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Collecting Lessons Learned? Not Necessarily

Antiques preservation and conservation mistakes I have committed.


Each year around this time, I take a few moments to remember what were the high and low points of the previous 12 months. I have done this for years. Close friends take a lot of delight in reviewing one of my lists, “JAG’s Top 10 Stupid Things.” To be honest, I kind of enjoy reviewing it as well… even though some of the entries can cause my ears to turn red. Over the years, several collecting episodes have been recorded on the list, and although I can already feel my ears heating up, I am willing to share a few.


Okay, before I begin this written confession, I want to state this list of stupid episodes comes from the earlier years of my collecting career. I will save the more recent episodes for another day… maybe when I can type about them without blushing.

With that disclaimer, let me begin with, “It has been at least a year since my last confession… here are five of my past collecting sins…”

Stupid Act No. 1 The USS Hartford. When I was about 12 years old, I was totally immersed in the American Civil War. This obsession proved to be frustrating, however, when I wanted to build a plastic model kit. There just were not a lot of Civil War-themed models available.

Aurora model kit of the Civil War frigate, USS Hartford

Aurora model kit, USS Hartford

While looking over the model selection at our local hardware store one day, I spotted what could easily be the styrene bridge between my Civil War fascination and my need to build model kits: Aurora’s USS Hartford—a three-masted Civil War steam-powered frigate. No scale was listed on the box but there was the proclamation that the completed kit was “Over two feet long” (this figured out to roughly 1:120 scale).

This was an extremely complex model kit. The rigging took me an entire Minnesota winter to complete, though the rest of the ship went together with relative ease. Maybe it was all the fumes… but while I strung black thread through plastic pulleys, I envisioned actually setting the ship to sail. The more I considered damning any torpedo that got in my way of recreating the Battle of Mobile Bay, the less I considered the physics involved in making a tall-masted ship stand upright in water.

When spring finally arrived, I carefully lashed the model to the middle bar of my Coast-to-Coast stingray-styled bicycle and pedaled the five miles to Beaver Creek. Once there, I carefully tied a long cord to the stern with which to retrieve the Hartford after sailing the 10 or so yards of a stretch of the creek we called the “swimming hole.”

Satisfied the wind and water were both calm enough to accept the plastic model, I kicked off my shoes, rolled up my jeans and carried the Harford into the middle of the swimming hole. Standing in an area two feet deep, I wrapped the retrieval cord around my wrist. Bending over slightly, I let slip the Hartford into the clear creek.

To simply state the obvious that the model kit immediately capsized and the three masts dragged on the rocks below until they snapped off would not begin to express the wave self-disgust that swept over me. After the ship flipped over, I watched the glued-together, gray plastic hull skirt down the creek before I remembered the cord tied to my wrist.

Stupid Act No. 1, Part B, occurred at the moment I pulled the ship back toward me.Any portion of the masts, sails, or painstaking rigging that may have survived the downstream, upside-down float, snapped off because of my hasty retrieval.

Stupid Act No. 2. The Thunderbolt.My next oldest brother, Jim, spent one summer building a balsa-wood model of a P-47 Thunderbolt. The kit was all balsa ribs and tissue… the sort of model a kid would have made prior to WWII. Jim worked at it daily, cutting, doping and finally, covering with tissue. The kit could have accommodated a small motor (which we didn’t have), but could also use a rubber band strung from the tail to the back of the prop. Using your finger, you could wind it tight, give the plane a toss and watch it glide for a few yards. Dicey stuff, considering the fragility of the building materials.

Balsa kit of unassembled P-47 Thunderbolt airplane.

My brother's kit looked something like this. All I really remember is it took him all summer to complete the model.

Jim didn’t let me do much with him (I was the younger, pest of a brother, after all). Maybe it was pride in completing the plane that clouded his better judgment when he asked me to join in him in the back yard for the inaugural flight. We surveyed the back yard before launching, deciding we had to stay away from the garden with its many obstacles and rough landing area. Instead, we carried the plane to the open lawn that ran parallel to the clothesline. We were certain the plane would fly straight, so the five rope lines were not a threat.

Winding the prop, Jim prepared the P-47 for the first flight. We joked back and forth about “Ready for take off” and “Careful! Bogies at six o’clock” before he gave it a toss. The propeller spun out as the P-47 nosed upward. With its power exhausted, the balsa wood and tissue plane fell straight down, landing on its tail. The long grass cushioned the impact, however. Any damage was minimal.

