By Jim Cunningham, EAA 594611
For one glorious moment, my 2010 Toyota Corolla was the star attraction on EAA’s famed Boeing Plaza. The space that has showcased aircraft such as the Voyager, SpaceShipOne, and White Knight; an Airbus 380; and many more briefly featured my 7-year-old slightly worn and scratched personal car. I have photos to prove it. It was an event that only true EAAers would appreciate, and it happened because I volunteered for a work weekend.
Volunteers are the lifeblood of EAA. The organization could not exist without them. Thousands of volunteers make EAA AirVenture Oshkosh possible every year, and some of them start their work months in advance of the event. The massive convention site needs a lot of work to be ready for 500,000 guests — all of the dozens of buildings scattered across it require maintenance, grass needs to be cut, picnic tables built, benches distributed, pontoon boats removed from Theater in the Woods (I’m not kidding), signs made and placed — the end is listless, as they say.
The Vintage Aircraft Association has several work party weekends to get ready for the big week. I decided to sign up for one. Part of me was intimidated, as I didn’t know any of the people involved other than saying hello to some of them every year in July. While I had an idea of what I’d be working on, I didn’t quite know what to expect.
I showed up on the convention site as scheduled on a beautiful but cool April morning. If you’ve never been to the convention site except for, well, the convention, it’s a very different place the rest of the year. The grounds are quiet and deserted, like an unoccupied city (which it is). The soul of the place is missing.
It is, on the other hand, a much easier space to traverse with no people, golf carts, or trams buzzing about. Parking is much better, too; after checking in at Exhibit Hangar B where piles of lumber were waiting to be transformed into a new building, I drove over and pulled up right in front of the VAA hangar where I’d be working. Inside were 90-plus boxes of several thousand donated books and periodicals for the VAA bookstore. As a librarian I got to be the point person for the unpacking, categorizing, sorting, and pricing operation. Fortunately, I had help! Fellow volunteers Amy, Mary, and Sandy leapt into action. We developed workflows and procedures as we went and got to work quickly. At noon we put down our pencils and joined the other 30 volunteers for a lunch of genuine Wisconsin brats that EAA prepared for us. Lunch also gave us a chance to get to know our fellow volunteers who were all working on different projects. As with most gatherings of aviation enthusiasts, the conversation was passionate, sometimes loud, filled with laughter, and peppered with the occasional sarcastic insult.
After lunch, we were back at it, finally calling it a day at about 5:30 after hardly putting a dent in all the work to do (or so it seemed). Dinner was served and consumed with much merriment. You might think a group like this would be the type to stay up and party, but the fact was that we’d all worked hard and were dead tired. EAA has a number of accommodations for volunteers; our group was given the “Jeppesen House” near the south end of Camp Scholler. The rooms in the vintage house — complete with wood paneling — were simple but clean and comfortable. We crawled into bed around 9 p.m.
The next morning (Saturday) we all got back to work early. The numbers of volunteers swelled as more people arrived. Those of us working with the book donations continued to identify and process materials as fast as we could. Another break for lunch, and more new friends to meet. More sorting and pricing and then dinner. Another early night, and when Sunday dawned everyone packed up their things at the house. Many had to head for home; hearty handshakes and smiles were exchanged, and everyone felt pride at how much work we accomplished and the satisfaction of helping to give back to an organization that means so much to us.
I headed back to the VAA hangar one last time to see how much more material I could get through before I had to get started on my five-hour drive home. I put in earbuds and cranked up the soundtrack to Living in the Age of Airplanes to drown out the airplanes (irony) I kept looking up at shooting landings on Runway 36 outside the door. In the end, we got about halfway through all the donated items. As I left the hangar I had an idea and drove over to Boeing Plaza. I parked my car and snapped a couple of photos, wondering if anyone in the control tower was looking down in amusement or possibly questioning my sanity. I took a few minutes to look around the empty concrete that will be filled with airplanes and thousands of people in three months. For the moment, there was only complete silence.
When I entered Hangar B to check out, I was astounded at what I found there: A small wooden building, virtually complete, made from the piles of stuff I had seen just two days prior. All it needs are some finishing touches, paint, and electrics, and it’ll be ready to go as the new VAA charging station when it’s placed outside the Red Barn. I was impressed at the amount of work done in such a short period of time by a group of people who had probably never worked together, but I shouldn’t have been. The “can-do” spirit of EAAers is the not so secret ingredient in all the remarkable things that we accomplish.
I’m looking forward to the next work party in May and seeing my new friends again. There’s still a lot of work to do. Some of the book donations are truly amazing and will be sold separately in a silent auction. As a librarian and aviation collector I’d love to buy it all and bring it home — if I had room for it. July will be your big chance to stop in at the VAA bookstore by the beacon and get some great aviation reads. I’ll see you there.
Better yet — join us at the next work party or any of the other EAA work weekends. All you have to do is sign up and get to Oshkosh, EAA will take care of the rest. Learn more about work weekends here. You’ll enjoy yourself, make new friends, and gain a lot of satisfaction contributing to the success of AirVenture and EAA. And maybe get a picture of your car parked on Boeing Plaza.
Photos by Jim Cunningham, Connor Madison and Erin Brueggen