It wasn't long before styrene became popular in models. Soon Revell, Monogram, Aurora and other U.S. model companies were producing all-plastic kits. Ships, tanks, planes and cars came out with dizzying speed.
These injection-molded, polystyrene models were real. Not realistic. You could see the rivets in the armor plate, the planking on the deck. And you didn't have to be Michelangelo standing before your blank cube of balsa wood to create something passable. There were no gasoline engines to slice your fingers, no careful cutting and sanding, no books on aerodynamics involved. Any fool with a tube of cement, some rubber bands and moderate patience could build a P-51 Mustang fighter.
We learned, however, that the plastic models contained their own riddles. Unlike the traditional, funky, tart-smelling glue used on wooden models, the cement for styrene was deadly. Not the sniffing of it—that was for the next generation of pubescent thrill seekers—but its effect on plastic. Model kits then, as today, came with the ship's hull or plane's fuselage in halves. Pegs and holes guided the pieces together, and if the kit wasn't warped, and if you were lucky, they fitted. You smeared glue "sparingly" on the surfaces, as the directions cautioned, and slapped the halves together. Then the glue oozed out onto the surface of the model, ruining it.
Another problem, and one of the more intense, was painting. Plastic models are very smooth and the enamel very runny. With masking tape and careful brush strokes it was almost possible to get a crisp, accurate waterline on a ship model, the rust red meeting the battleship gray in some semblance of order. But when one peeled off the masking tape there would invariably be revealed one place where the tape had bubbled, and the model would look as if a tiny sailor hanging over the side with a gray paintbrush had fallen from the scaffolding, dragging his brush all the way down. Painting propeller tips, miniature wheels or hairlines on tiny pilots was agony. I remember once painting the boots of a jeep driver and noticing a strange taste in my mouth. It was blood. In adolescent concentration, I had bitten my tongue.
When models were truly too far gone with weird tumors of glue, FBI-quality thumbprints on the bombardier's canopy and the decals upside down, we would gather in a vacant lot with our rejects, pump the cockpits full of glue, set the planes afire and hurl them through the air, yelling "GAAAHH! ARRRGH!" as imaginary burning air crews bailed out over the Channel. We stood in the thick, black smoke of the fuming plastic—small warriors who had survived a ditching at sea or were ready to fight our way out of the Burma jungles.
The secret of models then was imagination, and the keys to imagination were the clear plastic parts: canopies, portholes, windshields. That is where the men would be: the P-38 pilot under his canopy, the captain of the U.S.S. Enterprise behind the porthole. These windows were the two-way mirrors of modeling. The thrill was to imagine oneself at the controls. It was you on the bridge, feeling the carrier pitch; you pressed back in the seat as the Mustang lifted from the runway. No matter how often a boy stared at his models, the pure, acetylene fantasy was that the canopy was no longer a tiny piece of styrene but WW II Perspex, and he looked out not at the banal tranquillity of a boy's room on a spring evening but at the night sky, alive with flak, over Berlin, or at the moonlight shimmering on Leyte Gulf. "That's Admiral Tommy Schoolbooks to you, sailor. Carry on."
The good models that we built gathered dust on the shelves next to high school textbooks when they accumulated. The kits filled the gap between Ivanhoe and television. The little vehicles were the steeds on which we tilted at Tojo, Hitler and Mussolini. They were instruments that allowed us to play out the fantasies of the Korean War. They mattered deeply.
And then came girls. And a driver's license. And the models went to the attic. Our lives had become full-scale, and miniaturization was a childish compulsion.
I had forgotten models for 15 years, until, one day recently, while cruising the local discount department store, scouting bargains on Phillips head screws, caramel corn and sailboats, I stopped at the kits counter and impulsively bought a couple. It was a deviously nostalgic thing to do, like disguising one's Buddy Holly records in Rolling Stones' jackets. I pretended to the check-out girl that I had a 12-year-old son (actually a 4-year-old daughter), and that old dad was going to show him the ropes of modeling. She studied my check extra hard and snapped her gum in Morse code.
The models in the store were of a wider variety than I remembered. There were the standard Visible Man kits, with little organs and structures to paint. And skulls that glow in the dark. But there were new ones, also, of the Star Trek crew and Planet of the Apes personnel and tableau models entitled "Giant Tarantula Eats City," "Pterodactyls Battle To Death!" These were a bit kinky for my pedestrian tastes, so I started off with a modest snap-together kit that required no glue and contained only 10 to 15 parts. It was called "Cro-Magnon Woman (Homo sapiens)." The box art, always half the kick in modeling, showed a woman dressed in a revealing mastodon skin throwing up her arms in terror at a fanged, two-headed snake in a dead tree. She was very smooth for a Cro-Magnon woman, and rather resembled Veronica of Archie comics. In the background shaggy men hunched in a cave mouth gnawing raw meat and whacking the earth with clubs, apparently out of boredom. A volcano erupted in the distance, and two dinosaurs bled in combat.