Originally published 16 years ago on a now-extinct blog, I remembered this today and read it out loud to my wife, who’s been weepy all morning as a result. It’s a sad story, in other words, a trip back in time to when I was barely 12 years old in darkest West Texas and really, really wanted something for Xmas. Very introspective and revealing. At least I’m still drawing breath (the others are dead). Where do they hand out survivor medals, I wonder? Because I surely deserve one. – JHF
(In the Abilene fall of ’58, a catalog arrived. Inside was a color picture of a ready-to-fly gasoline powered plastic model plane and Johnny went beserk…)
I’d always wanted one, though plastic planes were new on the scene. Oddly enough, my Air Force dad had never encouraged me to build a powered model, but he knew a thing or two about balsa wood and paper. He’d shown me once how to anchor and dope the outer covering so it drew taut and shiny. But those were gliders, lesser projects, things we could afford. The raspy, snarling powered craft were not the sort of thing I dared to covet openly. My allowance didn’t reach to buy an engine, and he was never interested, or so I thought.
Whenever there were air shows or fairs around the air bases where we lived, he and I would go to watch the modelers compete. I liked the smell of burning fuel, the noise, and the excitement of the handlers working furiously to get their planes up in the air. Most of the events involved flying tethered models counter-clockwise in a circle. The planes always seemed to fly much faster than their scale would indicate. I feared and envied the responsibility of the lucky few who flew them.
For years I pored over model airplane magazines whenever I could get them. I learned the different brands and types of motors, the sizes and kinds of propellors, the prices and features of all the kits and accessories. I especially liked the replicas, the finely-detailed, complicated kits that if faithfully assembled resulted in a perfect miniature P-47 or Messerschmidt Me-109. My fantasy world of flying models never materialized, but there were static wood and plastic equivalents, so I eventually built up a large collection. The motorized variety, the “real thing,” was always just beyond my financial and technical ability to manifest, so I kept mum. And the the catalog appeared.
It may have been a Sears catalog, the kind we always had, the Sears Christmas season toy catalog that my siblings and I would read all fall in search of toys we’d never get. Christmas was a time for discipline, not hope and joy: “You’re not the only one in the family, you have to share,” or “You can’t just have any thing you want, you have to earn it.” But how to earn? Not literally by being paid for doing chores or babysitting for a neighbor, but more subtly and confusedly, by being somehow worthy. “You’d better not shout, you’d better not cry” was gospel in our home. One way to prove my worthiness, I learned, was to not show evidence of wanting anything at all. But how would people know what stirred my longing, and just where was the line?
The month between Thanksgiving and Christmas was always a tense and desperate time for me. Other kids did fine by whining and cajoling and announced their conquests early at school or on the street: “My folks are going to give me new roller skates for Christmas,” or “My dad’s already bought me a new bike, but he won’t let me ride it ’til we open our presents.” I listened to all of this and only grew more anxious. Did my parents and relatives know just what I wanted? How could they? If I said too much — which could mean anything at all — would I be disqualified? My mother and father believed in dampening expectations in any case. To hear them tell it, we’d be lucky to have a few cookies and a tree. I gradually learned to lowball my enthusiasm and tried to feel virtuous in my first-born role of head sacrificer, but it never worked. They expected me to be happy with a moral prize I couldn’t understand, so all I knew was that if something hurt, it must be “good.”
That fall before my 13th Christmas, I finally took a risk. Maybe it was the hormones, perhaps it was the stars. Surely the accumulating unfulfilled desires of years past had built up to the point where something had to give, but the picture of the airplane in the catalog was the catalyst. The thing was plastic, a gorgeous blue with yellow accents and a red tail. It has a .049 cubic inch displacement two-stroke gasoline motor, a red plastic propellor, and came with control lines already attached. There was nothing to glue or paint, it was ready to fly, and I wanted it. I wanted it more than anything I had ever seen in my life, and I let everyone know.
Not a day went by that I didn’t mention that model plane, leave the catalog open on the dining room table to point it out, or find a way to let my mother or father know how splendid and fulfilled my life would be if only I could have a thing like that. My modesty and shyness were artifacts of the past. I ate, lived, and breathed that shiny blue wonder for weeks on end. I thought about it during school. I re-read the catalog at night. I know I felt my destiny revolved around the acquisition of this culmination of all my boyhood model airplane dreams.
My parents must have wondered in this change in my behavior and may have blamed onrushing puberty. The fact of a maturing sexual animal in their midst had already given rise to myriad anxieties and strategems, such as moving me to a bedroom of my own, lest I “do” something in front of innocent siblings or even to them. I could hardly even pee without a mental timer being set. “Don’t grow a beard in there!” came shouted through the door at every instance.
