This is one of my favorite photographs, taken on one of my funnest trips and at the time it was taken little did I know it would become the catalyst for one of my life’s most illuminating experiences.
From this photograph I learned what it feels like to be on the receiving end of the hatred and hideousness that is racism.
See, I became friends with William on this trip. He’s the man in the burgundy shirt. He is a wonderfully kind and incredibly smart man I met in a taxi cab ride from Appleton to Oshkosh, Wisconsin. I was on my way to my first ever AirVenture. William, also a pilot and an aircraft builder and owner, was attending his 20th. EAA’s AirVenture, tagged as the World’s Greatest Aviation Celebration, is a big deal in the pilot world. Not only was I thrilled I was going, but I was beyond excited because I was there to receive a National award for the work I had done for my local EAA chapter.
I told William this and as a former EAA chapter President, taken by my enthusiasm, he offered to show me around during my three-day stay. I jumped at the opportunity. This photo was taken that first night we met. It was taken by one of the guys who works for Van’s Aircraft. Among the many people William knew was the whole crew at Van’s.
You have to understand Van’s Aircraft is very significant to me. It plays a big part in why I am a pilot today. The man who inspired me to learn to fly built a Van’s aircraft and I was there to watch him build it. Heck, I even bucked rivets and ordered parts for the airplane. And three years later, when the airplane was finished, I got to fly in it.
I decided then, because of that experience, I was going to learn to fly airplanes.
So there I was, five years after I declared I would be a pilot, and not only was I a pilot, but I was at the mecca of aviation, and within two hours of arriving in Oshkosh, my new taxi cab friend introduced me to Van “The Man” VanGrunsven.
Of all the aircraft designers in all the world I met Richard VanGrunsven. The man who designed the airplane that led me to become a pilot. One of the most influential and renowned people in recent general aviation history. The man whose homebuilt aircraft designs, according to Wikipedia, annually exceed the combined production of all commercial general aviation companies in North America.
And I was hanging out with him! And I had my photo taken with him and I was so excited to share this with my chapter, thinking that my fellow members, many of whom were building Van’s aircraft would think it was pretty cool I met Van.
So when I got back home I wrote a story about all my experiences as a thank you to my chapter for the trip, and for the lead photo, of the dozens of photos I shared, I used the image of Van, William and me. And instead of enthusiasm for having such a tremendous experience, I got a phone call from my chapter President and was told,
“The Chapter paid to send you to Oshkosh and you repay us, here in the south, by putting in our publication a photo of you with a black man.”
And in one single sentence I learned what I thought this group of pilots would appreciate, they didn’t. It didn’t matter that William was kind, and took his time to open doors for me I would not have been able to open for myself. It didn’t matter that he introduced me to an aviation legend. No. They never even saw those things. What mattered to them was only one very simple, very vivid, thoroughly blinding detail. All that mattered to them was the color of his skin.
For more Illumination check out Weekly Photo Challenge here.