1954. I was 6 years old. The family had just had dinner and was preparing to go out to the drive-in movie. The Buick did not start. To overcome the disappointment of a treat lost, my father went into his den and came out with the next 61 years of my life in a cardboard box.
It was a Revell 5-in-1 giant plastic model box with 5 ship models: the USS MISSOURI, the USS HELENA, the USS SULLIVAN, the USS NAUTILUS, and an unnamed US Elco PT boat. It was a fabulously large kit for the time and I suspect it was not bought for me…but it was the best alternative to the movies that could ever have been devised.
I wasn’t the builder at first – I was the watcher and parts handler. Given that I was 6 and the parts had to be cut from plastic sprue with an Exacto knife I am not surprised. Also I doubt that I would have had the manual dexterity to glue things together at first.
The MISSOURI was first – we built it over a week or so. My father even found a bottle of red paint for the hull under the water line – though the model was wildly inaccurate under there for commercial and military reasons. I don’t think there was any tan on the decks but the funnel tops were black and we did rig up a thread from the correct part of the masts and cut and folded the little paper signal flags that Revell included.
The destroyer was next but there was quite a hiatus in time before we started it – my father’s office work and time out in the field took away a lot of his evenings – but we eventually started and finished it. The disparate scales that Revell kits were made to in those days lead me to an entirely false sense of proportion in the various classes of warship – one that only abated decades later when I collected waterline ships to a common scale.
By No. 3 I was considered ready to try my fingers and he set me going on the USS NAUTILUS – the first US nuclear submarine. The version we got was without any reference to a Regulus missile so it had no bulbous storage tank on the deck. There were few parts – hull sides, diving planes and propellors. I imagine I was able to give the external part of the blue-grey hull quite a pattern of gluey fingerprints by the time it was done, but I loved doing it. And as we went through the other two in time – the cruiser just seemed like an unrewarding battleship to young eyes – I got to do more of the cutting and gluing work.
It set the pattern for my young life – the building of model kits became – if not the most important leisure activity for me – at least the most desirable one if there was no-one to play with. I passed a childhood and youth in circumstances that meant this was the case a lot of the time – we were a family that constantly relocated for work – and making friends was hard. At least I could retreat into books and into plastic model kits. It also trained my eyes and hands in small work and contributed a lot to my ability to function in my first profession – as a dental surgeon.
Note: There were a number of people I trained with who had no small-part manual dexterity when they started their five-year university training. Some of them finished with the same low skill level. Fortunately they then went on to academic work where they were not required to do, but to talk about doing. I kept on doing for 40 years.
The model building was put away during my university career…mostly…but not entirely. And it surfaced afterwards and burgeoned into a number of different areas. More about that in future columns. I know at least two of my readers who will have had similar experiences.