Jim re-wound the propeller. Instead of throwing the plane along its previous flight path, he turned 180 degrees to throw it in the opposite direction. Without any input from me, he surmised that some imperceptible wind must have caught the plane and turned it nose-to-the sun. When he finally launched the Thunderbolt for its second flight, the plane repeated its previous performance: Nose up and prop expiring before plummeting, tail-first, back into the grass.

This is were I stepped in with what will be labeled, “Stupid Act No. 2.” Because my dad and I had been molding lead soldiers the previous week, I thought we could use molten lead to weigh down the front of the plane, thereby keeping the nose from turning skyward during a flight.

I explained to Jim… who must have lost all sense of reason due to flight failures… that we could simply pour the lead down the hole at the front of the fuselage where the prop was mounted. I explained how the lead would mold itself to the shape of the wooden ribs as it cooled, thereby forming a perfect distribution of weight at the front of the plane. My explanation must have been so convincing that we both took leave of our senses.

Running to the basement, we fired up the propane torch, melted a small pot of lead and propped the plane up between two wooden peach crates be to accept the molten equalizer. We poured about three soldier’s worth of lead before we realized it was splashing on the basement floor beneath the vertically aimed airplane. Only then did it become obvious to both of us: Molten lead will usually burn right through balsa wood and tissue paper.

Jim has never really forgiven me for contributing to the “flame out” of his P-47.

Stupid Act No. 3. The Artillery Barrage. Many of you may recall the HO-scale plastic soldiers produced by Airfix and sold in boxes of about 48 figures. They are still available, but when I was a kid, a box of Confederates or Yankees cost only about 65 cents.

I had acquired several hundred yanks and rebs, each of which I painted with Testors enamels. Two sheets of 4’x8’ plywood on top of our pool and ping pong tables formed the foundation of countless Civil War battles. I bought model railroad lichen to form trees, used papier-mâché to make hills, and glued tiny branches together to make rail fences. I spent hours forming battles before launching into a one-boy devastation accompanied by cheek-bursting musket reports and finger-tip flicking assassination of individual infantry men, cavalry troopers or artillery gunners.

Vintage box art of Airfix Civil War Artillery HO Scale figures.

Remember these guys? I spent many hours painting and playing with AIrfix HO scale soldiers. 

With each battle, I tried to incorporate more realism. Learning about Plaster of Paris, I added roads and a river. After our town tarred and pea-rocked the road by our house, I gathered up lots of the loose pebbles to construct a “Little Round Top” on one of my hills. The battle ground became cooler and cooler.

But as any collector will attest, cool isn’t good enough. By our very nature, we push too far, and that is what happened to me.

Vintage art showing Baby Gorilla brand firecrackers.

Baby Gorilla firecrackers were about half the size of regular firecrackers. I learned, though, that peeling a few layers of paper off one did NOT silence the impending explosion.

Sure, the deploying of troops was great fun. I made drum and bugle noises as I set up battle lines. I paused only briefly to admire the untarnished armies before launching into a combat that could last up to 10 or 12 minutes, depending on how merciful my finger explosions were on each column of troops.

While reviewing the HO carnage after a particularly violent battle, I had a brainchild of an idea. For the next battle, I could employ “controlled explosions.”

I theorized that by tearing off most of the paper comprising the body of a Baby Gorilla firecracker, I could lessen the force of the explosion while retaining all accompanying sound and smoke. I further deduced I could ignite several of these “explosions” among the troops to replicate cannon blasts. I concluded, “The resulting smoke would settle just like it had at Gettysburg or Manassas.”

So, with a renewed purpose, I deployed the troops for a second battle. Before launching them into action, though, I carefully placed my “reduced” charges of five Baby Gorilla firecrackers under cannons, between lines of cavalry and under a bridge. Once I had achieved a glowing end to a lit punk, it was time to sound the bugles of attack. Blowing the notes of “charge” through my lips, I lit the first fuse. I was able to light the second before it was time to “duck and cover.”

I was wrong… horribly wrong. Tearing layers of paper from the firecrackers did not reduce the force. Nor did it deafen the sound of firecrackers going off in the basement!

A couple of my brothers came running down the stairs to find out what happen. I tried to lie my way out of it, but you just can’t explain away the smoke that was—rather coolly, I might add—settling over the battlefield.

