Moving through time

Hello, world. I’m in the Pacific Northwest, feeling pacific, enjoying the mild weather, and reconnecting with family. I’m not doing much, which is rather soothing, and just watching the days go by, as one does in paradise.
So yesterday my sisters sprung a surprise on me — a gigantic box containing the battered remains of the old balsa wood model airplanes I used to build in middle and high school. This really was a huge surprise, like the dead rising from the grave to walk and remind me of my past sins. I had told them to get rid of them years ago, and honestly thought they’d been trashed, but no, my sister Tomi had wrapped them in bubble wrap and stashed them in her house. She had not needed to do that.
In my teens, I’d had a solitary hobby. I’d build these Guillow balsa and tissue paper model planes. I’d get one, take it up to my grandmother’s attic where she had some space, and spend a few months carefully assembling it. I didn’t fly them, and I didn’t put them on display at modeling shows. I’d finish them, put them in a jumble with the others, and move on to the next.
It was the process. I’d cut out the ribs and forms from balsa sheets and glue them together on sticks and struts over templates. I liked the engineering of the airplane skeletons, and enjoyed the finicky work of, for instance, carving and sanding the wing leading edge to get a perfect curve. Sometimes I’d go outside the instructions and shave the ribs down so I could overlay them with a sheath of 1/32nd inch balsa, just because it was more form fitting and stronger.
I spent hours with an X-Acto knife and the finest grade of sandpaper, making sure there were no bumps or deformations. They were beautiful bones.
Then I’d clothe them in tissue paper, lightly moistened to shrink as it dried. Layers and layers of dope would be applied, until the surface was smooth and shiny like metal. But it wasn’t. It was perfect when you could tap the taut surface and it sounded like a snare drum.
Then painting. Hours of painting, many coats. I’d research the planes and pick one exemplar I’d mimic.
Once it was done, it was done. I’d throw it in the pile in the attic; at that point, I only scrutinized it for its flaws (there were always lots) and plan to do better with the next one. But I never planned to fly them or show them. The joy was in the building, in the process of becoming, and I didn’t need them beyond that.
It was a zen thing, I guess. Every teenager should have a zen thing.
Time passed. I moved away. I went to college. I got married. I had kids. Sometimes, when I visited my grandmother, the kids would go up to the attic to look at the airplane graveyard their weird dad had built. More years passed. My grandmother died. Her house was being sold. What did I want done with my model collection, I was asked, over the phone, far away. I don’t care, I said, stomp on ‘em, set ‘em on fire, I finished them years ago.
They didn’t! I guess there was such obvious care as detail in the models, that they thought there must be some value in them, but no. The value was all in quiet hours alone, thinking and shaping and painting, in Grandma occasionally bringing up a plate of cookies, in clean breezes when I opened all the windows while doping, in the satisfaction of seeing wood come together in flawless joints, in the quiet rasp of sandpaper. The important part was done and gone! It’s memories now, not objects.
It was a nice surprise to see the objects again yesterday, but I’m unattached. They can go.
My three year old grandson came to visit. I let him play. He wasn’t trying to wreck anything, but as you might expect, he snapped a wing off; he stepped on a tail plane; he wrenched off landing gear and tried to stuff it in the cockpit. He tried to make them fly, but I never built them to fly. Bits snapped off.
I was actually gratified to see how well they held together—the major structural elements were strong, despite being nothing but hollow shells of soft wood and paper. I built well. It was fitting to sit there with my son and watch my grandson bang them against the pavement, 50 years after I built them. It’s all part of the process, you know. Half a century ago I began a habit of quiet contemplation and today I watch my handiwork become a plaything for a grandchild. It turned out pretty well, I think. Fourteen year old me would even say it came out perfect.
That’s all the news from the family homestead, I guess. I have no plans for today, which is excellent. This weekend the whole clan is heading off to the ocean for more memories, and Monday I fly back to rejoin my other half in Minnesota and get back to living in the now.


  1. says

    I have little mementoes of my mother and father which i plan toi pass on to my son. Sadly nothing of my grandparents but a few photos. I have one photo of my father’s grandparents and great grandfather’s diary and great grandmother’s household accounts book are in the historical collection in my state library. Both are a fascinating connection to the past.

  2. fuyura says

    Shirley Jackson wrote (in one of her family-and-children humor books, not the fantasy/horror she’s best known for) about how she and a friend used to make clothespin dolls and how her mother sent a box of them to her. Both funny and poignant.

  3. says

    Nice story PZ!

