Plimpton No More (or at Least Not Much)

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It has been said of me that what I do is similar to what George Plimpton did in the late 1950s and early 1960s.  Plimpton pitched against the National League in 1958 and captured the experience in his book, Out of My League.  He also went three rounds with boxing greats Archie Moore and Sugar Ray Robinson in while on assignment for Sports Illustrated.  In 1963, he went to the Detroit Lions’ training camp as a rookie quarterback and captured the experience for Sports Illustrated and in his book, Paper Lion.  Paper Lion was made into a film in 1968 starring Alan Alda and Alex Karras.  And, not least, Jonathan Coulton wrote an ode to Plimpton called A Talk with George.

I finally sat down and watched Paper Lion last week.  It’s very much a film of its time, as evidenced by the soundtrack and the pacing.  It lives in the same space as The Paper Chase and similar films.

But what really struck me was a a short scene about halfway through.  Plimpton (Alda) is reacting to a prank played on him in the dorms by his teammates, who have discovered who Plimpton is and what he’d doing at camp.  He’s talking to Alex Karras (playing himself) when John Gordy, an offensive guard, (playing himself) steps into the doorway.  Gordy tells Plimpton that he respects what Plimpton is doing, but that Gordy is unwilling to play for him.  Gordy explains that this is all well and good for Plimpton as a poser who’s going to write about the experience.  But this is Gordy’s profession and he doesn’t want to get hurt if George screws up the offense.  “Ligaments don’t heal. George.”

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Up until the airshow season last year, I was Plimpton-y at best.  The guy in the back seat with pretty strict instructions not to touch the controls.  Or the guy flying upside down in competition, but at altitude and under fairly closely-controlled circumstances.

That all evaporated quickly when I started flying airshows as part of a team.  Nobody stopped in my doorway and gave me a John Gordy talk.  But nobody needed to.  I fly very close to other aircraft.  I fly in waivered airspace as close as 500 feet from tens of thousands of people.  The guys flying the other aircraft, the air boss, and the crowd all depend on me to be where I’m supposed to be and have amble supplies of altitude, airspeed, and ideas at all times.  There really are no half-measure here.  You’re either an airshow pilot or you’re not.

I had never seen the John Gordy speech before this past week.  But it immediately hit home.  I heard Gordy’s words loud and clear.  There’s no room for Plimpton in the box.  If you want to really dig in and have these experiences, it’s fine to have them and tell the story.  But you’d better be capable of actually playing the game and playing it well.

I still take the “George Plimpton of aviation” characterization as a compliment.  In many ways, I admire Plimpton’s life and aspire to a part of what he did.  But it’s both inspiring and sobering to realize that there are some things that require that one move past even Plimpton.