Eric Green: Fathers, wing foils, and model contests
I found an old newspaper clipping that almost brought me to tears. Every couple years, I do an online search for my father, and every once in a while, I find something that wasn't there before — a picture, a patent, a newspaper story. My dad has been gone for well over 30 years — and since he was a violent alcoholic during my childhood, and I left home at 16 — our relationship was usually rocky. I miss him terribly and think about him a lot, although once, in a drunken rage, he tried to stab me with a large kitchen knife. But that's another story, so back to the clipping.
In the faded image, my father is shaking the hand of the mayor of Montreal, who is jauntily attired completely in white, including shoes, boutonniere, and is holding a fancy cane and hat. My father is 15 years old and looks like a young Lawrence of Arabia, taller than the mayor and blade thin.
It's during the Second World War and my dad has just set a new model airplane record, winning against 550 adult and teenage contestants. He did this more than once, becoming Canadian National Champion three times. He told me some of the stories of his youth as I was growing up, but he wasn't a communicator about himself, although he could lecture on the intricacies of polishing valve inlet ports on an MG engine for hours.
Lately, I've been realizing that our lives don't actually exist as such. When something occurs, it can be documented with film and photos, but that is still not truth, just topical veneer. Our memories, for what they are worth, exist as much as anything else does.
What brought this to mind was emailing the driver of Domino (see previous column, November Falcon) and having him write me his version of the car accident in Hull. Although we both agreed on much of what happened, there were differences.
For instance, he remembered a different Buddy Holly song and thought the driver that rammed us had just had a nasty fight with his girlfriend, running from her apartment shirtless, and then gunning his hot rod in our direction during a bout of blind rage. Whichever version is true is less important than which seems more real and more poignant. I prefer his version to mine.
Over the 33 years my father has been gone, I've remade him many times in my mind, and I'm now older than he was when he died, which seems like uncharted territory somehow. Although I haven't tried to alter the memories of what occurred between us, I suppose it's inevitable as my point of view matures.
That said, my memories of my father are priceless to me, and when I find a stray bit of information online that validates his past and substantiates his history, I'm excited. The Internet has become a kind of archeological resource and that's fascinating. Mating these snippets to memory can feel like truth, and that's what matters. I wonder how many of us try to find more about our pasts, either unearthing disappointment or satisfaction?
I know one of the secrets to my father's amazing success at building model airplanes. He copied the exact wing foil from a DC-3, which was a brilliant design for its time. How smart for a 15 year old! I still have his aluminum templates from his most advanced model wings, and his last completion, a Wakefield, is as yet unflown. I can never decide if he would want me to fly it, risk possible damage or loss, or keep it pristine. Within my indecision I have done nothing for 30 years but stare where it now resides on the top shelve in our library.
As a boy, wanting to please and impress my father, I began to build models as well. I tried some planes and plastic car kits, but my fascination has always been trains, particularly steam trains. During my late teens my father and I lived in nearby towns in northern Vermont. When I wasn't painting pictures, or earning money painting houses, I was building model train structures, freight cars, and even a narrow-gauge steam locomotive, all from scratch since I had absolutely no extra money. Without a lathe, I turned everything with an electric drill, and invented different techniques as I went along. One interesting model, 87 times smaller than the prototype, was of the Fisher bridge in Wolcott, Vermont, the last wooden covered railroad bridge still in use during the late 70s.
When my father saw a number of these models, he decided I should enter them in a contest. So one morning, we left Vermont for Granby, Quebec, a scenic two-hour drive and the host city of a huge NMRA meet with model railroad enthusiasts from all over eastern Canada and the U. S. I was very nervous to attend, having never entered any kind of contest, but I faithfully filled out all the rather complicated entry forms and carefully packed my models for the journey north.
Because of his past drinking, we had rarely done anything together. For instance, I can't remember us ever playing even a single game of catch, so this outing was big stuff for me. At that time he was sober, and continued to remain sober until he died, which came much too soon after our trip to Granby.
We arrived at the enormous convention center, the meet featuring a variety of related events besides the model building contest, but even that was on a magnitude I didn't expect. Hundreds of models were laid out on long tables, grouped by type—steam locomotives, diesels, freight cars, passenger cars, cabooses, structures, dioramas, and so on. I entered five of my models, and as my father and I walked around awaiting the judging, he told me a few stories about his airplane contest days.
One story that stood out was how his grandmother had held her ancient black umbrella protecting his airplane from a rain squall during one important contest, herself getting so wet that she came down with a severe cold a day later. His grandmother had raised him after his own mother sent him away at the age of ten. The only time I ever saw my father cry was after the phone call that revealed that she had died.
But back to the contest. I won five blue ribbons and what was called a "new modeler" award for a first timer. As my dad and I were heading toward his car with my models in our arms, the contest chairman ran up:
"My gosh," he said, "Where are you fellows going?"
"Back to Vermont."
"You're not staying for the banquet?"
We shook our heads. I knew the banquet tickets were $25, which was a lot of money for a supper in the 70s, and beyond both our budgets. Well . . . the chairman must've sensed that, and he "found" us a couple spare tickets. "Do you think I was going to stand there and call your name six times and have no one to collect the awards?" He winked in that friendly Canadian way.
We devoured two massive slabs of prime rib, twice baked potatoes, iceberg wedges with Roquefort dressing and lemon meringue pie—all my dad's favorites. Oddly, I was more delighted that he was so pleased than I was from winning so many ribbons.
I still have the joy of that memory between us. Writing this just now, I admit my eyes dampened and my throat tightened.
By today's overly precious standards, I doubt my father would be considered a good parent. He never supported my artwork verbally or otherwise and thought my ambition to become an artist ridiculous, but did that stifle my creativity? He spent only limited time with me, yet our few great moments together are probably the most cherished of my growing up.
For Christmas he many times gave me parts or tools he needed for his prized car: "You can help me work on it," he'd say. When I began to sell paintings at 14 and 15 years old, he borrowed the money and it was almost impossible to get him to pay it back. Even his drunken rages—he never actually hurt me physically—prepared me for the frightening things in life, which we all eventually need to accept and try to understand. Life isn't usually fair, and it isn't usually all that kind.
Although I'm well aware that this is an unpopular opinion, these days I see way too many parents coddling and spoiling their children. This creates expectations in the child that can never be fulfilled and leads to many problems later on in their lives. The assumption of entitlement and a lack of accountability is dangerous to a productive existence.
But that doesn't mean you can't hold a battered black umbrella over your son or daughter's model, the cold rain soaking you to the skin, if that selflessness means winning the contest. And what's the real contest for? It's for a family memory that will last past lifetimes and will always confirm the same unassailable truth: love.