Here's another one, written for the December 2003 newsletter. A little more autobiographical than the last one.
THE CHRISTMAS I BECAME A MODEL CAR NUT
“No more ball” I said to my beagle, Toes, aptly named after her four white feet, as she whined for me to toss the yellow tennis ball again. I tossed it again and it lobbed into my mother’s bedroom, hit the dresser and rolled gently under her bed. Toes barked and tried to shove her stumpy little body under to get the ball, just missing it. With a sigh I got up from the design job I was working on in my old room while visiting my mother. I had to get it and end the barking that makes most people who’ve been around beagles crazy. Lying flat on the floor and looking under the bed, I stretched and grabbed for her stupid tennis ball, the one she carries everywhere. I tossed it down the stairs for her to go find, and possibly get distracted and give me a few minutes to myself. There was something under my mother’s bed that heralded further investigation.
Feeling like a rotten kid that tears the house apart looking for their hidden birthday presents, I pulled the box out. It was a long and wide plastic box made for storing a lot of shoes. This was the box where all my old model cars rested. I made seemingly millions of them as a teenager, then ran out of room and interest around 1990 when I was seventeen and I guess they got packed up. And here they were. Looking through the box were all the 30 something model cars I had left, each representing a different period of time in my teenage life. Years ago they were glorious shining beauties, adorning every square inch of shelf space in my old room. But now they were reduced to a 1/25 scale junkyard in a cramped box, their glue so weak that their chrome bumpers had fallen off years ago. Tires had given out, engines fell apart, antennas broke and glass popped out during that time under the bed too. But I remember them as they were, and even when and where I got most of them.
I picked up one of the ones I remembered being particularly proud of, a ‘57 Chevy Nomad and sat back against what used to be my dad’s dresser. My old man, gone for 12 years now, would always look over my models when I finished them. “Looks good, kid.” he’d say, while laying an unfiltered Camel in the groove of his ashtray at the same time so he could examine my handiwork. He’d hold the model in his giant hands. Hands that had pulled miles of cable in the FBI building, hands that had dug plenty of fence post holes. He would examine it like a mechanic. He’d hand it back, smile, and ask which one I was going to do next, then he’d go back to the work he’d brought home with him.
I had made plenty of models before this one, but there was something about it that I couldn’t immediately place, something familiar, yet vague. I looked down at the ’57 Nomad on my lap and tried to remember where this one had come from. It took a few minutes, like an old computer accessing its data, but I remembered: Christmas. The Christmas in junior high, the one with all the snow. The Christmas of 1986. Seventeen years ago. I thought about that Christmas and stared at the white paint on my mother’s ceiling.
There was the old orange carpet, the tree with all the presents under it, there was the piles of snow outside. There was my old man, sitting in his La-Z-Boy recliner in his olive green cargo pants he ordered through the Brigade Quartermaster catalog and his “J. Edgar Hoover Is Back and Is He Pissed” t-shirt on. My mother was rattling pans in our small kitchen, getting ready for the feast that lay ahead that afternoon.
That Christmas I had broken away from the toys of childhood. No more G.I. Joe, no more Go-Bots and He-Man, no more Tyco electric racetracks, no more plastic army men waging daily wars in the sandbox, this year was the year I got my first skateboard, some cassette tapes and a new Sony Walkman. And my God, I had asked for clothes. Bugle Boy brand pants with hundreds of pockets on them were very chic that winter. Not wanting to be unfashionable, I had asked for them.
But there were a few other things that year that sat under the tree, almost hiding, in fear that I might cast them off with the other whims of childhood: model cars.
There were quite a few under the tree that year, like the 1959 Ford Skyliner with a real retractable hardtop roof, which required a certified automotive engineer to help build it. With its 5 piece body, I deemed it too complicated and it was shoved aside for the moment (partially painted and assembled, except the real retractable hardtop roof, it lies dormant in its original box in the shed to this day). There were ‘49 Mercury’s and ‘32 Fords, ‘54 Corvettes and even a Bigfoot monster truck to build. But there was one that was as aesthetically pleasing to me as a Van Gogh or Renoir is to an art critic: the Revell Skip’s Fiesta Drive-In ‘57 Chevy Nomad.
Opening it immediately, my dad became interested, leaning forward from his La-Z-Boy recliner to the floor where I sat, his notice rarely piqued by something I was into. I was busily examining parts and options to the Nomad’s engine, when my dad announced, “Is that the only one you get? When I was a kid they used to give you three or four extra engines in a kit.” I shrugged my shoulders and went on with the examination of its single engine. His opinions regarding contemporary toys of any kind were always that they were never as well built as the ones he grew up with, or never contained as many accessories, as much fun, excitement, etc., as the ones he grew up with. However, I suspected he had a soft spot for the model cars, as he was almost always willing to get me one at the Kmart or wherever.
On truly special occasions he would regale in telling the story of the submarine model he had as a kid that showed a cutaway view of the entire inside on one half. “It gave away U.S. military secrets to the Russians you know,” he would say, “they had to take it off the shelves.” I imagined Soviet nuclear scientists sitting in their labs stymied by U.S. Naval technology. Then a thin, pale officer came in with the submarine model, presenting it to the scientists. A unified “Hmmm, ah-hah” filled the room when the model was examined. It was rumored that this stolen technology helped successfully launch Sputnik.
