• Otter Views: Winter Break: The World of Small Things

    Midwinter vacation ends for most area school kids pretty soon, but until it does, recent gifts can get a workout. That struck me during a Saturday afternoon stroll down Carmel Beach, where a sand- slewing mini-dune buggy perplexed the dogs and amused their owners.

    The boy toggling the remote had clearly done some practicing since Christmas. With deft finger and thumb flicks, he sent the little car zipping across flat sand, gunning up and down embankments and spinning into tight U-turns. Joyously barking dogs pursued the car, and then were pursued in turn.

    The scene reminded me that small or scaled-down things often occupy kids in the blissful caesura between New Year’s and the return to school. There’s a window of a week or so when Christmas toys, doll houses, Legos and play sets command more attention than they’re likely to get later on. Also, the parts are still intact.

    Wherever I am during that caesura week, I try to get out and see new manifestations of the small world. Viewing scaled-down things reminds me of childhood, but it can also be a grown up game of perspective. Some settings make you the scaled-down element.

    I started one New Year by bicycling from Mill Valley over the Golden Gate Bridge into San Francisco. My destination was a small lake I had heard about where hobbyists launched radio-controlled or free-sailing model ships. I probably had in mind the Central Park sailboat race from “Stuart Little.”

    Under virtually any circumstances, crossing the Golden Gate Bridge is a perspective-warping enterprise. Its great orange superstructure looms up, and suddenly you’re smaller than an ant. Seen from the bridge, the distant metro area looks like a Tinkertoy town, its lofty towers and spires mere cake decorations. Sails on the bay look like sparrow feathers.

    On the January morning I bicycled across. A marine fog streamed over the bridge, obscuring all but the tower summits. Stopping at the crest of that day’s designated bikeway, I dismounted and stared down through swirling mist. Just then the fog parted for a minute, and a cargo ship slid past far beneath me.

    It was a classic perspective warp. Moments earlier I had been ant-sized. Now I was a fog-bound giant, bestriding an entire ship. The moment could have come right out of a Calvin and Hobbes cartoon strip. After a few scenic detours, I managed to find the shallow lake on the San Francisco side. There hobbyists of all ages toggled hand-held remote control boxes to send their models out onto the briny. It was a busy waterfront. Harbor tugs churned past PT boats and aircraft carriers. Sleek cigarette boats left fishing trawlers rocking in their wakes. A four-foot long submarine slipped beneath the surface to menace sloops tacking across the other end of the lake.

    As one easily seduced by the small world, I was in heaven. If I had to pinpoint a time and place where this fixation began, I would say January of 1952 in Colorado Springs. My brother and I were island kids, but our parents had, in an earlier life, been homeowners in this landlocked town. One autumn our dad moved the family back from Honolulu so he could fix up the Colorado house and sell it.

    This was a great adventure for us kids. For the first time in our short lives, we wore boots, mittens, long pants, Davy Crockett hats, heavy coats. We saw leaves turn color, ice form, snow fall and snowmen rise. We even rode a horse-drawn sleigh and heard harness bells “jingle.” Finally, all this Christmas stuff started to make sense.

    One dark January afternoon too bitter for snow play, our dad led us down the avenue to a house we hadn’t visited before. Sidewalk ice crunched and crackled beneath our buckled boots. At length a door opened. A friendly man greeted us and led the way through his kitchen to a staircase.

    “Hold the banister rail, boys,” he cautioned. “Dark down here.”

    Another door creaked open, and we descended into a big, cool cellar where a fantastic model railroad was laid out. A mile of track crisscrossed plywood plains and cactus-studded deserts; climbed through pine forests and snowcapped mountain passes; spanned river gorges on steel trestle bridges.

    Smelling faintly of machine oil and ozone, three scale-model trains whirred through this downsized world, their tiny passengers seated in dining cars or reading miniscule magazines. As the trains passed each other, the tracks hummed and clicked. At each crossing, synchronous colored signal lights winked red, yellow and green.

    That January afternoon was altogether magical. It triggered in me a lifetime fascination with perspective. It also guaranteed the small world would enliven subsequent new year caesuras, right up to this one.


    posted to Cedar Street Times on January 9, 2015

    Topics: Otter Views


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