On the ‘Bax’ Foot: A Lifelong Writer Tackles the Spoken Word

Quelling nerves over a rare public speaking engagement sparks memories of legendary FLYING writer Gordon Baxter.

Gordon Baxter loved to fly, but he was probably fortunate to have flown in a time before webcams. [iStock]

It’s a beautifully still Saturday morning in mid-September, with the last wisps of overnight fog gliding along timbered shorelines and curling into the moist air. Dawn and I and our dog Piper are in our Stinson, winging our way northeast across Puget Sound to Skagit Regional Airport (KBVS) in Burlington, Washington. We are making this short flight to attend EAA Chapter 818’s monthly meeting, where I am to be featured speaker. This is only my second public speaking engagement since college, and despite the rather humble occasion, I have a noticeable twinge of nerves. Today I’m making the conscious decision to stretch myself. It helps to remember that some of my favorite writers were also noted speakers, including some who wrote for FLYING.

I’ve subscribed to this venerable periodical since my early teens and read it in the local library for a few years before that. I’d peruse the news and gawp at the air-to-air photos and soak up every word of the articles, but first I’d head straight to the columns, for it was there that my love of aviation and appreciation of good writing were most equally rewarded. My two favorites were Len Morgan’s “Vectors” and Gordon Baxter’s “Bax Seat.” Morgan was everything I wanted to be, with the fortune of having been born in a more interesting age. There was such grace and poignancy to his writing, infused with the wisdom of a long life well lived, and a little sadness as well, for his more interesting age was one in which an aviator regularly lost compatriots he called friends.

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But my favorite personality in the old FLYING was Gordon Baxter. “Bax” wasn’t so much a pilot as he was a character, and he was very upfront about that. His columns were full of his foibles and inadequacies as an aviator, as well as various hijinks that made me wonder how he ever evaded the steely gaze of the FAA and various designated examiners. (Martha Lunken is his spiritual—and literal—successor. Somewhere Bax is looking down—or up—and thanking the controlling deity that he predated webcams.)

By the time I started reading him, Bax had grounded himself because of recurring seizures and only occasionally took flight with other pilots. But, in his own exaggeratedly down-home Texas fashion, Bax was able to convey, in a way few others could, everything that people like you and I find wonderful, magical, and captivating about flight, airplanes, and aviators.

I think the other reason I liked Bax was that he so clearly had the gift of gab, something I decidedly lacked at that self-conscious age. Long before he wrote for FLYING (and Car and Driver), and even before he started writing for local newspapers, Bax was a well-known radio personality in Southeast Texas, famous since 1945 for his madcap style and on-air antics. He frequently moved stations, being fired each time “for the same reason they hired me. I’m Gordon Baxter, and there’s no cure for that.” Later he spent a fair amount of time on the speaking circuit, and he wrote about that too. He drove around the South to spin a couple hours of folksy humor to perfect strangers eating rubber chicken—they loving him, and he loving them right back. As a bookish, introverted teenager with a slight speech impediment, that sort of easy volubility awed me, and I was a bit jealous of it. Still am.

I’ve loved words from an early age, but for me they were things to be considered and weighed, massaged and delivered to the world in my own good time. By my teens I knew my strengths and weaknesses fairly well, and I counted writing among the former and speaking as one of the latter. Like most people, I’ve always tried to lead publicly with my strengths while privately working on my shortcomings. These included my lack of ability in practical matters (so I worked on my own vehicles, cruised aboard and maintained Windbird, and built our hangar-apartment) and my natural aversion to pain, discomfort, and risk (so I ski, motorcycle, dirt-bike, and

[Public domain image]

skydive). In my late teens, I made a conscious effort to come out of my shell and talk to people even when it was uncomfortable, and as I’ve aged, I’ve become increasingly extroverted and comfortable in my own skin. Dawn scoffs when I describe myself as an introvert, noting with some exasperation that “you’ll talk till the cows come home!” She’s not wrong. It helps that I’ve accumulated a pretty good cache of funny and/or interesting stories (some of them even true!) as I’ve traveled the world and embarked on various adventures. I love hearing a good story, and I enjoy telling one.

That said, I haven’t gone out of my way to seek out public speaking opportunities. The only one I’ve accepted until now, at the abortive ModAero aviation/music festival, ended up being somewhat disastrous, insomuch as I poured myself into preparation for a presentation that ended up being attended by all of four people (Taking Wing, June 2016). More recently, my videos for FLYING’s V1 Rotate web series have forced me, for the first time, to really hone my delivery. Seeing yourself in high-definition video is the most brutally honest form of feedback you’ll ever get. Making the videos has improved my pacing and rhythm of my intonations, cleaned up my enunciation, made me more conscious of my posture and facial expressions, and prompted me to become more liberal with gestures. It has actually changed my speaking to more closely mirror my writing. Fortunately, I’m usually filming myself and have the luxury of virtually unlimited takes—because a lot of takes have sometimes been required to get it right!

So when Larry Buerk from EAA Chapter 818 emailed me with an invitation to speak at its meeting, I decided the time was right to take the leap. As a longtime EAA member (and a product of the Young Eagles program), these are folks I’m comfortable around. It’s about as low stress of an environment as I could wish for my debut. Indeed, once we land at Skagit, head inside the terminal, and start meeting folks, the nerves mostly subside. After an hour of chapter business and another guest, it’s my turn to speak. I cue up the accompanying photo presentation and begin my lecture on “Creating an Aviation Homestead in the Pacific Northwest.”

Buerk films the entire thing for the chapter’s YouTube channel, where you can find it if you’re so inclined. I’m pretty stiff at the beginning, hands drawn toward the lectern and eyes toward my laptop screen. As the presentation proceeds, though, my body language opens up considerably. I do a better job of maintaining eye contact and using gestures. The audience of 25 or 30 is agreeably engaged, laughing at my jokes and periodically interjecting pertinent remarks and questions. The interruptions to rehearsed flow actually help me loosen up. I speak extemporaneously at some length in response to questions. The members give me a nice round of applause afterward and stick around to chat and give Piper a scratch behind the ears. It’s a really nice experience.

Does my humble little presentation for a local EAA chapter mark the launch of a second (ahem, third or fourth) career touring the rubber-chicken speaking circuit, like our ole pal Bax? Probably not! That said, having faced a lifelong bugaboo and coming away without embarrassing myself and even enjoying the experience, I do think I’d like to stretch myself with a few more speaking gigs and see if I can’t get better with a bit more practice. If you’re desperate and need a freebie speaker to fill time at your EAA chapter, flying club, or airport association meeting, well, I’m a sucker for all those types of events and can probably be talked into all sorts of foolishness. Drop me a line and lure me in. I’m particularly susceptible to hints about rides in cool, old airplanes.

This column first appeared in the December 2023/Issue 944 of FLYING’s print edition.

Sam Weigel has been an airplane nut since an early age, and when he's not flying the Boeing 737 for work, he enjoys going low and slow in vintage taildraggers. He and his wife live west of Seattle, where they are building an aviation homestead on a private 2,400-foot grass airstrip.

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