by H. F. Jansen Estrup
It has been many years since I quit modeling, in the physical sense, and so I need to take the time to reorganize my thinking, to update and re-evaluate its longtime effect on my life.
I should first define some terms. There are at least two major categories of model makers - those who wish to make things work, players - and those who care mainly about appearance. There are many sub-categories, variations and collaborations, of course, such as those used in motion pictures, but even if they show us exhausts, flashing lights and laser cannon, they fall primarily into the appearance or display category.
The player group strives to make a model actually work, to make a bicycle fly, a ship sail or a train haul timber through a mountainous stand of old growth redwoods (the diorama -another collaboration). As youngsters they might have been intensely curious about how things worked, those who dismantled broken things and repaired them - future mechanics. Naval architects and aeronautical engineers might crave the slickest skin and shape in order to better propel actual vessels through water or space and these modelers can be as fanatical, as obsessed as any distance runner, adrenalin addict or power broker. Someone is apt to recall that the Uni-bomber was such a nut, and so, with a much larger vision, was Oppenheimer. Much is a matter of degree, or even utility, as with the child who buries his pet mouse in a matchbox or another who envisions his own tomb as a step pyramid.
I am not one of these and so the rest of this piece will be about modelers of the display variety.
The most familiar display modeling enthusiast is probably a neighbor, maybe all of your neighbors. He or she, like all creatures is far more complex than simple boxes can define us, a combination of fears and desires imagined to soothe us. This neighbor might subscribe to the philosophy that the “one with the most toys wins” - or is perhaps an avid collector of bobble-heads or Native American artifacts. Who knows why we choose to gather what we do? If, like the jet-ski or remote control aircraft, we might actually get out and ‘play’ with, i.e., combine our interests with those of the players. Often these toys are means to an adrenalin rush, but most of those who ‘collect’ and display seek an opposite, calming effect. It is an effort to slow the world down, to see it more clearly - to get a grip on it.
Although I eventually learned to overcome the childhood admonition to “Get away from that wheelbarrow - you don’t know nothin’ about machinery ...” by becoming a decorated teletype repair expert (teletype machine - a madman’s nightmare) under arduous conditions, it was always extremely stressful. In spite of the considerable extra money the government paid me to do it, I opted out as soon as I could. Off and on I’ve tried to master engines and other ‘toys’, but aside from emergency repairs, could not maintain either interest or motivation.
On the other hand, I could (and did) spend hours and hours constructing, painting, weathering and admiring this or that model aircraft, armored vehicle or extruded crewman. I wondered about them, studied their handling characteristics, speed, armament and ability to absorb and dish out punishment. But the models, pilots, gunners and ground pounders were truly just plastic, balsa or tissue. I did not imagine them or myself cowering inside one of the baking hot monsters in the blazing Sahara sun, or flying too low over Ploesti. Even though such events might be depicted in dioramas, none of it was personal. It was unbelievably calming, even blissfully.
Aside from alcohol, I’ve used very few drugs. Periodically, overseas, I’d need a single Darvon to get me down off weeks of sleepless, worry filled hyper-vigilance. A good night’s sleep and I’d be ready for another six months. Not much else in the way of self medication. Booze had always been more trouble than it was worth, not very effective, expensive and a hell of a mess the next day.
Anticipation, for me, could eclipse common anxieties. Browsing a model shop amidst the hanging 1/72nd scale Flying Fortresses and opponent Me-109s stimulated the visual senses. Certain box artists captured action in ways films had not yet matched and would not until computer graphics put accuracy, variety and action at every child’s fingertips. I have said that drugs were not involved, but the vapor out of those tiny, expensive bottles of British Green, Olive Drab and Insignia Red bottles stimulated a child’s nascent dendrites and the glue (much too late) was recognized as highly addictive and easily abused. Over stimulation in a hobby shop might cause a boy with only a dollar to feel deprived - the Monogram Corsair or Mustang? Which to buy? Next week’s allowance or paperboy money was already spent! (Credit was not yet wide spread, but it was being readied for all those whose could not wait) - Wall Street and Madison Avenue’s psychologists already had us figured out.
Anticipation - Catalogs of new models were even better than being in the store because expectation could be indulged without so much visual, nasal or auditory pressure. A boy could sit and daydream, scheme until that Liberator or Arizona graced his bookshelf. Later, in adulthood, catalogs (and eventually the internet) were ways to find and buy specialty items from far-away lands - a set of three 1/285th scale BT-3 Soviet light tanks to be overrun by Model’s heavier panzers on the Eastern Front. Four 1 inch = 100' scale standard freighters to start up a North Atlantic convoy, cast to the most exacting standards by Hong Kong craftsmen - 2 Nazi C class U-boats, 1-1/2" sleek inches long in their water-line configuration, and a lend-lease old American four-piper made it a matched set (Tell me what were their names, tell me what were their names, did you have a friend on the Good Ruben James)? Buyers, like nations, were welcome to purchase as many sets as needed.