The rest of the morning I spent looking at the Christmas loot, while wearing pajamas and my new Montgomery Wards bathrobe I got. I had felt that with the coming of the new year in a week or so that I should join the ranks of other men like my father in wearing a bathrobe around the house occasionally. While watching the Christmas shows I was busy anticipating a full plate of the aromatic ham that was cooking in the oven, complete with Dole pineapple rings attached with toothpicks to the sides. In most social circles, this is known to be a true American touch of class. My mother was busy in the kitchen, making cranberry sauce with an antique metal grinder she had. My father, who had an intense love-hate relationship with snow, was outside shoveling the walk.
The day after Christmas was an “every man for himself” day for our family. My dad, exhausted from the festivities, shoveling and staying up late watching war movies the night before, slept in. My mother cleaned the kitchen and made plans to on how to use up the leftovers. I spent the morning with my buddy Brian (I had gotten him the new Bon Jovi tape that Christmas), talking over the loot we got, sledding, trying to skateboard in thirty below zero weather, and just enjoying the break from school. There was talk of an outing to the mall later with the rest of the guys.
While all the others went to movies that afternoon, I went home. I had a model car to build. I sat at my desk, a bookcase that my father had added a large, deep writing shelf to and carefully unpacked my ’57 Nomad, being careful not to break the plastic bag that held the numerous chrome parts. Dad would always remind me “You keep ‘em in the plastic until you need ‘em and they won’t get messed up.” Spoken like a true modeler of old, he knew that kids go for the chrome before anything else, the way some women swoon over the jewelry counter at Woodward and Lothrop. For the moment I left the chrome alone and focused on other areas.
That winter Christmas break was from December 23rd until January 9, and in between sledding sessions with Brian, throwing snowballs at passing cars and just being general nuisances to the girls who lived nearby, I spent the remainder of my time in my room, listening to the oldies station and working on the Nomad. I set up tires and rims to “Whispering Bells” by the Del Vikings and painted bench seats to “Maybe Baby” by Buddy Holly. It seemed fitting. Even at thirteen I was a budding connoisseur of music.
Always ardently against brush painting car bodies, I fought arctic blasts of cold air and seven foot snow drifts outside while quickly trying to spray paint the Nomad’s body with a can of Testors #1639 Saphire Blue Metal Flake paint that I my father had gotten me at Kmart for $1.73. For hours I sat almost motionless in my room carefully painting in the chrome strips on the sides with silver paint I dipped out of the small glass bottle. I spent hours perfectly installing the real opening doors and tailgate, constructing the complicated front steering system, sanding down the tire tread so it looked realistic. Days went by while filling in the dashboard instrument panel numbers and accenting the interior with a dark blue that closely matched the exterior color. There were other countless hours that, to this day, I can’t account for, but I suspect they were used up while carefully applying thinned red, blue and white paint into the minute Chevy logo molded into the front grille. The Nomad had really come to life now.
When it was all over and the Nomad sat gleaming on my homemade desk, I sat back and breathed for the first time in ages. I had glue in my hair, enamel paint clogged the pores on my hands, I hadn’t eaten in days or showered in almost a week, my friends thought I had moved away. I had become a Model Car Nut.
During the Nomad’s creation, my father would occasionally poke his head through the doorway to see what all the peace and quiet was about and say “Be careful not to inhale too many of the fumes from that glue and paint.” He may have feared that a glue huffer or a paint sniffer now lived in my room, not a model car fanatic. At the time I had no idea that people did such things for a high.
By January 7th my magnum opus de automobile was finished, and it was fantastic. A Saphire Blue Metal Flake body with a baby blue interior, with tan seats that mimicked real vinyl. A stunning orange engine with white headers, a red starter, a black distributor with blue highlights. Ah, the beauty didn’t end there. Two red horns flanked each side of the blue and orange radiator. And the underneath, it was magnificent in its dynamic color range. A flat black undercarriage with orange exhaust pipes and two gleaming gold mufflers. A blue rear axle and red suspension system rounded out the rich palette. It was a stellar example of color theory at its finest, a true masterpiece. I took my new jewel through the house, garnering accolades from my parents, then carefully placed it on a bookshelf with its lesser contemporaries. It sat proudly on that shelf in my room for all to marvel at for years.
Like the Millennium Falcon coming out of hyperspace, I fell back into the here and now, pleased with my momentary trip down memory lane. I thought about the following Spring and Summer after that Christmas, when I fell deeper into the madness of model car building. There were Jo-Han ‘62 Plymouth Fury’s and 1960 DeSoto Adventurer’s bought at Cline’s Variety, the dime store in the town where my grandma lived. I built Monogram ’58 T-Bird’s and AMT ’49 Mercury’s that came from Juvenile Toy Sales. But it was that Christmas and the 1957 Chevy Nomad that I feverishly built that cold, snowy winter up in my room that turned me into a model car nut.