Innocent Bystander: "Into the Air, Junior Birdmen!"

Detroit, summer, 1938. A spun-gold Sunday morning. In my small, north-facing bedroom, I wake slowly to the Sunday sounds. Big yellow Detroit Street Railway trolleys trundle infrequently by, a high, electric hum above the fierce metallic screech of the wheels upon the rails. A few early cars shift and start off from the Warren Avenue lights. Over on the polyglot East Side, a hundred various Catholic churches. Slavic churches, Scandinavian churches flung up by homesick immigrants begin their solemn monody of calling the faithful— and the habituated to Mass or service. And then, faint but clear above the choirs of bells, comes the unignorable whine of a single-engined airplane. I slip out of bed. whip on my spectacles, and. after some drawing and quartering of the sky. descry a plane high over the Hotel Palmetto. Residential Rates. It is a Stinson monoplane, and the pilot, perhaps purely for his pleasure, is executing a series of shallow, lazy dives and zooms.

Later in the day. if I can prevail upon my modestly machine-minded father, we will climb into our beetlegreen 1935 Studebaker President sedan and make for the city airport, where we will stand behind a sawhorse barrier and watch the American Airlines DC3s—described as “huge airliners” by the press of the day—arrive from or return to such exotic ports of call as Pittsburgh and Chicago, joined in the pattern by a handful of light pleasure craft like the Stinson.

Still later. I will steal out of the house and walk several blocks to the Cass-Warren Drug, where, surrounded by the apothecarial ambience of iodoform, lemonade, and chocolate sodafountain syrup. I’ll browse at length through the latest newsstand issues of Flying Aces and Model Airplane News, buying a 25¢ copy only if the pharmacist starts looking menacing and retaliatory.

Why do—did—I spend so much of my early life as an observer of aircraft? Why did I linger, with sticky, cemented fingers, over several years’ supply of balsa models? Why, between the ages of nine and fifteen, did I devote so much of my free time to aviation lore? Largely. I suspect, because my whole generation was brainwashed to think of flying as America’s (and the world’s) last frontier. To speed our escape into the empyrean, the times had provided the added spur of the Depression. Any self-respecting lad of twenty must have thought at some point about aviation as a career: even to us tads of ten or twelve, flying a plane for a living seemed both a suitable and an admirable lifework.

Looking back from adulthood, it seems easy to see that my enthusiasm, like that of thousands of others my age, was based on the public-relations efforts of the aircraft industry and the complaisance of the media in feeding its trivia to readers (of all ages) like me. However, my passion seemed anything but artificially stimulated at the time. Let me tell you how it inveigled me into an abortive—and aborted—career of sorts in aviation.

I had, as I’ve suggested, been interested almost from the cradle in man-made things that fly. My father, who had once been an automotive engineer, helped to awaken that interest; my fellows at school, subjected just as I wats to the propaganda for air-mindedness. fanned it into something resembling an eternal flame. If I could take you back to the dim institutional corridors of Miss Newman’s and Detroit Country Day School in the late thirties and early forties, you’d probably see nothing but a bunch of knickerbockered schoolboys; I, on the other hand, would see a corps of flying cadets like those so innocently apostrophized in the radio jingle (from the old Jack Armstrong children’s show. I think) which I’ve appropriated for the title of this article.

Soon—sometime in the late thirties reading was not enough, and I began to test the accuracy of my eye and the efficacy of my unformed hand with a series of model airplanes. They started, modestly enough, with “solid" models. carved from a block of balsa wood and hung, when completed, in the modeler’s room for ornamentation. These rather static toys soon gave way to something more dynamic and exciting: living models. Available then for as little as a quarter, fliers were rough replicas of famous planes—ranging from the Nieuports. Camels, and Spads of World War I to the Wacos and Bellancas of the thirties and even, by 1939, to the Messerschmitts and Spitfires of World War II. Assembly of these fliers was a tough test of the Junior Birdman’s inner strengths. First you had to cut several score parts out of a printed (but unperforated) balsa sheet with an X-acto knife, a chore guaranteed to make strong boys weep and men—their fathers—despair in unison.

Next came the assembling. To make the wings, the cut-out balsa wing ribs were cemented to thin balsa stringers with a cross section one sixteenth of an inch square. To make the body, you laced more thin (and maddeningly fragile) stringers along the cut-out pieces that gave the fuselage its shape. Then after a few small side chores like the elevator and rudder—you covered the wings and fuselage with a flimsy Japanese paper called, appropriately, model - airplane tissue, and shrank the new covering tight with an application of dope, a banana-oil-like substance.

But the proof of the modeler’s prowess came in the flying. On a Saturday or Sunday—whenever your father was free—you’d pack the airplane in his car and he’d drive to some field on the outskirts where model airplanes were informally flown. You’d wind the rubber motor to within a literal inch of its life (I seem to remember 150 winds being de rigueur for smaller models of this kind) and hand-launch the craft into the wind. In most cases, the featherlight ship would be flung by the wind onto its nose at once, often breaking a wing and causing the modeler to repair to the drawing board; occasionally, the gods would permit a perfect hop of fifty or so feet and an uncruel landing, sparing the Fokker D-7 (or whatever it was) to fly another day. Most of my models followed the former course until. sometime around the beginning of the war. my old man kicked through with a big. tough, gasoline-powered model built to bounce off the great outdoors and come back for more abuse.

Mr. Sissman’s book of essays. Innocent Bystander, has just been published.

