Toyland, Toyland – Little Girl and Boy Land….Wishfully, Forever!

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The $50 gift certificate from Talbot’s Toyland in San Mateo, California had been burning a hole in my “pocket” for several months – reminiscent of my boyhood enthusiasms. A gift from my daughter Ginny’s family, I just redeemed it for a 1/72 scale, Corgi die-cast WWII British Spitfire airplane – and a beautiful little model she is!

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This is the airplane that saved England in WWII by winning the Battle of Britain in the skies overhead. I knew about all of that, but a recent PBS documentary really drove home to me just how heroic and crucial the aerial combat over England at the opening of the war was in deterring Hitler’s Luftwaffe from devastating the country.

A Senior Citizen Lost in a Toy Store?

Yes, a toy store like Talbot’s can still thrill a seventy-four year old guy with its offerings. I have been a customer of Talbot’s in downtown San Mateo since 1955, the year it first opened its doors – in the very same location! I was fifteen years old, living a few miles from the downtown and still building model airplanes, buying plastic kits from Talbot’s and more substantial models from the venerable Hobby Haven several blocks across town. Now, sixty years later, Hobby Haven has long-since disappeared, but the greatly-expanded Talbot’s continues today as THE place in the entire region to shop for electric trains, RC airplanes and cars, educational toys, bikes, and everything else in between.

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Things ARE changing, however. Many old-timers are no longer with us. As we disappear, so does the demand for airplanes that we knew so well from our youth, replaced in the young’s affections by space-age toys and conveyances from the post Star Wars era. I knew this to be true after noticing a relatively slow turnover of the “warbird” stock in the brilliantly illuminated display cases at Talbot’s. The long-term, friendly, and knowledgeable staff at Talbot’s confirmed that business in WWII aircraft has slowed considerably. My little Spitfire model had been on display for at least a few months, it seems, begging for an old-timer to come along, take it home, and lavish it with affection! I decided to be that “hero,” equally because I love the model’s graceful lines, its beautifully crafted detail, and because it is so historically relevant to the great history of WWII.

To Fly and Fight_1I have many personal accounts sitting on my bookshelves from the men who flew such aircraft in the war; their stories project unparalleled drama and adventure in a time and setting which can never be repeated. Unlike today’s trend toward automated drone warfare, these men actually climbed into a cold cockpit on some far away airfield, fired-up their coughing, belching engines, and taxied off  to today’s mission and, often, into oblivion. Clarence E. “Bud” Anderson, one of America’s greatest aces flying the storied P-51 Mustang fighter expressed it succinctly, yet poignantly, in his fine book:

 

“Staying alive was no simple thing in the skies over Europe in the spring of 1944. A lot of men couldn’t. It was a bad thing to dwell on if you were a fighter pilot, and so we told ourselves we were dead men and lived for the moment with no thought of the future at all. It wasn’t too difficult. Lots of us had no future and everyone knew it.”

Today’s allure for youngsters involves Star Wars style spacecraft dripping with laser cannons and chock full of presumed, computer-based systems! That modern allure and fascination seems no match for the real-life drama of the “stick and rudder” men wearing leather helmets who flew their machines in both World Wars – no match, at least, for us old-timers. Those men survived to fly yet another day thanks only to their unconventional courage and skill at maneuvering to get the enemy’s “tail” within the line of fire of their machine guns, all the while insuring that another of the enemy was not closing in on their tail. Skill, daring, and “just plain luck” were each factors in the survival equation. But that was then, and today belongs to the young, though I cannot help but wonder if, in their old-age, today’s youngsters will view their boyhood passions in the same dramatic human light as we do. Perhaps so.

For me, this post is a collage of mixed messages: The wonder still present for all ages and interests, and both sexes (Talbot’s has a great doll department) in a really fine toy store; the fleeting vision over passing time of the receding culture which so influenced our childhood; our changing attitudes and outlooks; and, finally, the joy of still encountering a surviving link to our fondest personal memories and recollections. Talbot’s sixty year tenure and enduring influence in downtown San Mateo represents an uncommon, present-day reminder of who we were and what life was like, many years ago. I will think of all this whenever I gaze at my latest gem from Talbot’s.

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Family Funnies / Great Laughs!

Now and then, when in a reflective mood, I especially miss the presence of my parents, Alice and Alfred – both gone now for over twenty years. My sister and I being only siblings, and with relatives largely faded memories from our early Chicago past, we feel the loss all the more. For many reasons, we were blessed to draw the parents we did, and one aspect of their legacy remains particularly vivid and dear – their senses of humor.

My mother’s laugh was as contagious as any disease known to man. When she got going, it rapidly escalated as the absurdness of the situation that started it in the first place grabbed full hold of her. At that point, it was impossible to resist, and my father was no help in that regard whatsoever since he and my mother were kindred spirits in that sense. Soon, anyone within range was consumed by tear-provoking laughter from which there was no exit – like being caught- up in a tornado vortex. Here are two memorable occasions that top the family laugh-list, and they both center on Dad and “fly”ing.

