Firecrackers and BB Guns

Firecrackers and BB Guns

How did you get your start in the hobby? Most of us will respond to that question by recounting how someone gave us a patch, medal, or a ride in a Jeep. Though the details will differ, generally the story involves an older peson taking a few moments to nurture a young person’s curiosity. I have answered the question so many times, that I have formulated a pretty distinct story that would satisfy most inquiries. This past weekend, though, I heard a response to the question that jarred loose some distant memories.

My Purple Panther.

I was standing behind my table observing the crowd at “Nordicon,” a Minnesota gathering of scale model enthusiasts when I heard someone say, “Firecrackers and BB guns.” I didn’t hear the question or even more of the response, but I knew exactly what was being discussed: What had become of all the models that person had built as a kid.

My suspicion is that most of us who spent hours building plastic model kits as kids, have similar tales to tell. Maybe it was the fumes of the glue, but it seems once the novelty of a new model wore off, its demise was determined only through the creativity and imagination of its builder.

The internet is an amazing time machine, allowing us to see the things that only our memories have preserved. It has been more than 40 years since my brother convinced me he was more adept than me to assemble my first plastic model kit–A German Panther tank.

The first model kit I can remember was a 1/48th scale Panther Mk. V. I was probably too young to be building it, but the box art had captured my imagination. With a German officer behind a machine gun in the turret’s cupola, the Panther was dodging explosions as it made its way across the box. How could a kid pass by something like that?

I had never built a model before…and I couldn’t read…but I started in on the kit. The overlapping road wheels perplexed me. The picture on the box couldn’t convey the information my young mind needed to translate into action. Fortunately, my next oldest brother “volunteered” to build the kit for me. He persuaded me to relinquish the tube of glue by reminding me, “When I am done building it, you can play with it!” So, I watched over his shoulder (making tank noises when I could), while he assembled the suspension, the turret, and then finally, glued the hull top to the bottom. I was going nuts making explosions and motor noises as he lowered the turret into position, turning it 90 degrees to secure it to the hull.

It was a phenomenal model — the tracks rolled over the road wheels, the turret turned, the gun elevated, and most impressively, the turret hatch opened allowing a 1/48th scale “commander” to drop inside, stopped only by his elbows as he held a pair of binoculars to his eyes. It wasn’t long before the commander and I were scanning the horizon for T-34s or Shermans.

I hadn’t played with the tank long before the plastic model threw a track. My brother attempted to stretch it over the drive wheel, but it snapped its plastic axle. The only remedy? Glue the drive wheel in place. The left track would never turn again.

No matter, I transferred the repaired Panther back to the front (actually, a room my family referred to — for the obvious reason — as the “piano room.” To me, however, it was my personal “war room” where all combat occurred). After rejoining the battle, the Panther’s MG34 snapped off of the commander’s cupola. I carried the tank back to my brother who applied more glue. The MG lost its ability to swivel in the repair.

At some point, I decided the Panther needed some camouflage. The only bottles of Testor’s Paint that my little hands could open were black and purple. I painted the officer black, imagining him to look exactly like tank officers I had seen in movies. The purple, however, was trickier to justify. Regardless, soon the exhaust pipes, all the hatches, and the tip of the 75mm gun were all purple. My “Purple Panther” was ready to return to action.

Though crippled by an immobile track, a frozen machine gun, and a rather audacious paint job, the Panther rumbled back to the front (in the piano room) for more combat. By this time, I decided it was going to take on my Marx railroad set (roughly O scale). In some movie, I had seen a tank on the railroad tracks firing at an oncoming locomotive. So, down went the Panther, straddling three rails. The black locomotive and tender came racing around the figure 8 layout to where the Panther stood impervious…well, almost impervious. At full the throttle, the black plastic steam locomotive (a 0-4-0, as I recall), SLAMMED into the Pather, hitting the bore of the 75mm first. The gun tube snapped off as the locomotive spun its wheels, pushing the tank. At the point when the tank and locomotive mash-up reached the center crossing of tracks, the locomotive jumped the rails, and the tank was sliding on its side….a trail of plastic pieces in its wake.

