Thursday, March 20, 2014

When I was growing up, I was an inveterate model builder. It stems from an incident when I was about seven years old. We had driven from Great Falls, Montana, to Camas, Washington (across the Columbia River from Portland, Oregon) to visit my grandparents. We got there late at night, long after dinner. My grandparents had retired from their farm near Watford City, North Dakota, in the late 1950s and purchased a large Victorian home in Camas. It had a parlor across the front of the house, from which a main staircase led up to a second floor and then a finished attic. There were three bedrooms and a bathroom on the second floor. Up a drop-down attic staircase were two or three more beds under the eaves, along with a lot of storage.

My parents married late in life. My dad was 40 and my mom 32. I was the last of my cousins to be born; only my cousin Leigh Ann was younger than me (by three years), even though her father was almost 14 years younger than my dad. Most of my dad's family lived in Camas and nearby Washougal. They were six to 14 years older than me, which meant I had zilcho in common with them. Indeed, by the time I got to know my male cousins, they were all in their early 20s or late teens. Because they lived so close together, they were all really tight with each other. They were friends, and in some cases best friends.

When we got to my grandparents' house, three of my male cousins were hanging out there. Apparently, they did that all the time. They used the upper bedrooms as a sort of hang-out, a place where they could listen to do homework and music and play guitar and make model cars. My grandparents loved them, and tolerated their shenanigans. The cousins basically came and went as they pleased, and my grandparents thought it was cute. (I, on the other hand, was not tolerated one damn bit. I was told to be quiet, sit still, and not fidget. My very stern grandfather rapped me on my knuckles all the time with a stick for being "naughty". By the time I saw him again, he was senile and uncommunicative. I knew knew him at all.)

So we get to my grandparents' house. It's late. The fog and the aroma from the Crown Zellerbach paper mill is filling the air with this musty, odd smell that's unique to a paper mill. My grandparents lived on a road, the other side of which was forest and dark and forbidding. Behind their house was a vast series of baseball and soccer fields. It was like being in the Hansel-and-Gretel house, a little creepy. And we were decidedly told NOT to play in the woods or the athletic fields.

So we get to my grandparents' house. My first exposure to my male cousins is seeing these very tall, very broad-shouldered, very muscular, very adult males in tight jeans and t-shirts running around the place, being treated like demi-gods and fawned over by my parents and my grandparents. I'd figured out I was homosexual when I was six years old. My attraction to my male cousins was strong and immediate. They, quite naturally, couldn't be bothered to say hello to a "little kid" -- even if he was a cousin.

Although our arrival at my grandparents' house was expected, apparently my cousins had not cleaned up the bedrooms upstairs like they were supposed to. My grandmother told the boys to get their models off the steps and out of those rooms.

You can read more about my childhood love of plastic models, and my gigantic creature models, behind the link.....

"Models". That was the first time I'd heard the term. I was very, very curious. I walked over to the steep, narrow steps to see what these were. There, in flimsy cardboard boxes, were these rectangular plastic wire-like things, with pieces of car attached to them. There were half-used tubes of glue everywhere, and some pieces were in one box and some pieces in another. It was like they were in the process of putting together four or five different cars, had taken some sets apart but not others, put some pieces together but not other, and lost some pieces.

I was fascinated.

I'm not exactly sure what my first model was, but I suspect it was Godzilla. I was a big Godzilla fan from the moment I saw my first Godzilla movie on Satruday afternoon cable TV when I was about 10 or 11 years old. (It was Destroy All Monsters!) My friend Bruce had a friend Ben, who lived in a fancy house only a block from our elementary and junior high schools (they were side-by-side). I'd never been to his house, although I knew him sort of well from school. He had these glow-in-the-dark monster model kits he'd made. They were outstandingly cool: Frankenstein, Dracula, The Mummy, The Wolfman. That, I think, is what inspired me to get my own model. And it had to be Godzilla.

Aurora made the Godzilla model. You could build is with the normal parts, or with glow-in-the-dark parts. The head, hands, feet, spinal spikes, and upper part of the tail all glowed. Godzilla came on a small mount that looked like a devastated city. I never noticed, but Godzilla was about five times taller in the modle than he was in the movies. I painted the base kind of clumsily, and thrilled at night when he glowed in the dark. Somewhere along the line, the lower jaw came off and I lost it, and I had to replace it with the non-glowing jaw. It gave Godzilla a goofy overbite in the dark.