Six inch long battle cruisers and screening vessels of Britain’s Grand Fleet matched the Kaiser’s High Seas forces at Dogger Bank and Jutland in the minds of adults, too. Hundreds of ‘players’ crowded the ballrooms of New York’s magnificent hotels to get into the act in the 20s and 30s. Wannabe admirals and commodores pushed their respective squadrons around the glistening floors at scale speeds, while judges measured and ruled on the rate of fire and accuracy of shot between the contestants. Upside-down golf tees in white for misses and red for hits marched up and down the battle lines. Women and children in the audience applauded as they had from the hilltops around real life battles like Bull Run. It was great fun. Unlike gladiator games, no one was maimed or drowned or burned to death on the great city’s dance floors. So they, like children at their model tables, saw nothing but glamor, even fun in war.
There was a practical military aspect to this sort of game, too. Having played the scenario out with models numerous times, Royal Navy skippers and jimmies knew three smaller “Treaty”cruisers could defeat one of Hitler’s new armored cruisers (the so-called pocket battleship), and they did it off Montevideo early in WWII.
And so for many years into my adulthood, I clung to this hobby. In some ways it kept me youthful, undeveloped and childlike. Young drug users, the sexually abused and imprisoned juveniles stay that way. So do career military types, sequestered like monks in their own worlds. At the end we are all handicapped by having missed the normal progression of living, of competing and growing in the ‘real’ world. Oh sure, the Revell model became an actual supersonic, mosquito-like B-58 and one truly worked and lived and fought a long hull Gearing class destroyer, but that was all of a specialized, isolated existence. We honor ourselves while scarcely acknowledging other human beings, let alone creatures large and small, or the damage being done to the earth and its rivers, oceans and sky. Why would we notice? Our world has always been little more than a fighter plane dangling on a string from our bedroom ceiling, a campaign ribbon with battle stars, a plaque on the wall.
And that may explain much of the matter - or maybe what the matter is explains modeling.
At around forty I realized that all of the time, money, reading, knowing and admiring of my hobby was simply, though profoundly, an attempt to deal with the psychic mayhem of World War II. If I could only solidify and slow down the alienating flow from so many directions, the pain and jubilation, abandonment and fear of so many around me, the pace and contradiction of events, the hidden overview ... if I could understand all that I could somehow make a place for myself in it - make peace with it.
If that were not true , if it was simply the pleasure of building kits, why was my collection always of warships, attack aircraft and vehicles? Why not cars - hotrods or chevy convertibles, or trains and yachts? Surely they were an ever present desire (at least Madison Avenue wanted me to believe it) ... and later, puberty should have pushed me toward sculpture of the female figure. Could I have imagined a much older version of me confined for weeks at a time inside a frigid cave, contemplating an oddly-shaped stone, handling it, turning it in the flickering firelight until suddenly a vision struck me? What if this or that edge was knocked off, chipped, rounded? Would it, after many modifications and evolutions become a spear point or a goddess figure? But instead it left me, like most of my peers, transfixing war and women as immobilized magazine photos, also affixed to ceilings and wall displays.
No. There was no doubting it. The war, the so-called ‘good war’ haunted me. It must be so on some level with anyone who was alive then.
But as a practical matter, modeling had become a way to escape almost everything - my emotions, my job, my family, especially those haunting, disruptive feelings that seemed so ready to enrage or depress me. Those are things the military finds useful in its personnel.
Big changes, a new ‘network of passages was opening up. I was being forced through it, exiled from the pretend worlds of miniatures and monstrosities, although both were real enough. They are pretend realities because neither are places where life can exist for very long. I had to embrace things on my own scale - a house, wife - their needs - my own needs. A home of our own after so many years on and around military installations - and a place for it that was ours, too - far and away from worldly distractions. That was part of the new reality.
Instead of calling someone to fix things, I would call myself. If the books I bought didn’t explain it well, or I misunderstood and screwed something up, well okay. It was mine and I would fix it, or not. The place we bought had been a homestead, nestled against a national forest. A few years before it had been bought by a family who thought to turn it into a dude ranch. But the chief bread winner died suddenly and the project fell through.
