You know what’s a good ice-breaker? In parties, sitting on a park bench, tied to a complete stranger in a hostage situation, you need a question to start up the conversation. Something like, “What’s the weirdest thing that’s ever happened to you?”
Of course, like all conversational opening gambits, you’re really only asking so you can tell your own story. “That’s very interesting,” you say, “but here’s the strangest thing that’s ever happened to me.”
So I used to work with a friend of mine, and then she left Austin to become an incredible photographer in Florida and the business we’d both worked for downsized dramatically (I have no proof the two things are related…but I have no proof that they aren’t) and I stopped being a copy editor and became a marketing writer and (very very) occasional blogger.
Then out of the blue, my friend emailed me to tell me an odd story. Her father was buying a plane from this guy (as you do) and he’d been really impressed with the guy and his life story. Her dad was so taken with the guy (let’s call him “Doug”, as that’s his name) and how he told stories that he made him a deal—he’d pay full price for the plane if Doug agreed to cooperate in a book telling his life story. Because who has never met someone and thought, “I want to commission a book on your life story”? I know it must happen all the time.
They shook on it. Then my friend was called in to write the book.
Although she is a very good writer, she’s busy being an equally good photographer, but she said she knew someone else who might be able to step in.
That would be me.
So, everyone is in Florida except me; I am in Austin, TX, with a full-time writing-for-the-Man, corporate lackey gig. This is not going to be straightforward. Doug seemed unwilling to talk over Skype and I can’t fly down to Florida, even on my new benefactor’s dime, so suddenly the project hits a wall. I start to think this is not going to happen and things go quiet for a time. Then Doug mentions he’s coming to Texas for the U.S. National Aerobatic Championships in September, could we meet up then?
Doug needs somewhere to land his plane, so he finds a tiny airport not too far from me and we arrange for me to pick him up. As I drive out to meet him, driving on the freeway for the first time in over a year, driving on an 80mph toll road for the first time ever, I realize that this will be the first scene of the movie of the book I’m about to write. It’s a classic clash-of-opposites: Me, the English writer, avoider of danger, king of the play-it-safe lifestyle; him, brash US stunt pilot, motorbike racer, daredevil. On my hand is a vivid burn from where I caught myself on our bread-maker. His hands, I would learn, have much bigger scars—from intervening in a disagreement between two guard dogs.
Opposites. Contrasts. The conflicts of two incompatible worlds colliding. The spice of bad road trip movies. It could write itself—but I’d rather someone paid me to do it.
When I meet him, Doug looks like a pretty fit middle-aged man. Baseball cap, light beard, sharp eyes, and those good manners that seem to come naturally to Americans of a certain vintage. His hand shake is firm but not like he feels he has something to prove (I have strong opinions on those men who seem to think that a hand shake is a competition). As I walk him to my car, he’s telling stories. As I drive back home, listening intently to my GPS as I have literally no idea where I am 95% of the time, he’s telling stories. If you’re looking to interview someone for your first book, you want Doug.
At my apartment, I get him a glass of water as he sits at my dining table and suggests we get started. Doug is not a man who puts things off for later. I turn on my voice recorder and say, “Tell me a story, Doug” and he talks almost unbroken for two hours. As I listen, I go from being ambivalent about the idea of being part of a vanity project about a pilot who likes to talk to a convert who needs to write the life story of a remarkable, generous man.
While my voice recorder does the hard work of remembering what’s being said, I’m having grand ideas about writing a true story of an American Dream come true; of chronicling the history of the kind of life that so often goes unrecorded and forgotten; of capturing the experiences of a man who has lived three or four significant lives but will probably never be truly renowned in the way he deserves. But mostly, I want to re-tell his fantastic stories…and not mess them up.
My wife and I take Doug out to dinner then drop him off at his hotel. Nine the next morning, I pick him up. He has of course been up for three hours, working out, walking, sorting out the dramas of some of the pilots competing in the air show. He’s trained three or four of them and obviously cares deeply about how they’re doing.
We get maybe another hour of stories at my dining table before he has to go, and then I take him back to the airport. He introduces me to his plane—a tiny fiberglass tube with a crazy engine—and I take photos and make appreciative noises, all the time hoping he doesn’t ask if I want to sit in the cockpit. Because of course I’d have to, and of course the idea of just sitting in the thing seems terrifying.
Instead, he supervises the re-fueling before going back to the front desk to pay his bill. He returns, beaming. He had bonded with the lady behind the counter when they realized they had friends in common and she’d not charged him for keeping his plane in a hangar overnight.
As he’d told me time and again, the airplane world is a small one. And now, I was part of it. Just a little.
We shook hands and he told me I had to come down to Florida. I guess that’s next year’s summer vacation sorted. “I’ll change how you see the world,” he shouts as he climbs into his cockpit. I guess he means he wants to show me what the world looks like when you’re strapped into a tiny hole in the middle of a missile flying very high and very fast. Probably covered in vomit.
That would make a hell of a story.