• Otter Views: New Year Models

    by Tom Stevens

    Driving along Fremont the other morning, I came up behind a beautiful vintage Chevy painted sky blue and cream white. The sedan was one of those “two tone” models popular in the mid-1950s, but the year on this one escaped me. I’m guessing 1955. The body was a little plumper than the classic ’56 and ’57 Chevys.

    What struck me about the car, other than the obvious pampering it had enjoyed, was that I recognized it even though I hadn’t seen it on the road before. “I know that rear end,” I thought, puzzled.

    The Chevy’s triangular tail lights and chrome-heavy bumper assembly – even the slope of the trunk – seemed eerily familiar. I followed the car for a couple of blocks before it finally clicked. I had built that model in plastic.

    This week of “down time” before New Year’s recalls some post-Christmas weeks from that ’55 Chevy era. Back then, stormy late December weather encouraged me and my fellow boyhood nerds to play indoors. During a certain developmental phase, that meant the brittle plastic parts and volatile glue fumes of hobby modeling.

    We considered this modeling a manly art, not to be confused with the more feminine modeling of fashions and skin care products. No, skin care was a low priority our kind of modeling. “Skin wear” was more like it. Within minutes of starting any project, our fingertips would be tacky with viscous, toxic, fast-drying glue. This glue could transfer easily to any place that might itch – forehead, neck, eyelids, the sensitive inner folds of nose and ears.

    Mostly, though, the glue transferred from your fingertips to the pasts of the model you weren’t ready to pick up yet. If you were lucky enough to notice this, a swift daubing with cloth or tissue could sometimes save the part in question. Otherwise, the fuzzy glue added to the finished model a lumpy, fibrous underlay.

    Frustration? Yes, there was a certain amount of that. In fact, looking back on it now, I’d say the entire hobby was a cunningly designed frustration test for 10-year-olds. If you could build a presentable-looking model without growing enraged and bashing it to atoms, the assumption went, you were ready for architecture school.

    Consider the process. Before you even started building the kit itself, you were taunted by the cover artist’s rendering of your car, truck, tank, fighter plane or, in very advanced cases, battleship. This box-top rendering was so vivid, so lustrous, so impeccably detailed that it would come to haunt you in direct proportion to your actual model’s ever-growing dissimilarity to it.

    Indeed, no stymied jigsaw-puzzler ever studied a box cover with more anguish and dismay than did our whining little coterie of neighborhood modeling nerds. I can almost hear us now. “See, in the picture, how those exhaust pipes curve back from the engine block? Mine don’t do that!”

    “And what about these flame decals? They don’t look like the ones on the box. These are panty flames.”

    Once the tires, decals, windshields and chassis segments had been located, the other model parts had to be broken carefully away from little plastic connecting sticks. Then all parts were laid out on the tabletop in meticulous, assembly-line fashion. Parts that could be snapped together were snapped together. Then, and only then, could the first trembling dots of glue be applied. That was the cat’s signal to hurtle up onto the table, tail thrashing.

    Following an assembly schematic inked onto crinkly paper, we modelers would gradually piece together our fumbling facsimiles of the vehicles or war machines pictured on the boxes. While my colleagues turned out beautifully realized ’32 Ford “Deuce” Coupes and sleek “Black Widow” fighter-bombers, my creations emerged lumpy, glue-scarred and indeterminate.

    “Is that a car or a boat?” was a typical query.

    “It’s a car boat,” I’d explain.

    “Lemme see the box.”


    While difficult to distinguish in other particulars, my models all shared a flaw that in time became my signature – gluey fingerprint whorls on every window. Whether my model craft traveled by air, land or sea, it would have crashed blindly into something.

    These few pitfalls aside, modeling was fun, entertaining and character-building. Plastic models were also the default Christmas purchases of boys who had more patience than money. You’d buy the box, wrap it up, sign a card and hand it over. The recipient could tell what model was inside simply by shaking the box.

    “’55 Chevy! Just what I wanted!”

    Then, the week after Christmas, you’d build it.

    Happy New Year.

    posted to Cedar Street Times on December 28, 2012

    Topics: Otter Views


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