There was an urgent lesson in that man’s unhappy dream. Time is perhaps the most important thing any of us have. Carole and I would learn others, but our need matched that urgency and so I, dreading the leap more than a little, joined Carole’s enthusiasm. We got the place at a price we could afford. It came equipped with wide open spaces, a year-round stream, a nice size cabin which was being used for storage , a small barn, stalls for various farm critters, a well, an abandoned reservoir, not to mention tons of collected treasures such as gates, fencing, scrap lumber, corrugated metal (not all of it rusty), rusted out water tanks, no less than 13 inoperative refrigerators and freezers, a short rail spur worth of rail road ties, the frame of a 1912 truck frame of undeterminable make ... and so on.
I was 39 years old. We didn’t have much money to rely on, but it would be enough if taxes and those draining monthly payments so many assume could be kept to a minimum - we could make it. With a bit of imagination, all of this junk could be fitted together like plastic model parts, modified, of course into something useful.
I became an eager re-cycling nut. A discarded water heater was stripped to its tank, welded to 10 feet of 6" pipe, painted black and stood up in concrete. Enclosed within a box of 2" ridged foam insulation to become a solar hot water tank which gets water way too hot to stand under in a shower. Total cost, 31 dollars. Thirty years later, I’m still using it. Railroad ties made great raised bed garden borders and the rest, buried in the ground and criss-crossed like the Lincoln Logs we played with as children made a tremendous root cellar for storing the vegetables Carole tended.
I became the wizard of $100.00 projects, including wind and water electrical power projects (e.g., I built a water turbine out of a 15" WV wheel and a Chrysler alternator), none of which turned out as well as photo-voltaics. I didn’t have the materials or skills to make those, so I took various jobs at 4 or 5 bucks an hour until I could afford the $400 Arco panels, the best 1980 had to offer. Shortly afterward used panels from various experimental sites became available at as little as $35.00 per 12volt panel and I bought as many as our budget could handle. I took some courses at the local college, which had one of the best alternative energy curriculums in the world. I learned to think on a larger scale than 1/35th or 1/285th, and to work with people who had better skills and similar interests, to trade stuff and efforts.
We were in a box canyon anyway, so no decent television or radio signals reached us. We owned many books and could find others cheap at yard sales or in libraries. We read for entertainment. Carole is a marvelous reader and evenings she would read a chapter or two from James A. Michener’s latest, Centennial or Chesapeake, or another frontier favorite of the day, Hanta Yo!
But those were hard times, too, physically and emotionally. It was time for that. Most people opt for some variation of clinging to youth, but we did not. Much pain had been deferred and demanded to be acknowledged, reckoned with, healed.
And we wore ourselves out with hard work. I built Carole a studio, added a greenhouse in the south-east corner of the little home (eventually it became my office). After the flood (Summer 1984) we had a huge reshaping, landscaping project on our hands. I can hardly remember how much work it was. Just tearing down the ruined fences and outbuildings seemed an endless mess.
But it wasn’t any longer a theoretical mess, or a worldwide mess, or a historical mess. It was mine - ours. It was always urgent and real. At last, we felt, at least I did, we were becoming real people to ourselves and to each other. We weren’t piece 57 of tree 3 to be glued to part 8 of assembly 12 any longer.
Instead of small replicas I began to write - dark fiction at first - mostly just exercises. Ah. Writing, you observe, is simply another way of sitting around looking at something! There is truth in that, but an article, essay or book has an unlimited inside. It is far more than form and color, and often it can be carted around as one does other things. Gradually, stories began to form themselves. Mostly they were true in the sense that they were inspired by some actual experience. My understanding or interpretation or recall of a particular detail may have been the subject of contention, but the essence was there.
My fictional characters were too one-dimensional, Carole told me, too cold and unreal - perhaps like plastic soldiers huddled around a dying Petrograd fire. One could fix that in words, something a diorama could never do. All it took was reworking, adding a bit of warm word description about frozen breath here, or an involuntary icy shiver there. No filament of cotton or mist of smoke could cause those molded figures to come alive, but with practice, words on paper could do it.
Likewise, if simple feelings could not be rendered, how was a set-piece to think, to wish or desire or crave?
And so it progressed and after a time I remembered that I had written and illustrated a rude book as a class project way back in 6th grade, and that for a time I had literally lived in an attic, writing much of the time. I had no way to feed myself back then, but that was no longer true .
Before long, I began to think of myself as a writer. One day, as the insides of my rigid, plastic self began to fill up with human activity, I even said so. Thus, it was so.
Some might agree that writing made it possible to be both player and dis-player. Or not.