Models and Miniatures
When we make a miniature version of something, what are we trying to accomplish? Is it just to create a technically exact copy? I think it is to create an alternate reality within which to engage our thoughts and imagination. We create the miniature objects for the same reason we read a novel - to escape into it and, for a moment, to leave the hard edges of the full-scale world behind.
Way back in the summer of 1954 or 1955, when I was just a kid and living in Gilbertsville, in Upstate New York, my cousin Doris, who was a "grown-up", used to come for visits.
And as I remember it, she used to bring me a present each time she came to visit. But it was not just any old present. Each time it would be a little plastic model car - an antique automobile with a driver who wore a cap and duster. There were a bunch of them, all different and all old cars from the beginning of the 20th century.
Looking back on it now, over forty years later, I guess they were pretty simple little things - two halves to glue together, a couple headlamps to stick on, a seat to glue in, and then the little driver. His two arms had holes at the hands to grip the steering wheel, and once they were glued in place and he was firmly pasted into his seat, it was time for the wheels.
Oh, those wonderful wheels! They slid onto the ends of the axles, but you didn't glue them on. If you did that they wouldn't turn. So in a real leap of model-making technology, you had to melt the ends of the axles and flatten them into sort of hubs, which held the wheels on, but let them turn freely.
For this dangerous and complex maneuver I had to usually enlist the help of my father. He would turn on one of the gas stove burners and then get either a screwdriver or an old kitchen knife, heat it breifly in the blue flame of the burner, and then carefully press it against the end of the axle. You had to get it just right; flattened enough so the wheel would stay on, but not so flat that it would bind.
I can still remember the smell of melting plastic and the joy when all four wheels were sucessfully installed. Even today, if I accidentally touch my woodburner to a bit of plastic I am working on, and that whiff of (probably toxic) burning plastic reaches my nostrils, I am back in the kitchen with my Dad and it is 1955 all over again.
Then I would finish the models with a bit of piant, using the illustrations on the box tops, or the suggested colors in the instruction sheet. I think I used a little set of model paints - those six or eight tiny glass jars of the basic colors, including the all-important silver.
These were the first models I ever had, and putting them together was the first creative thing I ever did, all on my own. It was the beginning of a life-long interest in models and miniatures, and I have my cousin Doris to thank for that. I am sure for her it was just something to bring along from the 5&10, but for me it was the opening of a door to a new way to engage my time and interest.
Every visit brought another box and a different car. None of them survived. In fact when my interest in this dark recess of my model-making past was rekindled about a year ago, I really had no idea what these car models were - who made them and what they were called - even though I had vivid memories of putting them together.
The solution of this mystery came from an unlikely source - eBay, the Internet auction site. By poking around in their offerings under "models/automobile", I suddenly found myself staring at the very boxes I had seen as a kid. They were the very same! "Highway Pioneers" they were called, and not only could I see these boxes again on the site, I could, for a mere pittance, actually buy an untouched original model from the series - right out of the box as it was in 1955!
So that is what I did, and now I have two empty boxes for my moments of time travel, and one complete model car that I can put together next time I really want to get in touch with the past.
I was a bit - actually more than a bit - disappointed to see that the model I bought had been slightly improved over the ones I built 40 years ago. You no longer have to melt the axles to get the wheels on. Now you use a glue-on hub. I am sure the numbers of burned finger tips produced by the older method prompted this improvement, but for me that ability to taste one more time the acrid smell of hot plastic was part of what prompted my purchase.
Not long after I had assembled my little fleet of antique cars, my brother and I got interested in World War I bi-planes, and we started a joint campaign to buy and assemble every WWI bi-plane kit on the market.
Our source was the only model shop in the area; a little hole in the wall store in Sidney, New York, about 20 miles away. It was the town where my father worked, and sometimes on a Saturday we would cajole him or my Mom into taking us over there. And gradually we had bought and built every bi-plane there was. We had the Sopwith Camel, an SAE-5, the infamous German tri-plane of the Red Baron, a Curtis Jenny, a couple neat German planes, including the streamlined Albatross.
And in an adventure in large-scale model making, we got a huge bi-plane bomber. It was wonderful. It had two engines and a crew - a gunner in the nose, I think there was one in the back, too, and the pilot.
By this time we were into ultra-realism. We wanted these planes to look like the real thing, because, of course, when we picked up the little fragile models, we were transported in our imagination into an actual WWI bi-plane. We wanted to fly in the planes we built. It was the ultimate escape.
To accomplish this we painted every tiny detail - every gun, strut, and instrument. We painted the pilot's coats, their helmets, their goggles, their faces (flesh tones were a challange) and their moustaches, if they had one. And we took definite pleasure in painting their white scarves. These were usually molded to drape juantily over one shoulder as if blown by the wind in flight.
I think we used leftover oil paints from one of the Paint-By-Numbers kits I had painted. Here, depending on the scene, were all the subtle shades needed to turn a box full of little plastic parts into a real WWI bi-plane.
Well, that was over 30 years ago, and only one of that fleet of planes survived (shown above). I recently found the same Fokker Tri-Plane and Sopwith Camel models and built them again, as a trip down memory lane. It turns out that these were the same molds and everything. But they had long since been acquired by a company in Eastern Europe - a long way to go and a far cry from the 20 miles to Sidney, New York.
Fortunately we didn't have to ask my Mom to drive us.