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In his office at the back of the store, owner Terry Mulqueen, a soft-spoken, 34-year-old Anglo-Irishman from London, loads a pipe and stays clear of these intense discussions. He stoically reflects on modeling and its enthusiasts from the vantage point of eight years in the business. "It's a good hobby," he says, "and it takes such a number of hours to assemble and paint one kit the way serious guys go at it now, with body filler and airbrush, that it is inexpensive. It might take an adult modeler several months to assemble, modify and paint one kit. The dioramists work several months on a $2.89 kit.
"If you wanted to start out today with every conceivable tool for the job—an airbrush with compressor, electric drills and jeweler's tools—it would only cost $120. That's less than you pay for golf clubs, and you don't have to tip a caddie or join a country club, either. All you need is a table in the basement, a good lamp and you're in business."
Mulqueen estimates that there are tens of millions of model kits produced in the U.S., Japan, Britain, France, Germany and Italy. His own store on Long Island sells more than 20,000 kits a year, but Mulqueen was startled by one recent industry statistic. "We found that only about 70% of the kits sold were ever assembled. I guess it's because many kits are bought as gifts, and kids buy kits that are over their heads."
A further reason for the unfinished 30% is that modeling has become such an industry, and such a nostalgic pastime, that there are obsessive kit collectors who buy and save them to sell or trade later, like baseball cards. "We have many customers who buy up each new model as it comes out," marvels Mulqueen, "and maybe that's the best thing to do, financially. An old Strombecker DC-3 in the original box brings $20 at a modelers' convention.
"Over half my customers are past 28," he says. "It really matters to a lot of guys; outside their jobs, it's their whole life." (At least one enthusiast has managed to avoid the 9-to-5 drill altogether. Most of the models on these pages were done by Sheperd Paine, a professional free-lance miniature artist who is also co-owner of the company that produces the single figures shown.) Mulqueen thinks that the whole WW II thrust of modeling is explainable in non-military terms. "After WW II the vets were looking for models to commemorate their ship or plane or truck or whatever, and it was they who created the demand. The kits were flowing then. And WW II was the last clear-cut war in terms of right and wrong. Korea and Vietnam are still emotional events, so the younger adults stuck with WW II. Now it's an exercise in pure history for these guys."
There are models from later wars. Among those from Vietnam are helicopters, riverboats and planes, but as Bruce Culver points out, "In WW II a vehicle was an honest, efficient piece of equipment. Then, a bomber like the B-29 that dropped the A-bomb needed the right weather, needed to see the target. Now there are heat-seeking missiles fired from miles away, a bomber costs $14 million and has a number, not a personal name like Enola Cay. The personality, the individuality is gone, and war has become another aspect of computerized gaming. Who wants to model that?"
And how will modelers handle the events of the '60s and '70s? Will there be tiny dioramas of Nixon helicoptering from the White House lawn, with modelers arguing over the shoulder-braid color of the Marine guard? Will there be a miniature Lee Harvey Oswald in a miniature Texas Book Depository? Our wars have shifted to the streets and the Supreme Court and finally to economic graphs of unemployment. Maybe a diorama of a city in default?
The untried men who command their in and out baskets each day at the office drive home through traffic jams, eat supper and rush to the basement to command the 8th Air Force. They were never heroes. The most heroic thing left for the majority of us to do is dispute the electric bill.
But down there on the workbench we can become Rommel, Patton, Eisenhower in 1/72 scale. We can get all of Omaha Beach on the Ping-Pong table, all of the Pacific theater in the bathtub. Frustrated imagination and a hazy history move together like two halves of a fuselage to be glued. And perhaps we need such pastimes. If we accept the fact that it's all right for a kid to think he's a Yank in the R.A.F., it may well be that it is just as important when we're 34 or 54. Maybe it will hold us together.
And speaking of adhesion, glue has also changed. It's now called Permabond, an offshoot of a powerful surgical adhesive. You dry-fit the parts of a model together, use one drop of the stuff every inch or so and, by capillary action, it runs in the cracks, permanently cementing the pieces in 10 seconds, with nothing showing. Like nostalgia, it's dangerous, and must be handled with care, DANGER! warns the label. CAN CAUSE SEVERE EYE INJURY. INSTANTLY BONDS SKIN. And memories, too.