A Be-No from the Boss

I doubt this entry will meet my standard for an Air-Minded post, but it relates to doings at Pima Air and Space Museum, where I work as a volunteer docent, so I’ll see where the subject leads me before deciding whether or not to add “Air-Minded” to the title.

This morning our volunteer coordinator issued an all-hands be-no* on injecting politics and personal opinion into the information we share with museum guests. Guests sometimes leave comment cards. The card that prompted the current flap was titled “Generally informative docents, albeit not shy about sharing their political bias!”

Here’s some of what our guest had to say:

The guide mentioned the excellent film about Hughes made by the brilliant director, Martin Scorsese. He made a point of stating quite boldly that Howard Hughes had been portrayed by “Leonardo Dicrappio.” Seriously? I could not help but feel that this intentional swipe at Mister DiCaprio (who was absolutely brilliant in the film, by the way) had nothing to do with artistic integrity or whether his portrayal was less than stellar. Could it be … something else?

Later, inside, I was riveted by another docent’s account of a “dog fight” over North Vietnam between an F-4 Phantom and a Russian MiG. It was after this the docent (himself a former phantom pilot in Vietnam) weighed in about how “we weren’t able to win the war” because Lyndon Johnson and Defense Secretary Robert McNamara “forced the military to fight with one hand tied behind their back.” Really? That’s an opinion, and one not necessarily shared by everyone, including many historians. … It is quite possible to give the public a very informative oral history of all these amazing machines and the guys tasked to fly them without launching into political pontificating.

When asking for a recommendation of a place to eat the docent (another vet) told us about an excellent Mexican restaurant in town. He happened to mention that “President … ah … Bill Clinton (much obvious distaste mentioning his name, punctuated with eye rolling) had eaten there and that there was something on the wall over the booth he ate at (if we could stand going there presumably, after learning about this fact).

Bottom line: what is going on at Pima? Are docents vetted for their political affiliation and denied the privilege if they are deemed not “Republican enough”? Whatever it is, I wish they would realize they are not doing justice to the valuable collection they are helping their fellow Americans (and foreigners) view and understand. Their pointed and, frankly, ignorant political barbs and jabs are doing more harm than good. They should park their biases at the door and just take pride in showing what can be achieved when people focus on working together to create something that attests to human ingenuity and engineering prowess. We are all Americans. … [if] I had not experienced these unexpected and off-putting remarks, I would have rated this museum higher.

I’m surprised we don’t get more of these. I, for one, quickly learned not to discuss political or current affairs with my fellow volunteers. Many of them are old (older than me, anyway), reactionary, and racist. Most are professional enough to stay on topic when talking aircraft and aviation with guests, but some fall short. Either they can’t help themselves, or they’re unwilling to try.

In past years, the museum ran a monthly volunteer presentation program. Most of our volunteers have professional military and civil aviation backgrounds, and constitute a deep pool of expert knowledge and experience. Opportunities to share that knowledge and experience with museum visitors are scarce. The volunteer presentation program (sadly no longer offered, but maybe it’ll come back) gave us an outlet, allowing us to speak on topics of our choosing before audiences of fellow volunteers, museum staff, and invited outside guests with an interest in aviation.

Six years ago I gave a presentation on the history of the F-15 Eagle and my experiences flying it. On the day of my presentation the auditorium was filled to capacity. One of the older volunteers ran the program, and, as I expected he would, took the stage first to introduce me. What I didn’t expect was the joke he told to warm up the audience.

I don’t remember the details but it was an ugly joke about Jews and money: mean-spirited, unfunny, based on anti-Semitic stereotypes. I was stunned, and had to take a few deep breaths before starting my talk. The joke would have been a career-ender for any military officer or NCO; few politicians, business leaders, or public figures could have survived it. This guy, though, didn’t seem to have a clue how offensive his story was, and as a matter of fact many of the old folks in the audience laughed when he was done. He’s still at the museum today.

At the time I was team leader for the docents who led walking tours of the hangars. Most of my team members were conservative. When I took over I cautioned them not to talk politics in front of guests. That turned out not to be a problem. The problem were their constant digs (unintentional or otherwise) against women. For some reason they thought cracking jokes about female pilots was totally okay. Then, as now, visitors would notice and sometimes leave angry comment cards. I couldn’t believe I had to tell grown men to stop telling jokes like that, but I did.

It goes both ways. As a docent, I see my share of prejudice on the faces of guests taking my tram tours. Of course “both ways” doesn’t extend to me telling guests to knock it off, but I will admit that when I look in the rear-view mirror and see some old white guy (it’s always an old white guy) rolling his eyes or sharing a sneer with his seat-mates when I point out a French or Mexican airplane, I’ll go out of my way to find more French and Mexican planes to show them. And then throw in some Russian and Chinese jets as well.

Ah, well, speaking of French jets, here are some photos of the Dassault Étendard IVM the museum put on display last week. It’s a former French Navy carrier strike fighter, and flew off the Clemenceau or Foch in the 1960s and 70s. I can’t identify which French naval aviation unit used the seahorse insignia on the tail in the last photo (perhaps a reader can help?), but the dragon and spear emblem was used by Flottille 17F.

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Take that, France haters!

*”Be-no” is military shorthand for “There shall be no …” messages from on high.

© 2019, Paul Woodford. All rights reserved.

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