If bathrooms were such forbidden places, why did my father spend so much time in them? It seems I never entered ours but that he’d only just left, leaving the air perfumed with shit and Camel smoke, butts floating in the bowl. I wasn’t jerking off (I’d hardly had a chance to learn), just aiming at what he’d smoked to tear open the softened paper and send the dark, twisted tobacco bits cascading through the yellow sea to sink like doomed shipwreck survivors.
For whatever reason, my parents had decided to relent. When Christmas morning came, the final present tucked behind the tree was—could it be?—yes, the plane! I can see them now, sitting on the sofa, eyeing me warily and strangely mute. Had they gone too far or spent too much? Was I worthy of this boon, and were they making a mistake by seeming to reward my avarice and lust? But the airplane was beautiful. Shiny hard plastic, gleaming .049 engine, even a small can of fuel to get me started. Naturally I had to fly it right away.
I don’t recall an objection to this, although there must have been. There surely would have been some cautious words expressed, something to warrant holding off gratifying an immediate desire. But there was no obvious justification for standing in the way. Our suburban West Texas home was on the outskirts of town, and right next door was an empty intersection, part of a road leading nowhere intended to serve neighborhoods not yet built. My father wanted to fly it first, of course, to show me how it was done, although he had only ever piloted real aircraft and not flown models. Amazingly, I got my way. It was Christmas morning, after all, and a warm, sunny Texas Christmas morning at that.
We filled the little gas tank (no bigger than a thimble), hooked up the dry cell battery to the glow plug, and my father gave the propellor a sturdy spin. The motor popped a couple of times, sputtered, then snarled into noisy life like an angry mechanical hornet. I stood in the center of the intersection with the control yoke in my right hand, scared but certain I could guide the tiny aircraft safely ’round and ’round until the fuel was spent. This was a significant moment: flying this plane would be the equivalent of leaping onto a horse or motorcycle I’d never seen before and riding off triumphantly into the sunset. By proving I could spontaneously master this skill I’d seen demonstrated countless times and practiced in my mind for years, I would become a man. I would show that I was worthy of the gift of my dreams. I would join the select fraternity of those who could, the ones I’d seen enjoying their sport in front of admiring crowds.
Surely this was easy. All I had to do was hold the U-shaped yoke at arm’s length and keep the two control lines even to achieve level flight. The dynamics were simple enough: tilting my wrist toward the ground would cause the plane to dive, and tilting it upward would cause the plane to climb. The main thing was stay cool and not overreact. My father adjusted the fuel/air mixture until the motor screamed the loudest, then held the plane in place on the pavement until I made sure the lines were taut. At a signal from me, he released the plastic wonder, which immediately streaked across the road and lifted itself into the air, moving impossibly fast.
It was all over in an instant. I over-controlled at the outset, sending the plane into a steep climb. If I had known what I was doing, at that point I could have kept the shiny blue craft flying in a tight circle overhead. Instead, I panicked and reversed the ascent. More quickly than it takes to tell the tale, my brand new toy plunged almost vertically into the ground and shattered into a hundred pieces.
The sudden silence was shocking after all that noise. Stunned, I walked over to where the thing had struck the road and saw there was no hope of repair. The engine, however, was undamaged, as were several other major parts, but none of these would ever be reunited. An indescribable sense of heartbreak, shame, and horror overwhelmed me and I turned to find my father. But where was he? — not where he’d squatted to launch the plane. I turned the other way and saw him walking rapidly away back toward the house. He never said a word.
I was alone in the street on Christmas morning with the pieces of the airplane scattered all around. Slowly I went around and collected all the fragments, like retrieving body parts of someone I had killed. I carefully gathered every part, as if somehow the miracle could be reconstituted and I would have another chance. I was shocked and sorry, but mostly I was horribly ashamed: I’d failed my test and let my father down, a verdict sealed by his silence and the sight of his back. I carried the box back to the mostly silent house. My brothers and sisters were still occupied in the living room, playing with their presents, but my parents were nowhere to be found. My present was “expensive,” after all, and I hadn’t taken care of it. That was my mother’s area of what passed for discipline and so explained her absence too.
Neither of them ever mentioned the airplane again. I eventually found a way to mount the engine on a board and tinkered with it hopefully. I felt it was a kind of penance, just the sort of patient demonstration that would gain me status as a worthy son and maybe even somehow bring forth another plane. (“Look, I saved the motor, and it works! I can use it with another model, can’t I?”). But my father showed no interest in a propellor not attached to a flying machine, and soon I stopped my backyard test-running of the .049. I kept it for a long time afterwards, however, and played with it in my hands. Feeling the compression build as I turned the prop was oddly comforting, and I liked the “pop” of a good, hard flip past the point of most resistance…
Somewhere in a parallel universe a different reality unfolds. A young boy wrecks a brand-new toy on Christmas Day but finds a manly arm around his shoulder and learns to carry
on. Perhaps he saves a tiny motor and the two of them build a new device to use the thing and keep the game alive. In this other universe, spirit counts for more than gold and love is unconditional.
Raise your children there, I say.