I got a Rodan model (he didn't glow in the dark), and a King Kong model (nor him). I had a model Titanic, a couple of model aircraft carriers and battleships, a Battlestar Galactica, a BSG Viper (original series), a B-17, an original USS Enterprise, a renovated USS Enterprise (from the 1979 movie; it's nacelles and saucer section lit up), Spock's shuttlecraft (from the 1979 movie), a Klingon cruiser (from the TV series), a Romulan bird-of-prey (from the TV series), and some other things. I even had a communicator, tricorder, and phaser from Star Trek (the TV series).

I was probably 13 or 14 years old when I first saw The Wasp.

Our next-door neighbors had two kids, one of whom was a year older than me and the other who was a year younger. We three were close friends (my younger brother, the same as their younger son, was the black sheep of the family and never played with anyone who lived close by). One evening, I was at their home, and the older kid had a model. It was part diorama, and part model kit. It depicted a gigantic wasp attacking an amusement park. The wings were actually clear! The body was a glistening jet-black. The wasp stood on six spindly, wobbly legs, and there were five or six tiny human figures running or pointing in terror. The model came with two or three little plastic cars, one of which was pre-crushed so that it could lie beneath one of the wasp's legs. The model sat in a two-sided flimsy cardboard diorama which, when assembled, provided a backdrop that looked like an amusement park. The model came with a "Fun House" to set against one wall of the diorama, and a half-destroyed rollercoaster (complete with cars crashing to the ground) to set against the other wall of the diorama.

I was enthralled. I loved monster movies, and here was something come to life! Almost.

The diorama kit was issued by Fundimensions, a division of CPG Products Corporation. General Mills had bought out Parker Brothers in 1968, and created CPG in 1970 as a division to handle all of General Mills' toy and child arts-and-crafts lines. Fundimensions had actually been formed years earlier (at least as early as 1965), and by 1968 had licensed the Lionel Trains line from its original owners and was reviving model trains.

There were actually four huge monster insect diorama/models, marketed by Fundimensions under the name "Gigantics". It's not quite clear just when the models were issued. Some sources say beginning in 1972, with two coming in 1973 and one more in 1974. But research into many model kits shows they were all released in 1975.

Whatever, they were released in the early-to-mid 1970s, and there were four of them: The Gigantic Wasp; the Rampaging Scorpion; the Huge Tarantula, and the Colossal Mantis.

The kits were inspired by the success of Aurora's "Universal Monsters" glow-in-the-dark kits of the early 1960s, and by 1950s giant creature movies (Tarantual [Universal, 1955], The Black Scorpion [Warner Bros., 1957], The Deadly Mantis [Universal, 1957]). It's not clear where the wasp came from, although it might have been inspired by the giant grasshoppers of The Beginning of the End (Republic, 1957), the human-sized wasp-like creature of The Wasp Woman (Santa Cruz Prods., 1959), or the giant bees of Mysterious Island (Columbia Pictures, 1961). (Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger [Columbia Pictures, 1977] came too late to be an inspiration.)

In 1985, General Mills spun off its toy divisions, creating a stand-alone company known as Kenner Parker Toys. Kenner Parker was was acquired by Tonka in 1987, and Tonka was acquired by Hasbro in 1991.

In 1996, the "Gigantics" kits were liceneed and re-issued by AMT/Ertl. Aluminum Model Toys, or AMT, was founded in 1948 to sell pre-assembled plastic models cars as promotional items for American automobile manufacturers like Ford and General Motors. A British company, Lesney, purchased AMT in 1978 after the American firm ran into financial trouble due to the high price of plastic in the wake of the OPEC oil embargo. Ertl purchased AMT in 1983 and the company was renamed AMT/Ertl. (Ertl sold off AMT in 2007 to a company named Round 2. Round 2 owns not only AMT but the plastic model kit makers Polar Lights (formerly Aurora), MPC, Hawk, and Lindberg Line.)

Unfortunately, the Gigantic Wasp was never re-issued alongside its peers.

None of these are my models. All my plastic models were left at my parents' house. My dad sold the house in 1994, complete with all furniture and furnishings. He never told us kids. My brother Jon learned of it just a day before the sale, and rushed from Bozeman to Great Falls to get furniture, mementos, family heirlooms, and more from the house. All of my childhood -- clothes, keepsakes, plastic model kits, LP records, CDs, quilts, gifts from grandparents, cameras, books: Lost. My entire childhood, lost. (My dad rots in hell.)

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