Deep Thoughts Modeling Nostalgia

Modeling Nostalgia: The Past Through A Box

If you’ve read this blog for any amount of time, you know I’m all about nostalgia. Whether it’s recounting the absurdity of a childhood adventure, or waxing eloquent about something poignant, I love to tell stories. I think if you really got down to it, I would rather be known for my story telling than modeling in the long run.

Many of my modeling memories are general, such as recalling the places I built my models through my childhood, or how I’d paint things. Standing back, viewing the past through today, a general picture emerges.

Where the fun happens insofar as writing inspiration goes is in specific impressions. Recalling a particular success or failure, or having had fun with a build, and remembering friends joining me to play, all provide wonderful fodder.

But no matter the circumstances, so many of those memories are based around kits. Boxes full of plastic. 

Down Memory Lane

In my early modeling years, from about 1972 to 1983, I built around 100 model kits. Most of them were notable only for the fact that I remember the type. They’d be built, and generally set on my model shelf. A few were special enough to make it to the ranks of my toy soldier army.

Eventually, I became involved in sports, drove my own car, and of course had a girlfriend. Building models slipped away from me. When I moved out on my own, I had to decide which if any models I should take with me. I threw a few away, and decided to pack a box away in my parents attic with the rest. What happened to that box I have no idea.

When I took up model building again in 2006, I thought often about those old kits. Prior to that point, I’d never used Ebay. Very quickly though, I discovered that I could find a lot of models there. I decided to see if some of the old kits I recalled building could be dug up.

Happily, I discovered there were plenty. And thus I began to collect some of my favorites.

The Reason For The Nostalgia

I collect those kits for a simple reason – they are a tangible connection to a simpler time. Most of us didn’t know at the time how good we had it in our childhood. (Of course, that’s not true for everyone, I know, and I grieve that.) While my own childhood had some oddities – many of which I only recognized many years later – for the most part it was a process of build models, ride the bike, climb trees, and when all else failed, go to school. We weren’t rich, nor poor. I had what I needed, a few things I wanted, and lots of friends to spend time with. It was a simple, mostly joyful childhood.

When I find a kit that has particular meaning, I try to find it at a bargain price. While many things have changed since I was a child, one thing has not – my parent’s frugality, which they passed on to me. So while I love the nostalgia, there is an economic threshold I keep in mind. Still, through persistence, I’ve been able to collect most of my favorite kits, in the boxes I remember them in.

Holding them brings back floods of memories. While most days I have trouble recalling a phone number without repeating it over and over until it is dialed, the physical connection between a box of parts and the storage system that is my brain seems to almost be a secret lock to release events long hidden away. Strong visual recollections follow, even down to specific discussion with friends, or my own thoughts I had many years ago.

It’s definitely an escape from today. The thing that has surprised me most about “being grown up” is simply how hard it is. My dad always made it seem easy. I asked a question, he had the answer. If he didn’t, he knew Mr. Such-and-Such over at So-and-So Inc., and he’d make a quick call, and before long we both had out answer. He always seemed to know what to do. It was only shortly before his death that we discussed this, and he admitted that all the while, he still felt like his 10-year-old self in an old body trying to make decisions. 

I guess I’m on the right track then. 

The Kits

These kits are my all time favorites, and the reason for each will unfold accordingly. 

Brochures

As I’ve purchased these kits over the years, a few came with the little inserts familiar to modelers from that era. They ranged from small catalogs to invitations to join the model of the month club. I always liked looking at those, because in many cases they were the only “real” models I saw. 

These three show a bit of the evolution of the hobby. One is a mid-1960s sample from Monogram. A few colors, simple line art, and oh those prices. Less than a decade later, the prices are gone, the paper is slick, the photos are color, but many of the same models remain. Some are still sold today.

I still enjoy pulling one of these out and counting how many I built as a child. (And even a few as an adult.)

Monogram 1/72 B-25 Mitchell

I don’t recall how I received this model, or even precisely when I built it. It has to have been an earlier kit, because I don’t recall a time that its array of forward firing 50 caliber machine guns weren’t providing amazing air support to my  plastic soldier armies. One strafing run from it would result in half the enemy being wiped out. Which meant “knocked over”.

The surface was covered in rivets, and even had the marking engraved in as raised panel lines. As the decals began to wear off, I’d paint them back on, mostly staying in the lines. The whole model was painted in that horrid Testors square bottle silver enamel paint. I don’t recall that it ever fully dried.

I later built Monogram’s 1/48 B-25, and while it was a wonderful kit, this simple little silver bullet always had a favored place on my model shelf.

