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Model Ships Memories

By Edited Feb 9, 2016 1 0

I got my first model ship when I was about ten years old in the Old Country. I got it from a friend of our family when he passed away. It was something unusual for that part of the world, but our family friend had traveled a lot abroad in his prime years and he must have bought it some place where they were sold...

The ship itself was very impressive. It was supposed to be a copy of Santa Maria, one of the three boats that Columbus sailed when crossing the ocean.

It was quite well-preserved, considering that it must have been old and it went through at least one war... The age was showing on it. Paint was flaking off, the wood got cracked here and there and the sails were totally covered by dust... The dust, and pollution in the air along the years formed a sort of a protective film on the sails, although it was clear that originally the colors were not the ones we saw.

It was big in size judged by any standards, from front to back was about twenty-five inches, from the bottom to the top mast it was about thirty-three.

I remember that after I got married, that ship traveled with us to four different locations when we moved. Transporting it was a real pain, because it was too big to fit in the cars that we had, so a couple of times, somebody had to ride in an open moving truck to carry it...

Unfortunately when we left, the tall ship was part of the price we paid for our freedom. It had to stay behind with my relatives, and I don't know what happened to it. Probably they sold it after a while, because it must have brought in some nice amount of money.

After a few years here, a friend of us from Germany who knew of our passion for those ships, built one for us and sent it to us in the mail. It was a model of the same ship, but this time in a different interpretation. Actually it was built up to the original blue lines. His hobby was model building, so he knew what he was talking about. Actually, although I did not say it out loud I had my doubts. I don't know why, but I did. However, a few years later, I had to admit that I was wrong. The model was built by the original blue prints... But I will get there later...

One of our friends in the States, may he rest in peace he is dead for almost twenty years, when he moved from his big house to his retirement condo, had a few years of old things that he had to part with. He was gracious enough to give us to models. One of them was kept at a very high visible place in his house. The other one was kept in an attic, forgotten by everybody. I found it out while helping him clear the place... Treasures in the attic... He remember when he bought it at a fashionable department store in his youth, in Milwaukee.

First St. Maria

They were not as big as my original in the Old Country, but they were big enough to be a problem to store. However, we found a place for all of them in our house.

One day our family grew by a member: Kiss, the black cat whom we adopted from a shelter. He was a sweet guy, however I was less than pleased, and my wife totally upset when returning home we found that Kiss had something against the rigs of one of our ships. We placed the ship in a place where it was very easy for Kiss to reach and chew on the ropes... Actually, it is very difficult to find a place that a cat could not easily reach, but we made it very easy for him, because we put the ship on a little table...

So, we started a new journey... We had to find somebody who would be able to fix the ship, and not only fix it, but do it at a reasonable cost. Fixing the old ship was not exactly our first priority...

As usual, my determined wife found somebody. How you may ask? She called a hobby shop in town. There were a couple of them left in Milwaukee. From one guy to another, she managed to get in touch with a gentleman who was in that business. He lived in Racine, a town about thirty miles South of Milwaukee. Considering the fact that we were living on the North side, about fifteen miles, one day we drove the fifty plus miles to meet Chester.

Chester was in his early eighties. A very interesting person, so full of life and with a mind so clear, a conservative estimate would have placed him in his late sixties.

Chester loved boats and spent his life building and fixing them. He worked on real ones, as much as he did models. Actually Chester was also a photographer and a former movie theater owner. It was a family business that he and his wife carried up to the point when television and VCRs put them out of business. It was about the time they had to retire anyway, so everything worked well for them.

If Chester was an interesting character, his wife topped him. Born and raised in Hungry until she was ten or so, she was the typical Old World Lady. She was full of humor and very entertaining. She used to second Chester in everything he did. Actually, although I did not tell her, I had the feeling that Chester was her second in everything Chester did. She knew little about boats, however she was the engineer and the foreman, and the supervisor...

Spanish gallion

I am sure that she did not have the same skills as Chester did, but to be honest she was helping him out a lot. When we went to pick up our finished ships, yes they fix all three of them, she told us that she was the one that cleaned the sails. Chester said that it was her special skill to do it. From all the work, that was something he did not care about.

But I am fast forwarding right now.

We took the Santa Maria, the new one that our friend built for us, because one of our pets pushed it off the shelf and broke the top of the mast; Kiss chewed the rigging, and the last one, the one that I found in my friend's attic was totally dusty; the wood was very old and dry, cracked in a few places.

My friend's version of St. Maria

Chester started his career in boat repairing when he was a boy and could afford the four dollars he used to buy and old dilapidated boat that he fixed. It was a rowboat, missing one side almost in entirety. He showed us a picture of the way the boat was when he got it. He had to build a few ribs, replace the skin and after a few months of repairing it, he launched on the lake.

