Summer, Sand, Sex and Models in my Youth
By Mike Dobrzelecki
More than a few of the Region 2 modelers commented on how much they liked the article in the last Gazette on my Christmas memories of modeling and growing up in Newark, NJ, so I figured that I would muse a bit on the sunnier epiphanies of summer modeling in my carefree youth. To this day I get a feeling of epiphanies at the onset of summer. Ingrained in my circadian rhythms is the nagging sense that, when the summer comes, I should not have worked at all- just play for 3 months, as if I was back in school. Back then you had a whole chunk of time chock full of immense possibilities and potential for fun and doing what you wanted. There was plenty to do, too. I lived right across from Hawkins Street School, a public elementary school with a fenced in playground surrounding the old 19th century brick building. The geometry of the school grounds made for a virtual labrynth of separate play areas for basketball, paddleball, stickball, football, bombardment (tag with a soccer ball, man that stung), as well as board games, knock-hockey and the like. The more secluded areas were great for learning abut girls and the mysteries of life (I had my first kiss and exploratory expedition under a blouse in the shadow of one of those trusty wrought iron fire escape stairs). My friends and I would get together in the afternoon and choose up sides for a game, which turned into a marathon series with the heady aroma of beer fermenting at the old Ballantine Brewery a few blocks away. Of all the smells, industrial and otherwise, in the neighborhood, Ballies was the best. The mornings were reserved for swimming in the public pool. "Hayes Pool" aka "The Inkwell", just down from the Agent Orange plant. This was also a great place for learning about girls - with less clothes on.
Growing up in the inner city meant not having much in the way of woods to explore, but we had the railroad tracks, the Passaic River, the Meadowlands (where the Sopranos bury their problems) and industrial junkyard areas to poke around in. No one minded the toxic waste. Days lasted about a hundred hours back then and on could conceivably keep all those important kid-appointments, especially on extended bike-tours of the neighborhood and nearby towns, such as Harrison, Kearny, North Arlington, which we considered the rich suburbs. Inevitably, it would rain at some point and that meant serious time devoted to TV - (War movies & Chiller Theater Sci-fi Movies) and, of course, building models. Being kids, the heat never bothered us much, which was a good thing, because who had air-conditioned back in those days?
Financing the hobby was a bit more problematic in the summer than around the time of plenty, colloquially known a Christmas. My father was somewhat of an entrepreneur. Besides selling Christmas trees, he would also sell Easter flowers, vegetables and just about anything else on the side to supplement his salary as a truck driver - a true Depression-Era work-ethic, so common to those that Brokaw calls, "The Greatest Generation". Throw in a little light-moving with dad's truck and jobs installing cyclone fences, and there were many opportunities for his strong sons to accumulate enough venture capital to finance plenty of kid-fun. Luckily, most of this work was bunched around the spring, leaving the summers free.
We had a 'finished basement" in the house my mother owned, with knotty pine paneling and bar, which came in handy for parties for my extended family. It was a nice cool spot to model in the heat of the summer. It was quiet and you could totally immerse yourself in the building. I slept down there on the Castro Convertible for much of the hottest months. Later, this sofa was employed for other purposes. My brothers and my cousins that lived on my block would all agree that if that Castro could talk, it would fill a couple of episodes of HBO's "Real Sex".
When my mother finally moved out of Newark in 1975 and we were loading the moving van, she decided to throw out that old Castro. I have to tell you, when we dumped it in the back alley, we all paused for a beer and a moment of silence in homage to the yeoman service rendered by that remarkable piece of furniture engineering. After talking about the lucky ladies we lured down there to learn a lot more about the mysteries of life, we nearly decided to keep it, like some religious relic, but, alas, the springs had given their all, and, like Scotty's engines, "could na' take no more captain." I even thought that I heard sob from somewhere in that small group of guys. But, I digress...back to the models.
Money meant more trips to the department stores and local candy stores for kits. Summer was also firecracker season, a sacred time for the Viking funerals, in which we sacrificed our models. We would experiment with all kinds of combinations of flammable liquids and explosives. We would unroll firecrackers, collect the powder for a "flash bomb". The neighborhood arms race resulted in us also pilfering powder from rounds of ammo from the stock kept by my father and uncles in the house, to make super-flash bombs. it's a miracle we still have all of our fingers and eyesight. Another story my brother likes to relate is how we wanted to see a car or truck obliterate a plane, so I set down a Monogram Wildcat in the middle of fast-moving Ferry Street and waited. Along comes a truck going about 40mph. Instead of total destruction, though, the rig drove over the F4F perfectly straddling it between its wheels. The onrush of air created by the truck actually lifted up the plane and held it in level flight for what seemed an eternity before setting down in a beautiful landing, as if it caught a perfect"3-wire", when the truck passed. A new sport was thus invented: Traffic-Flying Model Planes. It was a sport that waned quickly, though, since we could never duplicate the first flight.
