Models, curiosity, Popsicles, and fun places

Building plastic airplane models was a very big thing back then.  I must have had around twenty or thirty models hanging from the ceiling in my room.  Building them was fun, but my parents soon began to wonder how safe it was to have all of them hanging up that way.  Once in a while one of them would come crashing down and dismember itself on the floor.  The pieces would be put carefully into a box and saved for a special occasion.

That occasion was when the Fourth of July began to creep up on us.  About three weeks prior, we would begin amassing our stash of explosives.  No construction company ever took more care in their selection of firecrackers, cones, cherry bombs and other items that are now completely proscribed.  Our real favorite was the Roman candle.  Roman candles would be our weapon of choice when mock (and maybe not so mock) battles were fought in our front yard.  We would light them off and run around blasting balls of fire at each other until the two-foot long tube gasped its last ‘phutt’.

Our cherry bombs had rubberized fuses so that, once lit, you could put them into water and they would still go off.  None of us would EVER consider putting one down a toilet, but the local ponds were fair game.  It would sound like a major battle was occurring when us kids would head for the local drainage pond and fire away.  The big ones (some cherry bombs were just over an inch in diameter) would always sink to the bottom before going off.  Huge gouts of muddy water could be brought to the surface when one exploded.  Anyone foolish enough to float their destroyer models would be depth charged unmercifully.

Hammerheads were another explosive to be careful with.  This was a firecracker that was about two inches long and half an inch in diameter.  It was called a hammerhead because the fuse stuck out from the middle of the tube.  We all handled these with the utmost care as they could take an arm off easily.  I put one in a knot of a four-inch tree in the woods, lit it, and got the hell away while it sputtered.  It exploded with a huge boom and the tree slowly dropped to the ground.  I decided that these were just a little too much for me to handle and gave the rest away.

Dead plastic models (like the ones that had fallen from ceilings) were a favorite target of small firecrackers called ladyfingers.  Ladyfingers were jammed into an opening in a model and when they exploded, parts of the model would whirl away into the air.  We would gather the pieces, jam them together again and fire off another ladyfinger until nothing of use was left of the model.

The whole fireworks thing was treated as no big deal by anyone.  You could buy fireworks most anywhere for a month before the Fourth.  Somehow, the fun of fireworks has been legislated away and what is left is a dry, uninteresting shell.

While playing on hot, sweaty summer days we would down gallons of water and other liquids.  We were never too busy though to ignore the soft tinkling of the ice cream truck several blocks away.  Each and every day this truck would drive through our neighborhood with the mechanical bells tinkling right above the windshield.  Kids would gather at its frequent stops and hold out money for their choice.  I was partial to twin pops.  These were just popsicles that were joined down the middle and had two sticks coming out of them instead of one.  They cost a dime, but I would almost always share with Kathleen.

You had to eat one fast in the heat or they would disintegrate rapidly.  One usually ended up wearing it all over your arms and chest.  The worst was grape.  It made your tongue purple.

I was always poking into things to see how they worked.  I disassembled my alarm clock and carefully laid each piece on a cloth on my desk.  I never got it back together completely correct though because it suddenly began keeping double-time.  I would set it and two hours later it would indicate four hours had passed.  I remained mystified as I tried my best to fix it.  Never did though.

All things electronic became my passion while I was working on the Radio merit badge.  The first task was to build a complete crystal radio by myself.  Nothing but the components could be purchased.  I sweated bullets winding the coil just so, and making sure all the joints on the breadboard were soldered perfectly.  I was so disappointed when it didn’t work the first time.  I messed with it for two days until I discovered that I had reversed the winding of the coil – one of them was electronically coupled to the other, but with reverse polarity.  In short, they “fought” each other and the radio didn’t work.  It was as if you had put two batteries into a device, but reversed one of them.  They would both be one and a half volts, but work against each other producing zero volts.  Simply reversing one set of joints made it suddenly spring to full voice.

I tuned that radio every Saturday morning carefully to listen to the likes of the Lone Ranger, Big Jon and Sparkie (“If you go out to the woods today, you’re in for a big surprise…”), The Kids Morning Show, and other serialized programs.  Nighttime radio scared the crap out of me with shows like Inner Sanctum, Dimension X, Suspense, and Captain Midnight.  Comedies also prevailed for us kids with such items as Henry Aldrich, Our Miss Brooks, Jack Benny, Amos and Andy, and The Life of Riley.

My second, and final, task for the merit badge was to assemble a one tube radio.  This was a job an order of magnitude harder than a crystal set.  No matter how much I fiddled with the results I couldn’t get it to work.  I couldn’t even get the little filament inside the tube to light up.  I saved my allowance for a week to buy a new one but still couldn’t get it to work.  I didn’t give up though and when a repairman came to fix our TV (yeah, they used to make house calls), he took the time to show me where I had gone wrong.  I didn’t realize that tube diagrams were printed in such a manner that the pins were viewed from the bottom of the tube, not the top.  I had wired every pin incorrectly.  He spent almost an hour showing me where I went wrong and to add suggestions for improvement.  He also gave me a spare tube ‘just in case’.  Before he left, my new radio was working great.  I spent a lot of time huddled under a blanket late at night listening to that radio.

