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Edmonton vignettes: the tale of the model airplane

When I was wee, we lived in Riverdale, in a co-op house with cedars that my mom had lovingly planted in front of the fence. Today a handful of those shrubs have survived in front of our old house: scraggly thirty-year-old cedars that mark every year I make it successfully around the sun. Whenever I wander down that street I stop to nod at the trees, a silent little ritual that roots me in place.

My Dad has a passion for model trains and airplanes. We used to make trips to the Hobby Craft store on Whyte Ave religiously. Descend those lineoleum lined steps into the basement shop. The smell of dust and balsa wood and epoxy faintly hanging in the air. The fluorescent lighting dimly illuminating shelves and shelves of hobby supplies. Model planes hanging from the ceiling. Back at home our basement cupboards were lined with Z, N, and HO scale trains he’d collected over the years. My Dad made an N-scale track for us, replete with little buildings and people and fake trees and grass. To be honest, maybe the reason I revere architecture is the idea that a whole group of professionals make money building models like we had when I was a kid.

I haven’t set foot in that hobby store in twenty years (in fact, has it closed?), but it opened a whole world of nerd-dom that shapes the very person I am today. I’m always on the lookout for neat miniature things to share with my Dad and sister — our nerdy love of model train sets and toy planes and ships and motorcycles betraying a geekiness I’ve long since learned to embrace.

My first model airplane apparently made quite the splash.

I was three years old. My dad painstakingly built a plane out of balsa wood and paper. I eagerly watched as the plane took shape over the course of a few weeks, apparently mesmerized by how it all fit together. My Dad promised to take me out to a field to watch its inaugural flight. Although I have no idea what my three-year-old self thought of flight and the magic of planes, I was apparently quite excited about the whole thing (or so I’m told).

Finally the day came to launch the beautiful craft on the winds of a clear, crisp, blue prairie September afternoon. We trekked up the street to a bit of open land along Rowland Road — one of those circles of grass and fairy rings that stand forlornly next the twisting road (incidentally where my best friend and I used to go sledding in the winter, but a scraggle of spiritless condos stand there today). Now that I’m almost the age my Dad was when I was three, I wonder about the wisdom of flying the craft close to traffic. But alas, who was to know the awesome power that little plane would reveal itself to have?

The plane took off as he launched it from the safety of the grass. And it flew. It flew high and mighty and…directly onto the four lanes of traffic whizzing by. Crunch. A car drove right over it.

My Dad has a bit of colourful vocabulary. And curse he did.

To console me, as I was apparently traumatized by the sudden end of the plane’s maiden voyage, my Dad bundled me up and took me to McDonald’s on Jasper and 119th street. We climbed the stairs up into the restaurant and ordered a small fries and a coke. We sat down on one of those swivelly chairs. Cigarette smoke swirled up to the giant exhaust fans in the ceiling, the ceramic tiles were all teal and cool and smooth on the floor.

And then, as we smiled at the little old ladies sitting next to us, I let out a torrent of cursing as I swivelled on the chair, half-chewed fries hovering between my chubby hands and mouth:

“Don’t those goddamn drivers know that plane was special?”

“bleep bleep bloop bleep”

My Dad looked on in alarm. I had soaked up his cursing like a sponge and spilled it out in beautiful toddler cadence while the white-haired diners looked on in horror.

He quickly bundled me up again and grabbed our treats and headed home. When my Mom got home and asked how the flight had gone, he shared the story, sheepishly admitting he’d taught me a few new words.

To this day, I view traffic circles and patches of grass along the river valley roads with suspicion. And, perhaps this whole experience is why I am terrified of flying. If you can’t trust a plane built by your own parents, how can you trust something some unknown engineer bolted together?

I will say, however, that my cussing streak is mostly tamed. Though I wonder what will happen when the first model plane I build for my future daughter gets run over by a car.

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