I gathered the bits and presented them to my brother. He was exasperated that “his” tank hadn’t lasted more than a day. He said there was no fixing it now. But, he had an idea. “Get Dad’s magnifying glass,” he instructed. “Meet me out at the cistern.”

“The cistern” was, to the best of my young knowledge, a big, flat stone on top of a circular metal base in our backyard. It wasn’t until years later that I learned that it really was a cistern, a remnant of the late 19th century in our backyard. At this young age, though, it was the spot where my brothers lit off bottle rockets or snakes (those nasty-smelling ash-growing things) or a place to smash caps with a hammer.

When I got to the cistern, the Panther was sitting on the flat stone, and my brother was looking at the sky, shading his eyes. As he reached out for the magnifying glass, he knelt next to the Panther. Next, he focused a beam of sunlight on the side of the Panther’s turret, right where the red number decals were. In moments, a whisper of smoke rose from the tank as a hole formed! He moved the glass to refocus it on the hull near the front of the tank. Again, the results were a bit of smoke and a small charred hole.

Those of you old enough will remember the red cellophane wrapper on black cats. You probably tore open the package in a way to preserve any powder. The fuses were all knotted together, requiring, patient, nimble fingers in order to not pull a fuse out of a firecracker!

He dug into his pocket and took out a brown glass pill bottle. Unscrewing the top, he dumped the contents onto the flat stone: Three stick matches and two “Black Cat” firecrackers. Being the youngest of four boys, I was no stranger to what happened next. He forced a Black Cat into the hole in the turret followed by a second one into the hole in the hull. Returning the tank to the flat stone pedestal, he commanded, “Get back!” I ran behind the apple tree and peered around the trunk to see him strike the match, light one fuse, and then the second before he ran to join me in my protective “bunker.”

It was a matter of a couple of seconds, though it seemed like thirty. The first explosion followed rapidly by a second. We laughed out loud as we ran back to the flat stone. There, the remains of the tank were scattered over the cistern lid and surrounding grass. We laughed and pointed out details to each other: “The top of the turret is way over here in the garden!”, “I found a tread,” and “the guy is laying below on the cistern cover!”

We gathered all the pieces we could find. My brother hastily tried to reassemble what he could before replacing the Panther on the rock. Was he going to initiate a second bombardment? Usually, we used whatever firecrackers we could find…saving them for the future wasn’t in our nature. If he had placed two firecrackers in the tank, that was because that was all he had. So what was he up to with reassembling the tank?

“Follow me,” he commanded again as he ran over to the garage, some 10 yards distant. After opening the door, he reached down — I knew now. That is where we kept the BB gun! With five pumps on the Daisy, he took aim. POP! The crippled Panther shattered into pieces again. We ran back to the cistern. Plastic bits were everywhere, but the carnage wasn’t over.

He placed what was left of the turret on the stone next to the lower hull, still retaining several road wheels. “Your turn,” he said as we ran back to the garage.

I wasn’t strong enough to pump the gun, so he did it for me. “Now, just like Dad has shown you,” he coached. “Line up the sights, breathe out half a breath, and hold it.” I did as he instructed, lining up the barrel on the turret. “Squeeze the tri….” POP! The turret flew into the air, and we ran back to the stone to inspect the devastation.

We repeated this final destruction as often as we could find pieces large enough to shoot. It probably wasn’t the most constructive initiation into scale modeling, but for me, it was the best. My big brother and I banded together for a day to destroy a German Panther.

That’s how I got my start. I wouldn’t trade it for all the Tamiya kits in the show!

Preserve the Memories,

John Adams-Graf

Editor, Military Vehicles Magazine and Military Trader


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