Planes, planes, planes for Christmas
When I was very young, our (my older brother Dean and I) favorite Christmas presents each year came from my uncle. They were model plane kits, at first stick-built balsa wood and later Revell plastic kits. By the time I left for the AF Academy, my room was chock full of planes of all types. One of my favorites was this Stileto from about 1957.
I think my love of planes, and models, rubbed off my brother Dean. One Christmas, while we were still living on 10th street in West End, my uncle Jimmy, mom’s younger brother, came down from Chattanooga bearing presents. I don’t remember what Uncle Jimmy brought me, but Dean got a model airplane. It was really just a small box of balsa wood and tissue paper, but from it Dean would build an airplane that could actually fly. Glide really, but to me it was just wonderful and I wanted it.
Dean was all boy. As soon as he was old enough, he prevailed on my parents to let him join the Cub Scouts – there was a pack at my neighbor’s church, which unfortunately was not a Catholic church. As kids do, Dean kept after my parents until they relented and, on his birthday, took him to the Army-Navy store to buy a uniform and camping equipment. Even my grandmother Bubba joined in and bought him an aluminum canteen. While he gloried in his take, I was off to the side, jealous as only a sibling can be when your brother gets all the attention.
One of the first projects Dean worked on with the Cub Scout was a model airplane. He brought it home and my mother helped him assemble it – she could do just about anything but my father had absolutely no interest in helping Dean with the model. It took him and Mom a few days, but at the end Dean had a real airplane. At least it was real to me. It was powered by a rubber band engine and could fly across the room. We could not afford paints, so Dean left the plane plain, if you get my drift. And I was so jealous of Dean’s plane.
When you are small, your imagination is wonderfully adept. All I had that year was burnt out Christmas tree bulbs, but I quickly converted one into a Flash Gordon rocket ship. Dean had his airplane, but I had a rocket ship and I stubbornly stuck to my vision of being able to shoot down Dean’s plane.
Back in the early ’50s, my family did not have a lot of money. We were lower middle class with only my dad’s hair stylist’s – salary to live on. But I did not know I was missing out. One year, along with Uncle Jimmy’s model planes, Dean and I got real English bicycles!
But that is another story for another time; back to airplanes.
When we moved to East Lake in 1955, I was 10 years old. Next door to our house on 9th Avenue, there was a family renting – as far as I know, my parents were buying our house. The father, Mr. Jones, was a distant relative of the Mr. Jones who lived on the other side of us. That Mr. Jones was rich, after all he owed two house and was a lawyer. The renting Mr. Jones was into model airplanes. And not just rubber band powered ones. His were powered by small gasoline engines that made a tremendous noise. And they were fast and maneuverable. They were called ‘control-line’ planes because you controlled them via two strings that came out of one wing and led to a handle that you could tilt back and forth and cause the model plane to go up or down. (always from the left wing, which made the plane go counter clockwise; I wonder if they go clockwise in Australia – have to ask David) The only problem I could see with those planes was that you could really get seasick from turning round and round to keep up with the plane.
Behind the rental house was a fairly large yard with no trees – a perfect place to fly control line model planes. And Mr. Jones did that as often as he could. Dean and I were enraptured with those planes and with Mr. Jones. (I was also enraptured with Mr. Jones’ daughter, Carol, with whom I was very smitten.)
That year for Christmas, Dean got a special plane from Uncle Jimmy – a control-line Beechcraft Bonanza model plane which was powered by a .049 gasoline engine. It was made of plastic and turned out to be crash resistant, which it needed to be. With Mr. Jones’ mentoring, Dean was soon flying the Bonanza round and round, zooming up and down. Dean even let me help him start the engine, which was a painful thing to learn how to do properly. We did not have automatic starters back then. You had to hook up a large battery to the engine’s glow plug and turn over the propeller using your finger. You had to learn to flick the prop quickly and get your finger out of the way. If the engine caught and started, the propeller would slam into your finger, causing a great deal of pain. But getting the little engine to fire required you to flick the prop over and over, until just as you got tired and slowed down your hand movement, the engine would bite you. But Dean loved that little plane, and he eventually let me learn to fly it too.
Although the Bonanza was a great starter plane, Dean soon wanted to build his own, larger, plane that would be powered by a much larger engine. That was the kind of planes Mr. Jones’ had. And Dean had his heart set on building a radio-controlled plane so he could break free from the control lines. This was about the time that Dean got sick, really sick.
I did not know it, but the pain in his leg that Dean kept complaining about turned out to be cancer. So one day my father brought home a large box containing the parts and instructions for a balsa wood model of a 1930’s trainer aircraft – I cannot remember the designation but I think it was a T6 Texan – and gave it to Dean. He had asked Mr. Jones for advice on which kit to buy and asked Mr. Jones if he would help Dean make the plane.
The first thing Dean built was the wing, and it turned out to be the only part of the plane Dean was able to get done before he fell too sick to work on it. The wings were about 36 inches long and were made up of balsa wood. This was about as far as Dean got. Later, after he died, I tried to complete the plane and did get the wings covered with doped fabric with the help of Mr. Jones. And I completed the fuselage, mounting the gas tank and engine, which I saved my allowance to buy. With Mr. Jones help, I actually got the engine running, almost breaking my finger in the process as the much larger engine really could whack you. But I never got to fly the plane; I just could not scrape together the money to buy the radio control parts before Mr. Jones and family moved away to Kentucky.
I left the unfinished plane hanging from the ceiling of the bedroom I once shared with Dean and headed off to the Academy. The plane, alone with all the other models Dean and I built, remained in that bedroom until my parent’s divorced and sold the house. I never asked my mother what she did with those planes. I hope she gave them to some one who would love them as much as Dean and I did.