And if one tired of models, there were war games. Not only the usual "Battle of the Bulge" and " Gettysburg" variety, but also "Year of the Rat—Vietnam, Spring, 1972" and "Sinai—The 1956, '67 and '73 Desert Wars." Three wars for the price of one, though brief. There were games based on battles so obscure they have already slipped through the fingers of history.
As I pondered a kit containing "figures running, Korea," a stalwart, clean-cut man asked the cashier, "Where's the latrine?" The military ambience of the place was overpowering. When I was a boy, most models had been of military subjects. But whereas we were boys looking for heroic vehicles some five years after a major war, these were grown men, most of them in their middle 30s—too young by any standards to have been in WW II—walking around 30 years after the fact in a shop that contained more technical information and outdated strategic secrets than the Department of War in 1944.
Bruce Culver is 34, a medical illustrator at a Brooklyn hospital. By day Bruce is a mild-mannered member of the white-collar army of commuters, but on evenings and weekends he becomes a technical expert on the engineering and performance of German armor, 1936-45. He knows everything about Dr. Porsche, creator of the dreaded Panzer tank—and the prototypical Volkswagen—and can tell you things about the subject Hitler didn't know. Bruce got into modeling seven years ago, and it became more than a hobby. "Serious modeling, the super-detailing and diorama stuff, got going about 1968," he says. "It made the slapping together of pieces of plastic into an art form and attracted a lot of older guys. But what it has really done is bring back a concern for history. The WW II vets are aging now, and they remember only the mellow experiences, the camaraderie of the war. It's been up to modelers to preserve the accuracy of the whole period, both human and mechanistic."
In addition to modeling, Bruce writes reviews in a variety of modeling magazines for a growing readership of enthusiasts, and even researches armored vehicles for model manufacturers for a healthy commission. He explains some of the psychological reasons behind superrealism in model building: "You can take a Tamiya kit of a Sherman tank, for instance, paint it painstakingly, and have a very nice-looking model. I can enjoy looking at a model like that. It takes a few years to do it well, and then you're bored. You're like a robot. A new kit comes out, they plug you in and you build it.
"The fascinating part is history. You know, most schools stop teaching it at WW I. Most kids don't know anything about WW II. A Jewish kid in our neighborhood asked me if Hitler was a good guy or a bad guy. Modelers fill the gap.
"Take that Sherman tank. In action in the war it would be covered with dirt and caked mud, dented by small-arms fire, a fender ripped off against a tree, a missing machine gun. Maybe a replacement black-out lamp would be a darker green than the weathered hull of the tank.
"And the figures. A German tank crewman fighting in North Africa, for instance. His shirt would be bleached out more than his shorts from repeated washings, he might be carrying a British pistol from the Battle of Tobruk. Would he wear the Iron Cross? Dioramas are where it's at for the serious guys. Because you've got to be accurate. I'm building a Sherman tank now. On my vacation I'll go to the National Archives in Washington. I'll probably spend a week hunting down the training and operational manuals of the version of the Sherman I'm building. I want to reconstruct the complete interior. Also, I'll go to the war museum at Aberdeen, to look at actual Shermans. I'll take measurements and 200 or so photos. I've done it before."
If it is difficult to imagine a grown man hunting through the National Archives for a photo of a tank dashboard to put into a two-inch model, it is even more difficult to imagine what the modelers imagine. There is a fictional modeler, one Bruce Beamish, who is reputed to have obtained spectrographical analyses of German paint for his models.
The kit manufacturers cannot keep up with the accuracy demanded by their customers, and modelers wish they would not try. Enthusiasts actually want less detail in kits, because it gives them a special edge to make up from scratch the superdetails. But the hardcore guys do want basic accuracy. "Some companies, many of the Japanese ones, take measurements from American tanks and planes that are in Japan, those that were left after the occupation, or were captured during the war," says Bruce. "Many are damaged, so that when they photograph and measure, it's not a representative vehicle they're working from. Often they'll put antennae on the wrong side, or use an ambulance interior for a three-quarter-ton truck."
Bruce is asked by another modeler in the Squadron Shop how to get a realistic rust effect on tank treads. He patiently explains that operational tanks didn't have rust on the treads, that in fact it was a court-martial offense in the German army to let the treads rust. But the modeler won't be put off. "I'm doing a model of a Panzer in Dresden two months after the war is over," he says. "Now how do I mix the paint for rust?"