SI Vault
J.D. Reed
January 05, 1976
Remember model building? The little ships, the planes that flew? Most boys go through an acute phase—and a lot of adults never get out of it
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January 05, 1976

It's A Small World

Remember model building? The little ships, the planes that flew? Most boys go through an acute phase—and a lot of adults never get out of it

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Cement upper side main wing halves left (20) and right (21) to the upper side of the main wing. If type C version, fix gun covers (30) at points designated by arrows in the illustration. Cement canopy (32), rear mirror (31) and antenna (33) into positions indicated...." My muscles ache from the concentration of fitting small pieces of plastic together. The work is painstaking and maddening. I am 35 years old and spending an evening building a plastic model airplane, in some desperate attempt to recapture my youth. The construction of model planes and ships was an obsessive part of my childhood, and I am attempting to discover what about it was so satisfying—and so necessary.

Memory works on its own principles. In Remembrance of Things Past, Marcel Proust claims that it was madeleines, small, molded cookies, that had brought his memory, the scenes of childhood and adolescence, flooding back into his mind. The mere taste of a cookie and one of the world's great authors was off for 1,000 pages of reminiscence.

That's O.K. if you're French, but the American in search of his past needs something stronger than cookies. For me it is airplane glue. One good whiff of Testor's or DuPont or Ambroid and I'm thrown back into that phantasmagoria called American boyhood, where modeling P-51s and Chris-Craft cruisers was a linchpin of sanity and order in the emotional rumblings of those hormonal, confusing years. The fact that model building is now a sophisticated leisure activity, a booming industry and an organized hobby means nothing to a man deep in the time capsule of memory.

I started building models before Eisenhower had his first heart attack. In the early '50s there were two types of model kits, both of which were difficult to complete, or even to start, for a preteen. There were "realistic" models, mostly of ships, which had balsa-wood hulls and die-cast metal deck fittings. The block of balsa wood had to be carved and sanded until it fit the templates that came in the kits. That was difficult enough for a boy, and by the time one got to the rigging diagrams for the Cutty Sark, a tangle of threads and tweezers and ratlines calling for 300 hours of patient detail work, it was hopeless.

The other, more popular, kits were for the flying model airplanes. Assembled and fitted with tiny gasoline engines, they would scream around your head on wire tethers until you dizzily hoped they would run out of fuel. These were nonrepresentational, for the most part; it was too difficult for companies to produce something that was aerodynamically sound and also looked like a B-17. But no matter how they looked, they were complicated. One built them the way a real airplane was assembled. There were balsa-wood struts to be glued together to form a light, strong frame. This was covered with pieces of bright silk paper, lacquered heavily with "dope," fitted with an engine or a monster rubber band and flown until a puff of wind crashed it into the tree branches.

I would sit for hours over these models, T-pins stuck in my mother's best card table to hold the glued pieces together while they dried, paring away with my X-acto knife at the dotted lines on sheets of balsa wood for more pieces. Each was part of a litany of frustration. More often than not the models were never finished.

Not everyone was defeated by the maddening precision and the demand for endless patience involved in successful model building. Many boys finished these airplanes and flew them Saturdays in the park. They were the kids who would blossom into Eagle Scouts, class presidents and surgeons. The rest of us hacked away and smeared glue, dreaming of better things.

As a kid I hung around my local hobby shop, a dirty, gloomy store full of the raw materials of the hobbyist: plastic "gymp" for braiding whistle lanyards and bracelets, sheets of copper that could be ballpeened into lumpy wall hangings, wallet kits, crystal sets and feathers to make Indian headdresses. At the back of the store were the model kits, sheets of balsa wood, racks of tiny paint jars, fuel cans and a back-room testing stand for the small engines that would belch blue smoke and scream like neurotic bees when started. Pete, the owner, claimed he'd ruined his stomach drinking 25 Cokes a day while refueling bombers in England during the war. Now he built models, dispensed advice and was generally surly to customers who knew nothing about the world of models.

The store did a brisk business in one item other than model kits—Jetex fuse. There was a small "jet" engine for model kits, a metal pod holding a primitive solid fuel that had to be ignited by a special fuse. Jetex fuse was a mainstay of adolescent pranksterism: we'd tape together the cardboard cores of toilet-paper rolls, wrap them in black electrician's tape to resemble dynamite, stick in a Jetex fuse, light it and toss it into the imaginary Deadwood banks of our cowboy games. The fuse burned beautifully and noisily. Then you went KA-ROOM and stormed the safe.

Around 1952 a company called Strombecker put out a kit of a DC-3, the standard passenger plane of the era, in preshaped, machined pine. My ship had come in. The parts were perfectly formed; they just needed a touch of sandpaper to smooth them out. Assembly was relatively easy, a quick job with the aluminum paint, slap on the decals and presto!—something that actually resembled a DC-3! It could sit there on your desk, next to the math homework, and not seem hopelessly amateurish.

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