It was during the summer that I saw the most wondrous thing ( no, besides a naked woman). That thing of wonder was a hobby shop. "Ohhhh myyy, and entire store devoted to models!! Brilliant!! Why had no one else thought of this!!! Are they blind!!!" One of the earliest was tiny hobby shop in Musconetcong out on Route 46. Back in the early 1960's, you could still swim in lake there without fear of getting some tropical disease. The shop had Aurora, Lindberg, Monogram, Revell kits, u-controlling planes and balsa planes galore. Being sans finds, I begged my mother to buy me something there, to no avail. Her shields were at maximum and impenetrable to my best kid-phasers & photon torpedoes of pleading and nagging. Being a kid, though, my attention span quickly shifted back to summer pleasure of swimming in that lake and playing with weird country bumpkin kids down the road from the house owned by my Aunt Vera and Uncle Bandy (hey, they had names like that back then!).
More wonders awaited me down the Jersey shore, though. Every summer, my mother would scrape together enough money to rent a house or a bungalow at the Jersey shore for 2-4 weeks. $50-$70.00 per week was like a fortune back then. Being a creature of habit, she always took Route 1 & 9 to Route 35, a laborious trip that seemingly lasted forever in kidtime (Are we there, yet?). The GS Parkway cost 25 cents for each toll and was for rich people according to my mom. She never considered how much gas money she burnt up in traffic & lights not using the GSP. Still, the road offered up wondrous exotic sites along the way- the plane on top of the store, the Pirate Ship, the Army and Navy store with the junkyard full of military equipment, including derelict jet aircraft. There were also the exotic food emporiums, such as McDonald's ("10,000 sold!"). that we begged our mom to stop at and buy us lunch. The McDonald's was one of the first franchises in Jersey and was nothing like plastic mega-force it is today. It was just another car-hop joint back in those days. My mother would drive on, wrinkling her nose at the extravagant expense of 15 cent hamburgers and 10 cents cokes, when we had perfectly good fried-chicken, potato salad and iced tea in the ubiquitous plaid-painted mental cooler. That same nose wrinkling would reappear on year tooling down Toute35 in Neptune and... there it was... a full blown enormous dyed-in-the-wool-store with 3-4 foot high letters screaming. "HOBBY SHOP", on its roof. "STOP THE CAR MOM!!!!! Stop!!! It's a real hobby shop!!!! Don't you understand???!!! "The mom command, " SHUT UP!!"! shot back from the entity, formerly my mom, who had turned into a fire-breathing monster.
Although she did not relent that time, I was able to later use "kid logic" to convince her that I needed anew diving mask and swim fins, which were also sold there. It was at this shop that bought my first Scale Modeler magazine and another important literary milestone. "1001 Model Airplanes", both of which, I still have. Back then, these were seminal publications to be pored over an absorbed in their every nuance. As important as this shop was to my summer, it would soon be superseded. My mom would normally rent a place about a mile from the beach in Belmar (closer was to pricey). Although this meant longer walks to the beach, it was close to the Main St. shopping strip, which, ran through Belmar. This "golden mile" held wondrous stores with all kinds of kids' beach gear and each would have a hobby shelf. I always had to husband my vacation money, allowing enough for Dairy Queen miniature golf and the all important model or two. It was at one of these stores that I bought an MPC James Bond Aston Martin DB5 with all the working features from the spring-loaded ejection seat to the machine guns in the parking lights and neat little form-fitted suitcase with his Walther PPK, grenade and other cool "double-aught" spy gear. About the same time mental flake consisting of a bottom coat of silver and a top coat of the blue. The mental flake then bled through the blue, as it dried. I really considered myself an advanced modeler for accomplishing this, despite the runs and drippy build-up of paint in places. Next year, when I returned to Belmar, I found the Holy Grail of hobby stores. I usually walked the length of the strip, first, carefully noting what was available, before making my final choice. At the end of this walk was a new store, Air & Armor Hobby Shop. In the shop there were cases of expertly-built models with airbrush finishes - all wondrous models such as the Adams LVT-5, a large scale M-75 Personnel Carrier, a Renewal Twin Forty M-42 Duster and many other rare kits. The guys in the shop seemed to be about ten years older than me, with the owner, a true "adult". A few of the guys were heavy set and somewhat aloof in demeanor, at first. Some of these same guys were also the founders of NJIPMS. I blew my entire vacation budget in that store, returning several times just to stare at the built-ups in the cases.
