The People Behind The Plane

photograph and text by Karen Zimmerman

An excerpt from Maine Vanities, a collection of essays about the people and stories behind vanity license plates.

FLY_180
Gary and Maureen Norris

The white Cessna 180 bobs and shifts on the sparkling waters of Moosehead Lake. Gary Norris and his wife Maureen pull their canoe off the pontoons and tie the seaplane up at the dock. The announcer checks their time and broadcasts “Second place.” Maureen yells out a resounding “Yes!” then bounces up and down and jumps into her husband’s arms. It is the Greenville Fly-in, and Gary and Maureen have just finished their run at bush pilot’s canoe race. Energy levels are at a bursting point, and this couple is charged up.

“We live and breathe this weekend,” Maureen says.

“We missed a few years ago. And that was really hard,” Gary adds.

The sweet little plane nestled against the shore did not look so pretty four years ago. It was Gary’s first plane and a childhood dream come true. “I always wanted a plane as a kid, but never in my wildest dreams did I think I would own one.”

The Cessna had been a vivid orange. “We called it the flying pumpkin.” Maureen says, They flew it at the competition in Greenville but in the second year the engine went.

Fifty- two weeks until the next fly-in, and as long as they were putting in a new engine, they figured they might as well do a complete restoration. This may not be logical to everyone, but for Gary and Maureen it was a natural conclusion. “We devoted every weekend and many a week night for a year to this plane” Gary says. “A new engine, and we gutted the inside and stripped the paint.” They had it repainted white. Why white? There is no answer, but white it had to be. Gary owns a flooring business, and all the company trucks are white. His personal vehicle is white, the Toyota Landcruiser they bought to keep at camp on Moosehead is white, and Maureen‘s Denali is white.

Gary is soft-spoken and resolute, Maureen exuberant and sparkling, and together they get things done. People call them Rooster and co-pilot. Maureen is a convert, though. Although her dad was a pilot, planes were simply not her thing. Gary, however, has been obsessed since he could crawl. And it wasn’t just planes, it was seaplanes. “I’d hear one when I was a kid, and run down to the dock to see it come in. A DeHaviland Beaver. What a plane.” Gary has made most of his dreams come true, but has yet to get a DeHaviland. “We keep buying megabucks” Maureen quips, but if the Dehaviland comes into their lives, chances are it will be bought with hard work and total focus. A brief stint with Amway reinforced Gary’s natural tendency to visualization. “See what you want, pin a picture on your refrigerator, and concentrate on getting it. You will.” For Gary this works. “I buy what I can afford” is his philosophy, and if he needs to work more to afford something, that is just the price you pay.

“I dreamed of planes as a kid, but never even thought for a second I might ever sit in one, and owning one? No. Not a possibility. We were poor, our house burned down, and I lived in a tent. Never had running water. When I was twelve I worked on a farm so I could have a little money.”

Gary is pragmatic about a pretty hard childhood. “When I was 14-15-16 I worked at a flooring company, we didn’t have money, I wanted something, I had to earn the money myself.”

But he still dreamed of flying. High school graduation, it was time to decide what to do with his life. Gary joined the army. He had wanted to join the air force, be a pilot. Fly. But his mother, who had not been able to live her own dreams, thought she was giving good advice when she told him not to bother, “Your grades aren’t good enough, forget being a pilot.” she said. Gary did not try. This is a man who sets a goal and then achieves it. But, as a teenager, he did not have the clear vision he has today. “I didn’t even try, and I regret that.” One of Gary’s few regrets.

When Gary got out of the army he came back to Maine, to his family. He worked for the same flooring company he had worked for as a kid. He might still be an installer for this company, but they went out of business. Gary had always worked extra hours, filled in for other installers, did carpet installation on weekends and evenings. “If you put down a yard a day, you got paid for a yard, if you put down fifty, you got paid for fifty.” Hard work, honest work, and it helped Gary turn from a one-man operation to a respected member of the business community. “There are bigger carpet installers out there, but we have a reputation. Even when it was just me, I was there when I said, I charged what I said.” And that has not changed.

Gary is the American Dream before it went haywire. He is living the life he wants, earning the money he needs, and facing every morning knowing he does not owe anyone anything. Most recent dream? A hunting camp in Alaska. He bought one last year, and the first time he was dropped in he spent a week putting on a new roof. “I worked until midnight more than once.” You know he is not exaggerating. And if he does not have an immediate goal he just works and saves. “He’s like a squirrel” Maureen says, “He doesn’t even know where all his nuts are buried.”

But he knows what makes him happy, and that is flying. And working hard. He is flying a 180 today, working hard everyday, and if that Dehaviland Beaver is off the refrigerator door and on the strip it will not be such a surprise.

Excerpt from Maine Vanities, a collection of essays about the people and stories behind vanity license plates. These short portraits capture Maine individuality. There is quirkiness, compassion, and humor. While passions range from skiing to solving Mensa puzzles, and ages from 14 to 91, enthusiasm, curiosity, and delight in sharing the story behind their plate and their bit of Maine is the common thread.