it was a little amusing. I'd run into people somewhere and they'd be surprised to find I know how to fly, since that wasn't how they knew me. Or flying friends would be equally surprised to find I write or take pictures.

Lately, however, this identity thing has been getting shoved up my nose on a regular basis and it's beginning to cause real problems, personally and professionally. We often assign narrow identities to people because that's the only way we know them. However, recently I had a couple of incidents hit me right between the eyes, leaving no doubt as to the way in which that tendency was effecting me directly.

The first time, it was almost comical, but it illustrates a point. I was part of the panel on a local TV talk show about aviation and prior to the taping, I was following the host's directions by laying out some APs, books and other stuff I had done. All had my cover shots on them. I was talking to the producer, who was a pilot and has known me for a while, at least through the pages of AP. Then, he looked at the covers, listened to one of the guys talking, and said, very casually, "Oh, I didn't know you took pictures too."

Don't laugh, I get that a lot. A large percentage of people see either the words or the pictures. A much smaller number of people connect me with both.

The second time, I was speaking to a long time, and very close friend at the EAA who has known me and my family for 20 years. In the course of conversation I happened to mention some advertising work I was doing and how frustrated I was I've never once gotten even a referral through all my friends in aviation and he asked, "Why? What do you do in advertising?"

To put it bluntly, I was flabbergasted. Of all the people in the world, I would have thought at least he knew what I actually did for a living. But, he didn't. In later discussions, he was equally blown away to find my primary business is, and always has been, marketing/advertising/promotion. His comment was, "Gee, we thought all you did was write and take pictures."

I was devastated! It showed that what I was seeing in the mirror wasn't at all what other people were seeing. All they were seeing was the higher profile portions of my life, as projected on the pages of a magazine. In truth, they are just as confused about the image in the mirror as I am.

They are confused because they see the energy and passion I direct towards aviation, and they only see me on airports, so they make the logical assumption, that's my life. But, it isn't. It's only a part of it.

Don't we all do the same thing to others? Don't we often know them only on the level where we usually meet them, at the airport? How many of your airport friends can you say you truly know? How many can you say you've held indepth conversations with about anything other than airplanes and other mechanical goodies? Do you actually know what their educational background or work experience is? Do you know where they were born and raised? Do you know if they are happy in their job or if they are having problems finding work? Do you really know anything about them beyond their interest in aviation?

I suppose one of the reasons I'm so hung up on this identity thing is that the recent "recession" has hit so many of us so hard we are looking for work anywhere we can find it. At the same time, we don't make use of our most valuable asset, the people we know. These folks are important because they know us and what we have to offer and you never know who they might stumble across..

When things began to go in the tank for me, I automatically assumed I'd be able to call a few aviation friends who run companies and I'd get some work. Unfortunately, I ran into an absolute brick wall because none of them saw me in that light. They saw me as a writer/photographer trying to change his stripes. They didn't know me as the marketing/advertising type who has been in the business for 20 years and did writing and photography as well.

That's when I knew I should have been talking with these friends on a deeper level starting many years ago. I should have been directing conversations past the cockpit and into real life in an effort to not only let people know who I am, but to find out where their heads are at. I'm just as guilty as they are.

You know you are guilty of limiting your airport conversations, when you run into one of your airport friends someplace other than an airport and can't immediately recall his name. When you meet the guy who's usually flying a Cub in jeans and he's in a $800 suit in a walnut panelled boardroom, you may be taken back a little unless you've talked deeply enough with him that you don't find the situation to be incongruous.

It was with all the forgoing rattling around inside my head that I've been doing some heavy duty soul searching. In fact, I have given serious consideration to dropping magazine writing altogether. Here I am nearly 50 years old (you'll never know how wierd it feels to say that) and people are still openly amazed to find I have a degree in aeronautical engineering and an MBA in marketing. They see some of my marketing/advertising work and they can't believe it's the same person. They say it seems out of character for me. There is something wrong here and it's because of the perceived image which has been generated by over two decades of throwing words and pictures on the pages of magazines.

So, I decided it was past time to up-date the personal image. Maybe it's time to unplug the word processor and get down to some serious, grown-up type work.

But, then, just before Christmas, I got this small package in the mail from a return address I didn't recognize. I opened it while sitting in line at a Burger King drive-in on the way to the airport. By the time I got to the window I had tears in my eyes. The package contained several arrowheads and absolutely the nicest letter I've ever received from anyone on any subject.

When a child, the writer and his granddad had found the arrowheads and, among other things, he felt I should have them. I won't bore you with the contents of the letter but I can say it absolutely helped turn a bad decade around. Now an active sport pilot, he let me know, that what he was seeing in me through my writing included some of the things I hoped people would see. None of those traits are going to help pay the rent, but all of them will help keep my head together which, in turn, will find someway to keep a roof over my family's head. He also made me clearly realize I couldn't stop writing any more than I could voluntarily stop flying. Both are too much a part of the guy in the mirror.

So, to hell with my image. I am what I am.

Anyway, if you see Mr. Potato Head in a Santa Claus flight suit say "hi." Then, ask him what he does, when he isn't looking silly at the airport. The answers may surprise you.