The Smartest Man I Know

Being a boy in the 70’s was a lot like being a boy at anytime, but it also is different from being a boy now.  In 1977, for example, there were no video games, DVDs, Internet or much of that which fills young people’s time today.  Heck, there was no such thing as a VCR for that matter.  If one wanted to watch a movie, one bought a ticket to the cinema or watched on on TV with commercials and everything.  We filled our time with flights of fancy, using imagination fueled by TV and movies and comic books.  I was particularly fond of science fiction fare such as Star Wars (new in theaters in ’77) and Star Trek.  I also liked building model kits, a past time handed down to me from my father.
Dad had given me my first model kit when we lived in Williamsburg Virginia in early ’70 or ’71.  It was a scale model of a Saturn V rocket, just like the one used in the Apollo moon missions.  Dad had already built some models and I remember searching the house for my birthday gift and spying the large box on the top shelf of my parents’ closet and thinking it was his.  I had not asked for a model kit and surely they wouldn’t buy one so big for me.  I was just a kid after all.  But they gave it to me on my birthday just the same and Dad helped me put it together.
He had to have infinite patience as I was anxious to put it together so I could play with it.  He explained to me that the pieces had to be trimmed and painted first before they could be assembled and then after that, they had to be set aside to dry.  I could not fathom that.  I was also frustrated by the fact that I could not play with it.  It was for looking at, not touching.  My mind boggled.
But Dad knew what he was doing.  He was Dad, after all.  To my 7 or 8 year old mind, he knew everything.  He answered every question I had and helped with my homework and seemed to have an answer for anything.  My faith in that knowledge was unshakable, so I accepted–begrudgingly–that I could not play with the rocket.  I kept that rocket until college, when it disappeared with many other items of my childhood.
It was only the first of many model kits I would build over the years.  I had Star Wars models, Star Trek models, and enough World War II plane models to stage a dogfight suspended from my ceiling by threads.  I would lay in bed in my room imagining these planes blasting each other to smithereens as they hung in front of my Loni Anderson and Farrah Fawcett Majors posters.  I built each kit the way Dad taught me, cutting the flashing away, painting the pieces and then gluing, allowing them time to dry before finishing the assembly.  The finished models were put on display to be looked at and not touched.
Later in my life, I even took over a model kit my dad started but never finished.  I large replica of the U.S.S. Constitution.  He had lost many of the pieces, so I used balsa wood and straight pins to fabricate the missing parts.  This ship was almost finished when my barracks mates knocked it over and broke it while I was TDY in the Army.  Dad went on to build a new Constitution that he finished and displayed in the hall.  No one could touch it.
But as a kid, there was one kind of model I could play with.  Estes makes model rockets that actually blast off and fly in the air and parachute back to Earth.  I discovered these models in Michael’s hobby shop while perusing the latest Revell Model kits.  I was fascinated by them.  The assembly looked easy–just a paper dowel tube with a balsa wood cone and fins.  The flight part was accomplished by a replaceable chemical engine jammed in the tail section.  I read the instructions on each kit thoroughly and approached my mom to see if they would buy one for me.  They were not very supportive at first–the kits weren’t cheap and who really wants to buy their pre-teen what amounts to industrial grade fireworks?  But I wore them down and they bought the beginners kit complete with plastic launch pad, electronic ignition system and 3 engines for the included Alpha model rocket.
Mom insisted that Dad had to accompany me for the first launch.  I had no problem with this as I still believed Dad was the expert on everything. I would come to a startling realization that day.  After assembling the Alpha rocket (the hardest part was keeping the fins straight as they dried–they now use a molded plastic tail section so it’s even easier) and painting it.  We scheduled the launch for the next morning.  Dad and I made our way to the open field across from our townhouse complex and began to set up the launch pad.
I asked Dad to hook up the wires for the igniter.  The ignition system was a small sulphur-based compound that is inserted into the chemical engine with two leads that are attached by alligator clips to the electronic system.  I read the instructions that came with the kit so I knew this.  Dad had not.  He did not know what I was talking about when I asked him to connect the ignition.  I was dumbstruck.  My dad didn’t know something?  More significantly–I knew something my dad didn’t?
It was this  moment that forever altered my perception of my father.
I think all kids have this moment just before the teen years.  This sets up the relationship wherein the child believes his parents to be idiots.  It happens sooner for some, later for others.  I think I was 13.  Too young I think, now that I look back on it.  I would have preferred my dad remain omniscient for a while longer.
As young men grow older, they take for granted the wisdom of their fathers, often refusing to even acknowledge it.  I know I did.  In my 20’s, I thought my parents had no clue about my life.  They were dinosaurs from a bygone era so completely out of touch with the modern world.
When my son entered his late teens, he had the same ideas about me.  He refused to listen to one word I tried to tell him.  He felt I had no way of relating to what was going on in his life.  As my own words came back to echo in my mind, it was with a cruel irony that I realised my dad was still a very intelligent man, even though I never sought his counsel when I really could have used it.  Now, it is too late.  Alzheimer’s robbed him of the ability to tap into his vast repository of information and his ability to even communicate.  Now he has be gone for a year and I can only live with the memories of my childhood when he was the smartest man on the planet.  I wish I had a model kit we could build together again.


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