“What is it about a rainy afternoon that makes you want to go to a hobby shop,” my partner recently asked in exasperation as we drove down Highway 36 towards my favorite Twin Cities store, Hub Hobby. “Aren’t you too old for that stuff”” she added as a verbal killing punch to my enthusiasm. I didn’t even explain… she would never understand. Exploring military history through building models, assembling dioramas, and painting plastic figures was as much a part of my vocational training as obtaining my degrees in history. What I couldn’t explain, though, is from where that drive emanated.
After walking around Hub Hobby for about an hour, I decided it was time to go. Even though I had examined 1/35 scale models of an M2 Infantry Combat Vehicle, a Sopwith Camel, and even a combined kit of the USS Monitor and the CSS Virginia, I departed without a purchase. While we continued tackling our weekend errands, I wondered what role plastic models played in my life.
The youngest of four boys, I had the opportunity to see some great, classic models (I emphasize “see” because my brothers rarely allowed me to touch their stuff). My oldest brother, Tom, planted the seeds of half-track fascination when he built 1/32 scale Monogram kits of an infantry carrier and an anti-aircraft version. Brother Joe always went big… his models tended to be of bombers like B-17s and B-25s. And brother Jim, he liked detail and working parts. The models I remember him building included tactical nuclear missiles and carriers, though he soon switched to making balsawood airplanes from scratch. And little brother John?
Well, my first few models were of 1/72 scale WWI airplanes. I really was enamored by the idea of the aviation pioneer pilots figuring out how to use planes as weapons. I tried to build Spad 13s and Fokker Dr1s to look as cool as the box art, but they never turned out the way I imagined.
My oldest brother’s buddy, Bob F. was a terrific model builder. I would walk the few blocks to his house to look at his large, 1/48 scale WWI fighters, complete with rigging and weathered parts. I couldn’t understand how he made them so perfect, but it drove me to try again on the next kit.
But what about that “rainy day drive” to a hobby shop? Sure, I grew up in a model-building family, but what about the almost instinctual desire to build models when the clouds opened?
The question was more of curiosity. I really wanted to understand this near Pavlovian response. I began by asking my brother Joe.
“You know how there always seemed to be a model being built when we were kids?” I began. “Where did we get the money for all those models… and why did we begin building them on a rainy day?”
“You don’t remember?” Joe answered with a smile. “Those were the ‘closet models’.”
This was a term I hadn’t heard before, so I asked for an explanation. “Dad always had models in the safe closet (a huge, 19th century floor safe in our old Victorian home originally belonged to a step-great grandfather who had been the town’s clerk. That safe occupied the lower half of a first-floor closet.) We all knew they were there, but never knew when Dad might bring one out. There was no real pattern… the model kits weren’t rewards for ‘good behavior,’ school report cards, or anything else. Just every once in a while, Dad would bring one out and give it to one of us.”
After a pause as if to consider it all again, Joe added, “I guess maybe he gave us models on rainy days to keep us busy.”
PLANTING THE SEEDS
I don’t know if Dad had any greater strategy in mind when he gave ship models to Jim, bombers to Joe, ground vehicles to Tom, or WWI planes to me… but he did plants some seeds that developed and produced fruit over the years. Studying the kits, carefully assembling the parts, and learning the intricacies of the engines of war machines have been skills each of us has used time and again. Tom grew up to be a computer programmer, Joe a computer security systems entrepreneur in the defense industry, and Jim, a medical engineer.
It may be less obvious in the careers of my brothers, but it is fully apparent in mine! When someone asks me, “How do you know all those different vehicles (or firearms, or airplanes, or ships…), I now smile and picture my father pulling a model from the stack in the safe closet on a rainy summer afternoon, before I begin with, “Well, Dad got each of his boys started early on this stuff…”
Share the passion,
Editor, Military Trader and Military Vehicles Magazine