Revell’s 1/32 Baa Baa Black Sheep Corsair

One of my favorite TV shows was “Baa Baa Black Sheep”, a television series about MAJ Greg “Pappy” Boyington and his Black Sheep Squadron, VMF-214. At the time, I took it as gospel… that was how it happened. Only later did I find out how far the show actually departed from the truth. But as a starry-eyed kid, I didn’t care.

Week after week, the Corsairs would fly across the screen, chasing Zeros in epic dogfights. My friends and I loved playing the characters. Every week I waited for the new episode to be shown. 

When Revell released their kits, I got them right away. I don’t recall if I nagged my dad until I had them (which is less likely) or if I mowed yards and did chores until I could afford them. (Far more likely.) The kits were nothing special… just the same old Revell 32nd scale Corsair (and Zero) that had been released before. But these were different. They had “Baa Baa Black Sheep” printed on them, and MAJ Boyington too. At least the one from TV.

This was one of the first kits that I really tried to match the box colors, and make it look real. And it stayed on my shelf, being far too special to get damaged in toy soldier battles.

Monogram 1/48 F-86 Sabre Jet

This one has a lot of very vivid memories associated with it. My maternal grandmother, who we called Ma, had begun to have difficulty living on her own because of arthritis. One year my parents said we’d spend Christmas with her, as it might be the last one in her house.

On Christmas morning, before everyone else got up, I rushed into the living room to see what Santa Claus had left. Two models sat under the tree… Monogram’s 1/48 Mig-15, and this F-86 Sabre. I was happy to have the Mig, because it was a kit to be built. But it was quickly set aside… no joy to be showered upon the bad guys.

But that F-86… it was so sleek! And the interior had more detail than I’d ever seen. This was not your “stick the tab in the pilot’s back into the slot in the fuselage” detail. It had a full cockpit tub, an instrument panel with little dials, gun bay details, and loads of other goodies. I felt like this one was my first “real” model.

I’d learned my lesson from that silver B-25 too. This kit was painted with a rattle can of silver paint. Advanced indeed. 🙂

Monogram M4 Sherman Hedge Hog

This was one of the later kits I built, though it still occasionally made a showing on my plastic soldier battlefields. However, a particular feature of this one began to transform my thinking about the hobby.

While the kit was nice enough, with cool sandbags to apply around the hull, and of course the hedgerow cutter for the front, it came with something else very special – Sheperd Paine’s “Tips On Building Dioramas” color brochure.

These began to appear in Monogram kits in the mid-70s if I recall correctly. Looking at them literally rocked my world. I never, ever imagined models could be built this way. In my naivety, I pictured Mr. Paine sitting in a huge corporate office, building his models, as staff stood by to cater to his every need. I truly thought he was the best modeler in the world, and that any luxury would be afforded to him by Monogram.

This brochure was literally worn out looking at it. I tried to emulate it, but without access to proper tools, my efforts never quite matched what he did – which only convinced me further of his amazing skill.

Years later, on Facebook, I was able to “friend” him. I sent him a note (as I’d guess thousands of modelers did), thanking him for his work, and telling him about how much it meant to me. His response, though brief, meant the world to me – I actually heard from a childhood hero. “I am glad to hear you have enjoyed my work over the years. It is always gratifying to hear from people saying that it has had a positive influence on their own modeling projects.

When I heard a few years later of his death, it was for me in many ways like a previous generation losing Buddy Holly, The Big Bopper, and Ritchie Valens. Ten-year-old Jon thought it was the day the modeling died. Even as I write this, I will admit my eyes are tearing up a bit.

Aurora’s N-156 Freedom Fighter

This is probably the oldest kit I own.  It was a birthday present, given to me in ’76 if I recall. While I knew the F-5 (which was the military designation for this export aircraft) was not the fastest jet around, I always thought – and still do – that this was how a jet fighter should look. It’s such a sleek looking design.

The kit was very simple, another one with the markings cast into the model’s surface. I painted it white, as the box showed, but for some reason decided it needed stripes, and gave it some black stripes on the wing and tail. Handpainted, of course, so you know it was perfectly straight.

I could look at this one for long periods of time. It seemed less a jet fighter and more like a true “Star Fighter”.

It cracks me up today as I look at the suggestion to use “fireproof cement”. I can actually recall thinking that was a bit odd, because what good would it do if the cement survived a fire? The plastic would surely melt down. It never occured to me at the time that the benefit of being fireproof was to stop idiot kids (of which I was and are) from lighting it on fire. (Which I did… but no longer do. 🙂 )

Lindberg 1/72 P-47B Thunderbolt

I had to save the best for last.

This was the first kit I built on my own. My dad had brought it home as a surprise present for doing something well in school… not eating crayons or something. 🙂 I recall it was 1972, which would have been kindergarten. I’d built a few kits with my dad, but this one was my first completed entirely by myself.

