The kit also contained a brochure entitled Tips on Building Dioramas. What I at first mistook to be a photograph of an operational P-61 turned out to be a diorama. It was so realistic it made the model spaceships in the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey seem like clumsy toys.
The scene represented was "an olive drab and gray P-61 of the 6th Night Fighter Squadron operating off Saipan in October 1944." Was that the 11th or 12th? Nothing could surprise me now, I thought. The diorama was on a plywood base about 20 inches square. The plane was stripped down for service and repair. The leading edges of the wings were almost bare of paint, the steel showing through where the coral sand from the prop wash had scoured the surface. The upper surfaces of the plane were bleached from the Pacific sun, exhaust ducts made dirty smears on the engines, oil spills stained the sand. There were lifelike palm trees, a disassembled propeller lying on a tarpaulin, drums of fuel, an engine hanging from a portable block hoist, a table set up of planks on fuel drums, where machine guns were being cleaned with tools no bigger than an eyelash.
And, of course, there were men. Perhaps three inches tall, the crew was actually working on the plane. This had gone beyond "lifelike" or "gee, isn't that neat?" This was the stuff of nightmares—miniaturized history. A static world war on a piece of plywood. One sunburned crewman lifted a machine gun onto the oil-stained table and, if you looked very closely, you could see that he had a five o'clock shadow. ("Better shave that, soldier.") And if you looked even more closely, the guy was wearing a prewar Chicago Cubs baseball cap! I locked the doors and wondered if the guy was still alive, a car salesman somewhere in Peoria or Cicero. Did he know that a tiny piece of styrene had been molded and painted and "superdetailed" (the brochure's word) into a miniature likeness of himself?
The brochure was full of tips on building dioramas. You use Liquitex gray acrylic paint in a glue plunger to make separational lines in the concrete runway, for instance. In the wet sand and pebbles of the turf, underlaid with Cell-u-clay, you make footprints and tire tracks and use unraveled hemp rope colored with green food dye for grass. You make camouflage nets from cheesecloth, tarpaulins from wet facial tissue painted with thinned white glue. Bullet and shell holes are done with the tip of a hot knife—although why not build tiny guns and bullets and do it for real?
There were many cautions for the burgeoning dioramist "Tanks get filthy, airplanes merely dirty." Figures of men required that the modeler become a tiny Dr. Frankenstein: "...figures could be cut apart at the waist and swapped. The same could be done with arms, legs and heads." All this surgery was to get certain poses out of the small figures. Dioramists borrow parts from other model kits, use HO scale railroad model equipment and build ammo boxes, water cans and fire extinguishers from bits of sheet plastic, cardboard and that now ancient standby—balsa wood.
This kind of modeling resembled what I had done as a boy as much as a 1950 professional football team resembled the contestants in last year's Super Bowl. How could one be sure it was still a hobby and not the life work of a sect of particularly tiny monks somewhere on a mountain-top? To check out the state of the pastime—or religion or art—that modeling had become, I visited one of the new, hardcore modeling stores. Called the Squadron Shop, the establishment in Syosset, N.Y. bore little resemblance to the hobby huts of my boyhood. The place was new, clean, well lit and was floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall models. It was a Saturday morning and model builders had gathered to drink free coffee, show off their latest productions and talk shop.
They were not kids. Mostly men in their 30s and 40s, they spanned the spectrum of the middle class. There would be no way for a policeman to tell, if one of these guys were captured on the street, that he'd just painted a German Heinkel bomber. Normal-looking grown men, they walked around the shop, delicately holding small ships and tanks and planes, browsing through the racks of models and paraphernalia and tools.
And there was enough to browse through—1,000 models on the racks. All of them plastic, all of them static, non-flying, non-operating kits. There was not a gasoline engine to be seen, and no "hobby" stuff, either. This was rolled-up-sleeves modeling.
The kits ranged in size from a 1/72 scale B-52 with a wingspan of 30 inches to a 1/72 scale T-34 Russian tank, 2� inches long. Ninety percent were military vehicles, most of WW II vintage. But the standard, mass-produced kits were only a part of the whole scene. There were many to help the dioramist convert his $1.98 kit into a 2,000-hour project. Kits with titles like: Two Cottages Reduced to Ruins, Jerry Cans & Oil Drums, 1936-45. Barbed & Concertina Wire.
Model paints had bloomed into an extravaganza of military earth hues, arranged not by color but by nation, war and theater of operation: "Khaki, British, North Africa, 1940." There were thick volumes of decal sheets in a variety of scales and "conversion kits" of inexpensive vacuum-formed plastic parts to transform the MIG-19A to a "B" version. There were drills from Sweden, two-hair brushes to paint the five o'clock shadows on tiny sergeants, odd files for small places and a substantial library of periodicals and books covering everything from German paratrooper camouflage patterns in Holland, 1943, to the hues of hat plumage on Napoleonic uniforms.