I don’t remember too much after that other than both of my brothers smacking me in the arm repeatedly yelling about how stupid I was. I do remember looking around the room wondering just where in the heck all of those “missing in action” soldiers had flown!

Stupid Act No. 4. The “Collection.” I have always been a collector. I believe a lot of us are born that way, or, at least, we develop the proclivity to collect at a very young age.

I collected toy soldiers, tanks, airplanes and all sorts of other “war toys.” But, I always liked the “real” stuff of combat. I treated my dad’s WWII souvenirs as both sacred relics as well as playthings. His M1 helmet was a toy to me as were the practice grenades he brought home. His photographs, medals and patches, however, were like museum pieces.

From the time I was about 8 years old, I visited the retired newspaper editor every Saturday afternoon. Perk Steffen was not just a WWI veteran, he was also a fellow Civil War buff… He had actually known Civil War veterans and collected relics from them. During each visit, I would look at the swords, tintypes, bullets, belt plates and other relics displayed on the shelves where we visited. What really impressed me, though, were the labels that accompanied each item. Typed descriptions explained the significance of the relic and concluded with, “Collection of Perk Steffen.” Those last four words impressed me the most… and led to my “Stupid Act No. 4.”

I didn’t have much of a collection—it amounted to a couple of carte de visite photographs of unnamed soldiers, a few pieces of Confederate paper currency and all of my Dad’s WWII photographs. One day after making an “inventory” of my collection (something that I had seen Perk had made of his collection), I carefully wrote—in blue ink—on the back of each item, “Collection of John F. Graf.” Forty years later—and a Master’s Degree in museum conservation practices later—I still have these items. Seeing any one of them will cause me to immediately blush.

Stupid Act No. 5. The Helmet. In the late 1970s, my brothers and I would frequent the “Great Surplus” store in La Crosse, Wis. I remember stacks of unissued Vietnam gear including jungle boots, boonie hats, canteens and rifleman’s belts. None of that stuff interested me, though. I was looking for WWII surplus.

There were always .45 magazine pouches, first aid kits and pup tents that dated to WWII to be found, but every once in a while, there would be some more esoteric items. One Saturday, as my brothers looked at gear that they could use for camping or hunting, I decided to look at a stack of M1 helmets. Bear in mind, this was before the time when we all became fixated on “front seams,” “fixed loops” and “Westinghouse liners.” An M1 was an M1, whether it was made in 1941 or 1971. Green with web straps—they all looked the same as I separated one helmet from another. I didn’t even know if I should be looking for anything!

As I pulled one pot off of the last in the stack, I saw a painted insignia on the front of the remaining helmet. I picked it up and looked straight at a blue and white “Yin and Yang” insignia. About that time, my brother Joe walked passed and said, “Looks like a hippie got a hold of that one!” I knew, however, that it was not a symbol of establishment defiance. Rather, I recognized it as the insignia of the 29th Division. I thought it was pretty cool, so took it to the counter and dug out the $2.25 to pay for it.

On the way home, my brothers teased me because it didn’t even “fit” (it had no liner). They taunted me with threats of what Dad would say when he saw it. “It’s even all dirty!” They were right… it was filthy. If Dad was going to approve of my purchase, it would have to be cleaned.

When we got home, I grabbed Mom’s bottle of 409 Cleaner from below the kitchen sink, and a handful of rags from the “rag basket” in the closet. With helmet in hand, I took everything to the basement to begin the cleaning process.

M1 helmet with 29th Division insignia

Because of my handiwork with a 409 bottle and scrub rag, I do NOT have an original M1 helmet with painted 29th Division insignia like this one sold by IMA for around $2,000. 

I did no “testing” before I sprayed the entire helmet with 409. With scrub rag in hand, I started the buffing and polishing. When wiped it dry, the M1 helmet revealed a stunning, glistening olive drab finish. It was a few moments before I realized the 29th Division insignia was gone, now just a black and blue smudge on my cleaning rag.

Admission to five stupid acts from my early career are enough for today. My ears are burning, and your eyes are probably sore from rolling in disgust!

Perhaps every life-long collector has similar tales. If you have one or two you are willing to share, I am sure we would enjoy it (without too much judgment!). If you are willing to share your own Collecting Stupid Acts, send them to me ( and I will print them (with or without your name).

Rest assured, I will be able to revisit this topic in the future. I continue to commit at least one really stupid act each year!

 Preserve the relics. Cherish the memories,

John Adams-Graf
Editor, Military Trader and Military Vehicles Magazine

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