At the time I thought it was amazing, but it had to have been horrid. The box art looked to be brown and blue to me. Using little Testors square bottles, I applied GLOSS brown and GLOSS sky blue,and was quite happy with myself. It was another model that I don’t think ever fully dried. I have visions in my head of it sitting in some landfill, buried deep… paint still slightly tacky.

But I loved it. It was the lead aircraft in my air support squadron for the entire time I played with plastic army men. By the time I retired from that as a young teen, it had lost its landing gear, most of the gun barrels, and had the prop glued back on so many times it wasn’t even close to being at the proper angle. And it was covered in fingerprints.

Still, it was flown by Captain Thunderbolt, the heroic leader of Thunderbolt Squadron (later renamed “Red Squadron” in 1977 for reasons many of you can already guess… 😉 ), and it always led the way into battle, was the last to leave, and though oft damaged by gunfire, never went down.

I actually purchased two of these on Ebay. One in an older 60’s boxing so I could look at the parts. But the other is the same box I recall, an early 70’s boxing, still shrink wrapped. 

Parting The Fog

If I’m not careful, I can let the nostalgia these kits invoke lull me into a melancholy about the reality of today. I have to stop and remember that there are many blessings I have today that I would never trade to return to that time if it were even possible. And it’s too easy to see yesteryear through rose-colored glasses, of course. There were things that may not have been so wonderful, and my models provided a retreat from the storm in many cases.

Still… looking back at my younger modeling days, holding these kits in my hands, has helped open up long dusty memories, filed away for decades. And as I am soon to be blessed with our first grandson, I look forward to hopefully sharing those memories – and these kits – with him in the not-so-distant future.

Who knows… maybe we’ll even crack open the shrink wrap on the P-47B. I’m sure I can find an old bottle of Testors gloss brown and blue in the little square bottle. And he can hear all about the battles that Captain Thunderbolt fought in with his Grandaddy.

8 comments

  1. I have some fond memories of a 1:72 F-14 I built as a kid. The model was probably more accurate than the 1:48 F-14A from Academy I bought not too long ago. I later found out that the sky blue on plastic gray paintjob of mine wasn’t fully covering the plastic, but that was ok. Somehow the glossy sky blue Humbrol enamel paint looked great even though I had painted the model with a brush.

    I remember the smell of old humbrol bins of paint, especially for painting propeller blades and that worrysome yellow tip (having no clue about using masking tape).

    My bother had this spanish galleon ship in plastic, where the wooden planks had wooden pattern on it, it looked great I thought.
    And ofc I remember the Airfix 1:72 motor torpedo boat kit, which I am currently building again so many years later.
    Also, I remember as a kid I saw an F-16 in 1:72 scale, and I thought it was a fantasy model I remember, having no knowledge about the F-16 being that young.
    The Matchbox kit boxes looked great I thought, colorful, but also having distinct painted illustrations, which looked nice I thought when combined with the familiar box art for Matchbox in particular.

  2. Oh, those Shepard Paine brochures! I loved those Monogram armor kits. This post brings me back to San Jose, California in 1976. Sitting in my room trying to paint all those sandbags (sometimes with a Q-tip, mind you) and trying to make dioramas that looked like the boxart. Thanks for the post!

  3. Jon, It seems we’ve led the same life… Me in NJ and you in FLA…

    I had many of these models as well, but alas, I’ve long ago lost these models of my youth… 🙁

    When I moved (back in 2006) I re-discovered the small stash of Shep Payne Books and Modeling magazines that I had… Sooo Cool… and when I had to go get my new Divers License a little lost in a new town, I discovered a “little” Hobby Shop a few doors down (you know where) and knew I was home… So armed with these old magazines and a steady source of supply, I re-entered the world of Styrene and glue and paint…

    Now as an adult and armed with at least a few more resources than back in the “old days”… I can really explore any plastic genre I desire… I’m not good at it… I still get tense when I have to airbrush… I still make mistakes (some catastrophic)… I have a pile of unfinished projects… Piles more models waiting to be started and passed on by my newest acquisition which suddenly becomes my new favorite…

    To this day my favorite part of building remains “whittling”. That’s what I called removing flashing in the old days… Whatever happened to that stuff anyway? I thought that was important…

    Come to think of it I haven’t changed too much since I was 10, just a bit taller, rounder, achier, maybe grumpy at times… I don’t want to grow up…

    1. Come to think of it I haven’t changed too much since I was 10, just a bit taller, rounder, achier, maybe grumpy at times… I don’t want to grow up…

      Nailed it! 😀

  4. Great idea for a blog post! I might try it in the future. A lot of my old model builds are hazy memories. I think I got started with a lindberg Missouri. But I also remember doing a monogram f-14 and some form of tractor trailer. I got the KITT car and a Revell Huey at some point too. Those awful orange tubes of glue though…

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