Budd Davisson, Private Pilot, Oct, 2002

Oshkosh Normal

With a half-million people milling around, who defines “normal?”

It was one of those indistinguishable nights at Oshkosh. Was it Tuesday or Wednesday? After a couple of days you can’t tell one from the other. Who cares? The point is, we were once again in a restaurant feeling like unwashed corks floating on a sea of EAA hats, T-shirts with meaningful slogans (“EZ Drivers Do it Tail First”) and sun burned noses.

This particular eatery is cleverly disguised as a hole-in-the-wall, if-we-hide-it-in-a-strip-mall-they-won’t-find-it place favored by the locals. Too late. Not only did we discover it, but so did a sizeable number of other folks from the fly-in. The locals, however, braved the odiferous tide of airshow-goers and came out to their favorite place anyway.

You could identify the natives by several features:
-They weren’t sunburned.
-They were clean and well pressed and didn't have this uncomfortable, I-can-hardly-wait-to-take-a-shower look.
-They didn’t eat dinner while wearing a baseball cap proclaiming allegiance to a particular airplane type.
-Not once during the meal did their hands jump into the air to illustrate a point.
-They didn't order desert. Instead, they just sat around with an amused look on their face while they watched the rest of us act like idiots.

The folks who staff the eateries in Oshkosh-the-town during Oshkosh-the-event are uniformly class acts. The entire food industry in the town must look at that ten-day period as if they are going into combat. The onslaught is merciless in its size although I hope our general sense of humor makes it easier for them. That appears to be the case because in the 35 years I’ve been going to the convention I don’t remember a single incident of a food-person being in anything but good humor.

This particular night, however, I would have thought the situation had reached critical mass because a group had called to reserve space for thirty and showed up with eighty-seven! Eighty-seven! I don’t think I even know eighty-seven people, much less that many who could be expected to agree on where to eat. It turned out it was a soaring group so the birds-of-a-feather thing was at work.

Anyway, a problem arose because a salad bar line eighty-seven people long curls around a restaurant like a post-911 airport security line. We walked in, took one look at the salad bar line and turned to walk out when one of the waitresses saw us (it was our fourth time there during the week) and cornered us. “Oh, don’t worry about the line, we let other customers cut into it.”

The Redhead and I thought that was gracious of them, but it also made us very uncomfortable. My mom always told me to be courteous and go to the end of the line. But, the waitress insisted. So, after we were ensconced in our booth we prepared for taking on the salad bar by stripping ourselves of any outward identification. Off came the Bearhawk baseball cap. My nametag came off. We wiggled out of our Pitts jackets, both of which had our names on them. We were sliding into salad-stealth mode. If we were going to be rude, we at least wanted to be unidentifiable.

The waitress took us by the hand and literally led us up to the line. We didn’t like what we were about to do. After a few words with a couple of guys at the front of the line, she successfully completed the insertion with no incident and we found ourselves holding plates and chatting with the folks around us, all of whom were buzzing about spoilers and water ballast and other soaring stuff.

Seeing our discomfort one young fellow said, “We’re sorry for the line. We sometimes forget how hard it must be for normal people, when the fly-in is in town.”

Our disguise had worked. But maybe a little too well. In his words “…how hard it must be for normal people…” it became evident that we had overshot our mark. We not only passed for locals, but, in his eyes, we also passed for “normal.” I wasn’t sure how to take that. More than that, I thought about how so many of us in aviation see ourselves as part of a community that exists outside that of “normal” people. However, by classifying people outside of aviation as “normal,” we are unintentionally classifying those in aviation as abnormal.

It goes without saying that the definition of “normal” is relative. In fact, it is so obvious that “normal is in the eye of the beholder” that the term really has little meaning. Put it in the context of Oshkosh-the-fly-in, where you have a half million people, all with a common interest, and the on-airport definition of “normal” becomes fairly concrete. The same is true off-airport in Oshkosh-the-town, where they undoubtedly have a firm definition of “normal” but it’s different than ours. For that short ten-day period, however, two “normals” coexist with the most obvious interface happening in the evenings, when we scurry off the airport in search of real (non-airport) food.

As we sat in the restaurant that night, we watched what was obviously a local couple being entertained by the mass of humanity around them. In that instant, it felt as if we were all in some sort of cosmic zoo. There was a subtle wall of transparent bars between the locals and the aviators and, since the situation pitted two definitions of “normal” against one another, it begged the question as to which side of the bars we were on. Every zoo has gawkers and gawkees, but which is which? In this case, since we all had our own definitions of “normal,” both groups thought they were on the outside of the bars looking in.

But, you have to wonder which one was right.