Being exposed to all these electronic things had a profound influence on my later life.  It was the field I entered in the Navy, as well as being a solid base for my life after I retired.  I never forgot some of the things that good man taught me in the hour or so we were together.  Most notable, was the mnemonic phrase I learned for the electrical color code used for electronic components like resistors, capacitors, and the like:  “bad boys ravish our young girls but violet” (the slut) “gives willingly – get some now”.  In order, it stands for black, brown, red, orange, yellow, green, blue, violet, grey, white – gold (5% tolerance), silver (10% tolerance), none (20% tolerance).

Kathleen and I continued to hang out together.  Our twice daily walks to or from the bus stop were the high points of my day.  She and I were hardly ever in the same classroom at the same time so we barely saw each other during school hours.  We had assigned seats on the bus, but I managed to bribe the kid sitting next to her with a nickel each day to swap with me.  At first, we got soundly jeered very hard by our peers, but, in time, they left us alone.

Backpacks weren’t invented yet, so ‘carrying books’ was an acceptable method of staking your claim on a particular girl.  Once you started doing that, nobody else was supposed to encroach on your territory.  Several tries were made, but were rebuffed, surprisingly enough, by Kathleen.  The bus stop was about four hundred yards from our houses, but the trip took almost half an hour.  We would walk a bit, stop and talk, and walk some more.  Soon, we would reach her house, where she would peel off, and then mine.

As quickly as possible, I would blow through my homework and prepare for late afternoon activities.  Likely as not this would consist of hopping on my bike and making the rounds of my friends’ houses to see if we could drum up anything to do.  If nothing was going on, I would drift back to Kathleen’s house and we would just sit on her front porch in the swing.

We would quietly shift closer and closer to each other as inconspicuously as possible until we were hip to hip.  No ‘funny stuff’ was tolerated by her mom though.  When we could feel her peering through the curtains at us we knew that she was on her way out with something to drink, or a cookie plate, or both.  She would say something like “Hi there thought you would like something gee isn’t it a nice evening I think I’ll sit here too”.  Then she would plop down in a chair and keep us from doing anything further.  In the dictionary under ‘mama bear protects her cubs’ is a picture of her mom.

Some Saturdays Kathleen and I would spend just wandering around on our bikes.  Within our community we had two nearby strip malls.  Well, the term ‘strip mall’ doesn’t quite come up to the connotation it has today as the poor thing only contained a drug store, a grocery, a dry cleaners, two liquor stores, and a Laundromat.  One reached it by pedaling across our little housing area and crossing a busy road. Not much to look at and certainly not a good destination.

The other direction, we could ride all the way into the outskirts of Washington itself.  This was our favorite destination.  We would each pack a lunch and a little money for the streetcar ride and head out.  To get to Barney Circle would take us almost an hour of easy pedaling as it was only about five miles away.  Once we got there, we could lock up our bikes, drop a dime into the change machine at the front of the streetcar and head into town.  We knew those tram routes by heart and ended up traveling all over the entire DC area.

Our most favorite destination was the Glen Echo amusement park.  You had to make three transfers but eventually you would reach it on the Cabin John run.  Kathleen and I were allowed to go there during the day by ourselves, but if we wanted to go at night we had to have a parent or two with us.

Even in daylight, it was a great place to go.  Rides all cost either a nickel or a dime and food was just as cheap.  I never won much of anything for her, but I sure tried.  I was convinced the gun sights were crooked and the milk bottles were made of lead, but I gamely struggled to prove I could do it.  She, on the other hand, was really great at throwing a hoop over things.  She once won a real camera by making a spectacular toss from about fifteen feet away.  The guy couldn’t believe it but grudgingly gave her the prize.  The Midway had everything you could want to have fun.

We would bundle up on the Tilt-A-Wheel, the roller coaster, and the fun house.  Of course, my favorite was anyplace dark.  Kathleen and I would spend hours at the park and always came back from there stuffed with food, sated by all the noise and excitement, and ready to hit our respective beds that night.  But it was sure worth it for the kisses we shared in the darkness.



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2 Responses to “Models, curiosity, Popsicles, and fun places”

  1. Davis Says:

    the only one I can remember building was a model I then covered with glue and set on fire. It did look cool, though

  2. tom1950 Says:

    Oh, yeah. We used to do that too. The first time I did it I was too close to the house and my mom caught me. NEVER try to stomp out flaming plastic with a tennis shoe! It’s more fun blowing it up anyway. You had to tie a string to the ship models though so you could pull them back up from the bottom after sinking.

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