All good things come to an end, including summer. Despairing at my return to Newark and being away from a hobby shop, I was soon heartened by an ad in a Scale Modeler for a hobby shop on a Mount Prospect Ave in the North Ward of the every city I lived in. With the loot I received from my graduation party from St. Casimir's Polish Parochial School, I had bought a slick red bike with a banana seat and "Easy Rider-like" tall handle bars, my main means of transport for the next 4 years. Going to this hobby shop was like going on a safari adventure. Living in the East Ward, it took forever to get there, consuming a good part of an entire day. Planning the route was key - Danger lurked at every turn. The "shop" turned out to be a converted top floor apartment in a multi-story house. Kits, magazines, books were crammed everywhere. The proprietor was none other that Joe Pezzino, later known as Joe "The Animal" Pezzino. In the early days his common law wife, Rose, also worked there along with their kid. They were a bizarre mutant-like group. Joe had an explosive temper to go along with his bad toupee. Knock-down drag-out arguments in front of customers were as common as the hygiene truck was rare for the Pezzinos. One could not look at Rose without staring at the multitude of hairs growing out of the warts "onna her face". For some reason, I had a calming effect on the group. They loved me. Rose was very protective of me taking greats pains to see that my gleaming new bike was not stolen by the local Hispanic kids. This bizarre store was a treasure-trove of exotic hobby kits and magazines - strange Japanese companies such as Tamiya and Nichimo and even stranger Japanese hobby magazines with great photos of German armor. I bought my first AFV G2's there and still have an unbuilt MPC 1/72 scale He-177 from Joe's. The 1/25th scale Tamiya Tiger was another major investment purchased there. I made the trek every week with about $20 -$30, earned from unloading trucks at the farmer's market to buy the best stuff and tie it to my bike for the long trip home. I would closet myself away with my treasure, fondling the plastic and reading the publications over and over until I knew them by heart. This part of the hobby has not changed much for me. Joe later moved his shop to Belleville and then Kearny. He was a regular fixture at early NJIPMS meetings until he was asked to leave because of his behavior problems. He was however, the first in my area to provide the exotic global hobby products, just starting to be imported in the late 1960s and early 1970s. I ran into Rose, who, by that time was a homeless person on the streets of Downtown-Newark. I gave her a couple of bucks, but she did not ever recognize me. Every so often I hear that Joe is still trying to resurrect his hobby business somewhere, but, he has to rank as one of the worst businessmen, I have ever known.
When my brother Ron joined the USAF, I would sometimes write to my brother in the early 1970s with hobby news and send him Scale Modelers marked-up with my comments. "Hey, Ron, This is cool!", I would jot down by an ad for a Tamiya 1/35th scale Panzer Mk. II, promised for future release. He once wrote back from Thailand asking me to build a model of a F-4D Phantom with a 20mm gun pack mounted underneath. I took the Airfix 1/72nd scale kit and cobbled up the Gatling gun pod from a drop tank using sketches Ron sent. Being a naive kid, I even believed the Gatling gun pod was a special military secret. I was fascinated with Viet Nam stuff and the North African Theater back then. From Pezzino I has bought a hardcover book for the princely sum of $19.95, which covered all of the strange vehicles used in the desert, including the clunky Italian tanks. The Bogart flick, "Sahara" with the M3 Lee was a favorite and I still have a coveted Aurora "Rat Patrol" set including the box. "Rat Patrol" was a TV event in my house, just like "Combat", 12 0'Clock High and the other TV war series. The Airfix "James Bond" DB5 and the Monogram "Rommel's Rod" are some of the kits, which I built in my youth, that I wish I had today - they're worth hundreds of dollars, now. As elongated as time was in the perception of every kid, the summers would inevitably draw to close and school menaced on the horizon. My birthday, at the end of August, came in handy as a financial way-station to bankroll more models. Although it could not stave off retuning to school, it could make it bearable and, besides, it was just 2 months to Halloween, with its collection of coins in the trick-or-treat bag under 4 to Christmas and gift-cornucopia.
The weather is finally getting warmer now after a cold spring this year and my thoughts are drawn again to hobby memories of my golden youth. As I finish this column, I'm thinking about calling in sick to work sometime over the next few months, going down to the shore, body surf all day then hitting a hobby shop on the way back- a perfect summer day for any modeler.
© Mike Dobrzelecki 2002
This article was published on Wednesday, July 20 2011; Last modified on Saturday, May 14 2016