Later on he was working in shipyards, and during the war he was part of the teams rebuilding the ships damaged in battles at sea.

He pursued a career in his family business, movie theaters and photography, however he always had a soft spot for the ships. So he stayed with the model ships.

When he started building models, he had to build them from scratch. There were not too many outfits selling kits. So, he had to do a lot of research on the ships themselves. He wanted to keep the original blue prints. Not only did he built to scale, but he made sure that every ship he build had all the items the original once had.

Thirty or so years ago, the model ship industry was very strong. Every city had a few big hobby stores and one can find anything from train, to ships to planes in them. I remember when we got to Milwaukee there were about five big stores in the malls. Every single one had a different profile, but there were plenty of customers in every single one.

At that time we lived in a city called Franklin which still had a huge hobby shop. I used to go there with my wife every now and then to look at the trains. Personally I also liked the planes, however they were too involved for me.

However, when my wife wanted to fix the damaged model, she went to the store and she asked the owner for a reference. The owner sent her to a store in Racine and that is how we got to Chester. Actually he was known in Southern Wisconsin among the model hobbyist, but the store owner did not have his phone number.

One day, we got in the van with our three ships and drove to Racine.

His house was located in a modern subdivision, and it was modern looking. However it had something unusual about it. The front door. It was a regular, wood, massif wood, door, but it had something strange in the way it looked. The cut was not regular for a front door. Later on we found out why. Actually it was the door recovered from one of the ship wrecks found at the bottom of Michigan. At one time, Michigan was a very navigated lake. The trade in the area, was done a lot on the water ways and during the months the lake was not frozen there were a lot of merchant ships crossing it in all directions. There were ships carrying merchandise from Milwaukee to other parts of the state, or to Michigan, or even to Canada. At first the Great Lake area was relatively closed, however in time there were all sorts of water ways cut which opened the lakes to the ocean traffic.

Although the ships on the Great Lakes were not of the ocean caliber before the Saint Laurence waterway was opened, some of them were big enough. The Great Lakes seem peaceful and nice, however at times, Michigan in particular, can be quite treacherous and many a crew got lost in strong storms over the years. One of the famous ships which went to the bottom on such a storm was later found and brought back to the surface, and Chester managed to salvage the door from the cabin and use it as his front door.

Chester was not only a talented model maker, but he was a skilful sailor himself and he sailed the lakes for many, many years. Actually when we met him, he still had a boat which was in store, only because it was Winter...

We talked ships, and he showed us his collection of the ones he build during the years. Those were the ones that he never wanted to sell for one reason or another. It seemed that every single boat had a history with it, and that is why they never left him...

On a table we noticed three different size bottles. Every one of them had a sail boat in it. The size of the boats were proportional to the size of the bottles. All of the boats were representation of the same original. What was interesting was the fact that all of them had the same items, only at a different scale. He showed us how he built them. I saw boats in the bottles before, but never built with so much detail... Chester was a very patient man. All of the parts were put in the bottle with tweezers and the ships were assembled through the opening of the bottle.

Of course, the discussion turned to Dennis Sullivan schooner, a famous project in the nineties. Residents of the city, with help from out-of-state residents, worked for a few years to build a real life replica of the famous ship.

In the end their efforts paid off, because the project was a success. The ship is in the water even today and it is taking cruises on the lakes with people . It also takes part in all sort of competitions around the country.

It is impressive, it looks real and it is a jewel... Or is it? If you asked Chester, it was a fake! Why? Not so much because it had an engine, but it was built with "iron nails"... and that was a real offense for a true historian in the field. Actually there were some other ships replicated along the years, but the builders tried to keep up with the original blue lines. Of course there were a lot of improvements in the industry since those old tall ships were built, but a true tall ship lover does not want to see modern equipment on them...

These days, and engine is a requirement though if they want to take the ship out of the port, and they also have to have a radio on board, however except for those necessary evils, nothing else is accepted. Chester was asked to participate in the project. He is was one of the true specialists, however he totally denied any involvement, as long as they built it with "iron"...

He showed us his little shop and his latest orders. There was this nice ship which was ordered by a customer in Ireland, and the ship was ready to be delivered. The person had to come to pick it up, he did not want it mailed to him... The cost? Just $10,000, and worth every single penny of it...

He showed us his little lathe that he used to turn the canons for the ships, and the tools he used in his trade. Actually there were not too many. Some knives, and some small players, and wire cutters. He had a lot of knives for all sorts of usages. He even had a blade saw that he used for cutting veneer for the body of the ships he built. He still had a few pieces of teak wood, left over from a carrier that he worked on during the war. The pieces that he showed us, used to be part of the take off and landing deck of the carrier...