The gas model—though it wasn’t used as often as I would have liked, owing to a reluctant father—represented some sort of coming of age for me. as did some experiments in the early forties with Jerzy, a Polish contemporary of mine from the East Side. If I was far gone in air-mindedness. Jerzy was second only to the Brothers Wright in his pioneering enthusiasm; working from plans in adult aviation magazines, he had managed, when I appeared on the scene, to build several livable miniature helicopters. Together we perfected the design—which looked a lot like your average traffic reporter’s chopper today— and flew our prototypes in a number of model air meets, often winning our class when there was a helicopter class.

This conquest of the air. limited as it was, spurred me to make more of my avocational obsession. Since I was still in my lower teens, it was highly unlikely that I could learn to fly a real airplane, or, since I was myopic to the point of undraftability, that I could volunteer for the then Army Air Force and enjoy my training at Uncle Sam’s expense. No. it was distressfully clear that I was not to take my seat at the controls of a genuine airplane for some time to come, if ever. (As it turned out. it was never to be; and I’m likely to die grounded unless I late and suddenly indulge the whim shared by my daring colleagues at the office.)

What could I, a mere schoolboy in numbing wartime, do instead? My mother, as usual, came up with A Plan.

I was unfortunate in having a domineering mother who had all the answers to my future; by the same token. I was fortunate in having an aggressive mother who could open the most formidably locked doors for me. At any rate, my mother thought long and deeply, that winter of 1943 when I was just fifteen, and determined that I did possess one salable commodity in. or adjacent to. the field of aviation. To wit: an experienced. cement-fingered modeler myself, I could pass the gift of cutting balsa and stretching tissue along to even younger, but equally air-minded, boys and girls.

But how? I couldn’t simply announce model-airplane-building seminars in my home: I had to have a base of operations. Very well, then: my mother, backed by my father, would set me up in a small hobby shop. They volunteered a round sum I think $1000. a lot of money in those days—for the purchase of my stock in trade, plus $50 a month for rent. This latter amount was to be repaid from earnings, if any.

Obtaining stock was not a problem even in mid-war. model-airplane kits and collateral items were available in quantity, presumably because they were morale-builders and propaganda-spreaders—but finding a suitable (i.e., cheap) storefront was. Since I could not afford to advertise, I required a high-traffic location: my eyes fell on several untenanted stores on Woodward Avenue, the main drag of the city, which was only a two-minute walk from our home. Inquiries were unproductive: most landlords wanted $100 or more a month for these valuable spaces, and my (or my mother’s) Plan seemed doomed. Until my father, heretofore a silent partner in the borning enterprise, noted that one of the stores for rent was owned bv the New York Times. Why, he reasoned, wouldn’t a high-minded enterprise like the Times want to help set up a worthy young man in an equally worthy—and virtually nonprofit—business? The trick, he reasoned, was to gather his family together—father, mother, and son—and make a personal pitch to the head of Times real-estate operations in Detroit.

He made inquiries; the said executive turned out to be a Mr. Sulzberger, a member of the Times’s ruling family, which my father felt augured well. He called for the appointment, which was duly granted. We met on a sunny morning in Mr. Sulzberger’s modest office. high up in a downtown bank building that might well have been owned by the tentacular Times. It was my first business presentation, and. to my undying surprise, it went well. Mr. Sulzberger was chatty and avuncular, listening in grave and middle-aged courtesy to our shaky little scenario; when we finished our act. he quietly allowed as how something might be worked out; he’d be happy, he said, to assist such an ambitious young man. What it boiled down to was a reduced rent of $50 a month—right on target— but without a lease.

Model Airplanes Unlimited opened. with a new hand-lettered sign and the aforesaid $1000 in models and supplies, on April 1, 1943. School hours prevented mv opening until two in the afternoon, but I made up for it by staying late in the evening. From the first, to my amazement, kids showed up in droves. Not just the middle-class kids from the immediate neighborhood, but dozens of blacks and poor whites from the slums of the East Side. And they brought money: war work had employed both of their parents in many cases, and their mothers were only too glad to spend a little cash on a place that would occupy and engross their kids while they were at work. So, at the early age of fifteen. I found myself running a kind of prototypical day-care center—and enjoying it immensely.

When school ended, in May. I extended my business hours with an assist from my parents, who often spelled me: as public schools also let out for the summer, the number of my customers increased. It was busy, hectic, and even marginally profitable: despite the free tuition in modeling. I was clearing my rent and making a small and tidy profit on the sale of models. Best of all. my students and I had an enormously good time; as an only child, I had never worked closely with other children before, and the pleasure of teaching and teamwork was a revelation. And—in a city later to be famous for its racial tensions—black and white, hillbilly’s son and sharecropper’s son worked side by side with great goodwill.

But that was not to last. One hot day in that summer of 1943, there were rumors of riot, confirmed by a glance down Woodward Avenue: crowds of blacks and poor whites, advancing respectively from east and west, met in the middle of the street and did battle with fists and sticks, knives and blackjacks. Soon the National Guard was called in to restore peace, and olivedrab half-tracks patrolled the Avenue.

The riots continued sporadically for a few days, but my business, of course, came to a dead halt. Parents kept and continued to keep—their kids at home. I might go through an entire day with half a dozen customers. Model Airplanes Unlimited was clearly moribund, and soon the time came to call once more on Mr. Sulzberger. As sympathetic as ever, he allowed us to shut down on short notice; we owed only that month’s rent.

Now, as I write this, I hear the buzz of a light plane over in the west. In 1938, it was a wholly sweet sound, full of promise: now it is a bittersweet sound, reminding me with ever-increasing force that this is a life of choice and compromise: that I am no more a Junior Birdman; that the air and all its graces have escaped me. But grounded as I am, I still look up to see the light plane in the west.