    Just tossed at least a couple K worth of pictures from the waaaay back machine. realistically it was no loss.

  4. steve1 says

    I blew up my plastic model airplanes with firecrackers. Than they would catch fire and I watch them melt into a puddle of plastic goo emitting a toxic smelling smoke.

  5. PaulBC says

    So yesterday my sisters sprung a surprise on me — a gigantic box containing the battered remains of the old balsa wood model airplanes I used to build in middle and high school.

    That’s very cool!

    I am just wondering if there’s any chance my old TRS-80 cassette tapes are in the house I grew up or if a cassette is even likely to be playable after nearly 40 years. (It’s likely I already gave permission to toss them without thinking about the possibility of transferring them and running my code on an emulator.)

    It was a zen thing, I guess. Every teenager should have a zen thing.

    Indeed. Or at least some kind of thing.

  6. crivitz says

    It’s hard for me to imagine a teenager enjoying working on a craft the way you describe. I know that I wouldn’t have had the patience for such things as a teenager and back then I would have thought of you as a weirdo. That was then and now I enjoy this lovely story tying together your own youth with your grandson’s youth.

  7. garnetstar says

    PZ, I know you were a teenager, but the only word for you then is cute. Must have been so cute to see a kid so absorbed, so careful and interested, taking such pleasure in making things.

    Awww. You’re probably pretty cute now in the satisfaction you take watching your grandson play with the fruits of your labor, too.

  8. unclefrogy says

    well that story was a good thing to see this morning!
    I am some what obsessed or maybe possessed by stuff and memorabilia the stuff must have some value or usefulness , coolness or be a part of the efemora / memorabilia. I am getting to be an old man and I do not have 50 years ahead of me any more.
    I started of a rather large project of reorganizing my garage workshop with the goal of building a real woodworking bench with vice, dog holes and storage.It entails rebuilding reinforcing one wall. A lot of work in the back of my mind a voice is saying “you are old and wont even use this very much, why do this, it is a waste, a fantasy, wishful thinking……..”
    I have not stopped working however slower then I might have but still working.
    It is the working the solving of problems hard and all it is f’n fun!
    maybe someone will get to use the eventual bench after I’m gone to make nice things
    thanks for the reminder of it is the doing that is fun and not just the having.
    I think memorabilia is one place we store compassion and empathy
    uncle frogy

  9. maireaine46 says

    This is such a beautiful story of you and your son and grandson and the planes. I like #10’s suggestion, your grandson may like to have the ones that survive when he gets older. If none survive he will just have a grand time now.

  10. PaulBC says


    so absorbed, so careful and interested, taking such pleasure in making things.

    And so unlike him as an adult. ;) The spiders are cute too, no?

    There’s a quote from Nobel laureate Barbara McClintock that was hanging in a meeting room at a place I used to work.

    I was just so interested in what I was doing I could hardly wait to get up in the morning and get at it. One of my friends, a geneticist, said I was a child, because only children can’t wait to get up in the morning to get at what they want to do.

    I disagree that adults don’t or shouldn’t feel this way, but it probably applies to many successful scientists.

  11. says

    The planes that break, burn in a bonfire. The ones that fly and land intact, hang from the ceiling, or give away.

    Survival of the fittest, eh?

  12. captainjack says

    Reminds me of the Tibetan monks I once watched spend hours making a sand mandala that they then destroyed. All things shall pass.

  13. fulcrumx says

    What? No picture of your planes. You painted a nice picture of some things of patience, time, and handy work. I was looking forward to seeing some objects of those designs. I got to the end and …

  14. brightmoon says

    I used to feel that way about dance and I’d get out the bed dancing a grand battement . ( high kick ) . I felt that way about geology and zoology classes I took . Sometimes I still feel that way , excited and happy about exploring personal space with a physical challenge or learning about a science field I’m not familiar with, like astronomy .

  15. madtom1999 says

    I used to make flying models as a kid. You knew when you did a good job because the thing disappeared into the distance never to be found. I lived near hills with updrafts that took my 8′ wingspan glider so high it became invisible after 20 minutes of gentle circling. I had fun with making some ultra-lights where even doped paper was too heavy. The wings were made from carefully shaped wire that was dipped onto a plastic film made using amyl nitrate that made your heart race if inhaled. I’ve just remembered my little brother being chased by imaginary dinosaurs when he inhaled too much glue fumes when making a model! The ultra-lights were spectacular when you got them right – we had a 20′ square dining room and you could fly one for hours once you got it to circle properly simply by getting it to fly over a light bulb or two, the heat providing enough lift for another circuit.