Today, the lovers of modern Scandinavian furniture are very familiar with teak, it is one of the main materials used. However, in the past, the teak wood was used in exclusivity for boats. It is a hard wood and very long-lasting in the water.

I asked Chester if he ever used any of those kits that one can buy on the market. Well, he was not as vehement as he was talking about Dennis Sullivan, but let's say that he was not really kind in answering the question either... He said that some of the kits are very well done, however the pleasure is to build your own... Not that building a kit is too much anything else but building your own. Most of the wood comes just cut to size and had to be assembled, curved and painted. They deliver the rigging, however as rolls not cut to size and threaded through the pulleys.

And when we were convinced that Chester was only about tall ships and model ships, he showed us the doll house. He built it for his daughter, and when she moved out she could not take it with her, Chester being the custodian. Of course all the details were built or at least assembled by him, but they were as real as they could have been.

Once a model maker, always a model maker no matter what kind of model... He preferred anything that he could build himself, that is why he did not get into trains or cars.

Long time ago, I received in the mail, I don't know how it happened, it was before the Internet, a catalog from one of those places selling models in kits. The kits actually were at times just raw material to build the part. The parts were not cut. They had the necessary pieces of wood and the ribs to build the ship, but they were just stamped in wood, and the person making the model was supposed to cut them out, bent them, paint them according to the instructions... I noticed a model that was about seven hundred dollars. The ship was big when done, it was big by all standards; it required a few hundred of hours just in the preparation of the parts to be assembled. And if that was not enough, to make life easier, the seller of the kit had a whole array of tools necessary for building the model. One could have spent very easily a thousand dollars just for the tools. The upside was that tools had to be bought only once.

Chester did not have the sophisticated tools on sale in the catalog, he built his own. There are plenty on-line today...

Actually I think that model making is one activity that a lot of parents should be involved with today. Not only it is a good reason to teach the child History, discipline to work based on instructions, skills in cutting out the parts, using and mixing colors, patience, let alone the quality time spend with the child.

I remember, in the few years our daughter was in school, before we decided to home-school, the school district had this idea that parents should do projects with the kids. The projects were graded. Of course everyone got a super grade, the teachers did not want to get in conflict with the parents... However the point was that the person graded actually was the parent. The child could not contribute too much to the project. The teachers ask us to build a Conestoga wagon. The trick was that we could not go out buy a kit, which by the way are very nice, and assemble it. We had to do it from scratch. The child was in the sixth grade, and it was very short of the mental capacity and required training to be able to do the research, to buy the material and build the item. So, guess who had to do the work...

Actually our child did not really participate in the project. I did it over a few days, and she played with it when it was done. We made her read about the wagon and we talked about the parts and how they were assembled, however they would have never been able to do it on her own.

The idea of the project was not bad, however I resented the fact that we the parents had to be involved.

When she grew a little we assembled a moving engine which was supposed to show the children the four strokes that are still moving the cars today... We built a few computers together, she was doing tailoring with my wife, and other activities in the house.

So building models is one of the best tools a parent could find to spend instructive time with the child...

In my childhood, I also remember that I was a stamp collector. It was something that stuck with me over the years. Once we arrived in this country I started to rebuild my stamp collection. I loved very much the stamps issued by the former British Colonies. Actually, the stamp collection helped me learn Geography. I was an expert on Africa and whenever the British Crown had possessions. Unfortunately because I was collecting those type of stamps, today I have real problems with the African Geography. The former colonies are independent, and with the independence they gained a new presence on the map. Some of them split in separate countries, some of them joined in some country. I even found in a used book store an old Atlas with the old divisions. When I was a kid, I very much loved to have it, however it was out of reach over there. The Atlas was printed in 1954, and to a young person it may seem that it is another planet....

When I meet people from Africa I always ask their country of origin. By know I sort of learned the new names, but there are times when I have to ask what was the old name to be able to relate to the geographical location in my mind.

I may be old-fashioned, but I think that it is more interesting than playing video games...

Well, I took you through the journey at Chester, and a few other places, so now before I end the story, I have to present Chester's work on our models... He corrected the details on Santa Maria to the way they were. Our friend did not add everything that was on the ship originally, and Chester could not stand to let it go unless it was according to the blue lines...

The Spanish galleon actually was a total commercial fake, however due to its age, turned into a collector item. So Chester fixed a few things that got damaged along the years, and tried to add details that would have been present on a similar ship at the time.



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