The Great Plane Crash

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My dad loved airplanes; he worked as a mechanical engineer for United Airlines for 37 years. When he retired, he took up radio-controlled model airplanes as a hobby. He had built model airplanes as a child and later, but the radio control aspect really hooked him late in life. The airplanes he built were works of art; he was the finest overall craftsman I ever knew…period. Whatever he designed, repaired, and/or constructed with his two hands was impeccably accomplished. So was the brilliant red and black sport-flyer he took out flying that day. My mother, I, my wife, Linda, and our two daughters accompanied him to the nearby bay-lands RC field where he and other modelers of his local club gathered to fly.

Dad fueled the plane, started up its mini-gasoline engine and began the take-off roll. The plane swept smoothly into the air, dad at the controls. I noticed as the plane began its first broad oval flight pass above the field in front of us that dad’s hands were a little shaky that day at the  hand-held control box. Dad, like me, had shown a small-motor tendency toward “nervousness” through the years, plus, he was then in his late sixties which doesn’t help! He was also likely extra-conscious of us, his audience, that day. The plane was definitely acting a little “squirrelly” right after take-off.

The airplane wavered in the air as it came around heading toward us on the second turn of its closed-oval path. Now the wings began to “waggle” even more as it responded to dad’s shaky hands. “Oh my God, it has missed the turn and is coming straight overhead, now!,” I cried silently. When that happens, it is easy to become dis-oriented at the controls – which is exactly what happened. As the plane passed directly overhead with dad still fighting the controls, I swung around 180 degrees in time to see it arch steeply upward and then immediately plunge straight down into the parking lot, disappearing from view behind the modeler’s shed directly behind us.

We all ran to the parking lot; I knew the outcome would be ugly, praying only that nobody was killed in the parking lot by that sizeable plunging airplane. As we rounded the shed, there it was, a large radiating circle of splintered balsa-wood, two rubber wheels, and a bright red plastic nose “spinner” still mounted in front of the splintered wood propeller which was, in turn, mounted on the little engine all of which, as a complete sub-assembly, sat forlornly in the middle of the balsa-wood pile. Finally my mother rounded the shed, stopped, stared, and cried, “Oh Affie, it’s broken!” That probably was the greatest understatement of the facts I have ever heard in my life!

 As I stood there next to my father silently staring at what had been a beautiful airplane requiring many hours to build, a terrible tug-of-war raged in my heart and mind. On the one hand, I felt so sorry for my dad who was being very stoic; on the other hand, my mother’s severely understated response to the damage made me want to just bust out laughing. Luckily, I fought for and maintained my composure at that moment, but we all later laughed our way through an unforgettable lunch as we replayed the event over and over.

I drew the following cartoon of the event soon afterward:

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Dad Versus the House-Fly

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Of all my family reminiscences, the most memorable and hilarious was the afternoon of “The Great Fly War” waged between Alfred, my father, and an anonymous fly which had found its way into my parent’s house one warm afternoon. Linda, I , and our two girls had just settled down for a late-afternoon dinner prepared by Alice, my mother. As we sat down to eat and began to pass food around the table, a pesky, uninvited  fly decided to join us. After waving him off countless times, Dad started to become peeved. As we started eating, he abruptly rose to take action against this most annoying intruder, attempting to “herd” the little pest into the laundry room behind the kitchen where the door could be closed and the little bugger held prisoner while we ate in peace. As the rest of us continued eating, Dad succeeded in corralling this fly in the laundry room after considerable effort. By this time, dad was really upset at this fly and came out of the closed laundry room to fetch the fly-swatter. Dad had had enough and decided he was going to have it out with the fly right then and there. As he headed back into the laundry room, fly-swatter in hand, the door closed behind him, and we all started to giggle and laugh.

Dad was a lot like me, patient and stoic about large crises (stuff happens), yet  impatient with little annoyances (that should not be happening!). He had now worked himself into a personal vendetta against this fly, and once Dad made up his mind, there was no turning back! Soon after the laundry room door closed behind him, we heard a loud WHAP! And then a loud WHAP-WHAP! And then some more WHAPS. It wasn’t long before each subsequent WHAP-WHAP was followed by decipherable swearing….and then more and still more.

By this time, my mother’s laugh-machine was turned full-on and we were all experiencing tears with each swell of laughter. Finally, it was quiet – the battle apparently over. We heard the door open and Dad appeared in the dining room with fly-swatter in hand and his always neat hair considerably mussed. One look, and we were laughing even harder – if that were possible. He triumphantly announced, “I got him!” I recall that our faces hurt so from all the laughter, that it was hard to chew our dinner. What a time! The food was great…but a little cold.

Dad's RC Crash009 Rest in peace Mom and Dad; we all love you and miss you!