I used to, as a ten-year-old boy, go to the local Bargain Town to pick up a model to build. For those of you not old enough to remember, that was the first name of the now defunct Toys “R” Us chain, the one with the backwards “R” in the title. The models were the ones that were plastic and needed that sticky, almost clear Testorsglue to put the parts together. They called it model cement, and if you got some on your hands as I did, you understood the name well. That glue went hand in hand with the Testors paints, which were a must have if you were going to make your model lifelike, at least that’s what it said on the packaging. I didn’t quite understand marketing then, but I do now. I hated that the glue would get all over my fingers every time I tried to build a model, but I always went to get another one. After building my model, I would have so much glue on my finger tips, it was like a had a second skin, a skin that my Mom said would “wear off” over time.
The parts were like grapes that had to be removed from the stems, so I would twist the plastic pieces, or if I got frustrated, pull them off of their parts “tree”. Sometimes the parts broke and I would have to glue them back together too. I was not the best builder, and most of the time didn’t paint it like it looked on the outside of the box, but I did enjoy the process of putting the model together. I didn’t paint it because I was too lazy and knew that I wouldn’t do a good job anyway. Besides, if I got glue all over me, think of what would happen with paint. When it comes to painting things, building things and working with my hands, I am just not that talented.
I knew immediately which row in the store to find all of the models to build and would make a beeline right for it so that I could browse the selection. The models were two sections over from the brand-new bike area, and I always had to stop there too to daydream about the new ten speed that I would ask my parents for. I never got it, but a boy could dream, right? That’s the job of any ten-year-old—to dream. Bargain Town was like one big giant fun house, with shelves stacked with dreams and ideas. If I was bored at home, I walked over and would wander around with my hands in my pockets just looking at the wares on the shelves. My father always said to wander a store with your hands in your pockets, as it will keep you from touching things that might break and you would be responsible for. He knew my proclivity to touch just about everything, so this was a great piece of advice. To this day, when I enter a store, I shove my hands in my pockets. Old habits die hard, I guess.
On this particular day, I had an interest in building an airplane. I had built some planes before as I loved the idea of flight. Something about being in the sky had always fascinated me, and still does. The shelves had plenty of planes, especially the ones from World War II. I always liked building the B-17. There was something about the style of the plane, making bombing runs over Germany, and being a hero that caught my imagination. It is the stuff little boys’ dreams were made of. On top of that, it was just a nice design. Few of the planes that I built lasted very long though. Most got broken during mock dog fights fought over the skies of my bedroom, eventually becoming broken from accidental droppage. Salvaging a broken model is not a specialty of mine either, especially with unskilled hands. So, I would eventually scrape together some money and go back to Bargain Town to purchase another one.
In those days, models were not that expensive. We’re talking the mid-1970’s so you could get a model of Richard Petty’s car for $1.95. It was $2.02 with tax but the person behind the counter was usually pretty nice if you only had two dollars, so that was the magic number. Besides, if the person was being a stickler for price, you could always find a couple of pennies on the street as you walked over, or on the store floor. All you had to do is hunt a little.
The model airplanes were always more expensive. Sometimes, they were $4.95 and up, and most of the time, out of my price range. For me, a fin was a tall order. I thought you were rich if you could pull a fin out of your pocket, so acquiring one of those models was not going to be easy, and I certainly wasn’t rich. On this day, I made my way to the store as it was well within walking distance, to look around, and maybe, just maybe a model would fall into my three dollar price range. I happened to have some change with me as well, so I went over there with a hefty three dollars and fifty-five cents all ready to hunt my prey.
I had a few friends who would occasionally steal a model to build as they knew that they could tuck it under their shirts and walk out with it. Rarely did they get caught because most of the time, the store workers didn’t care. Even if they did, there was no way they could catch them. There were too many places to run and hide in the neighborhood, so they never tried. For my part, there was no way that I would attempt it. It was drummed into my head by my father that there are three things most despicable in this life. Lying, theft, and not keeping your word. I vowed never to be despicable. Besides, if I did get caught, that meant that I would have to face my father’s wrath. I was brave in the neighborhood, brave with my other ten year old friends…but not brave enough to face my father with theft on the docket.
I began hanging my built planes from the ceiling of my bedroom using thread and thumb tacks. Mom was not thrilled at first but decided that it wasn’t a big deal as the room would someday get painted anyway and the tiny holes would be covered over. I had the planes in a variety of flying positions, which could be done by tying a thread to various sections of the model and then hanging them. Some were in a banking maneuver, some were ascending, others flying straight in attack mode. I thought it looked cool. Besides, it is cool to walk into a room to find oneself in the middle of an aerial dog fight, any ten-year-old knows that. I had a couple of bombers too, but the Flying Tiger, the American plane that did most of its work in the Pacific was a must to hang from any room as long as you had the intimidating teeth sticker on the nose of the plane that the Flying Tiger was famous for. What I was missing to make the combat complete was the famous P-51 Mustang from World War II, the fastest plane of its day, so I set out to see if I could find one in my price range.
When I arrived in the model aisle, I began scanning up and down the rows, eyes focused on plane and price. Incidentally, there was an old man with his wife also perusing the same row. I was ten years old at the time, and for all I know he was in his fifties. To a ten-year-old, anyone with gray hair was old. He and his wife smiled at me and I at them. I was not a shy boy, and my father always taught me to respect anyone who was an adult, so I was certainly not going to be rude.
As I perused the shelves, I kept taking out my money and my loose change. Nothing matched up. I did find the P-51, and pulled it from the shelf, looking over the box. The silver body of the plane was painted on the outside, with speed streaks as part of the artwork. The background of the box had a blue sky with puffy cumulus clouds, the plane in an action pose, banking to its right, showing off its sleek build. Machine guns built into the right wing were firing away at the enemy, and I could not help but imagine that silver beauty hanging from my ceiling along with the other heroic machines of flight.
I held the box in my left hand and pulled out my money with my right hand to count it again. No match. It was as though I was hoping that the more I pulled the money out of my pocket and counted it, somehow the extra that I needed would magically appear. I guess that gets categorized under the “hope of little boys” portion of the book of life. The plane that I wanted was just over five dollars and I only had three dollars and change. I put the model back on the shelf. I continued to look up and down the shelves, but went back to the P-51 again, pulled it off of the shelf, again, and counted my money, again. That last time is when it happened.
I was holding the model with both hands, looking at the picture and reading the description when a hand plopped three dollars on the box. I looked up in surprise. It was the old man with his wife standing just behind him. I am not sure what the look on my face was, but it must have been one of shock. Maybe even a little scared. The old man smiled at me, a nice wide grin as friendly people have, with his wife echoing his smile over his shoulder. As he did so he said,
“From one old model builder to another. Is this enough, son?” I looked at the man and his wife, eyes wide.
“Yes, I think it is.” I said, a smile making its way across my face too, as only a ten year old can smile when presented with a gift.
“Good. Have a great time building your plane.”
“Thank you, sir. Thank you very much. I will.” I replied. I stood there a little stunned as the man and his wife walked off. I could not believe it. I had the money to buy the plane that I wanted and didn’t even know that man. I stood for a moment, pondering my good luck and the kindness of that man and his wife. I made my way to the front of the store to pay, and wound up standing behind them both. They looked at me and smiled, and I returned the smile. There were no words exchanged, just smiles. They purchased what they needed, and I bought my plane, went home, built it, and hung it from my ceiling where it hung for a few years.
I am fifty-four years old now. I think about that man from forty-four years ago from time to time. I am sure that he is no longer on the Earth, but I can still see the smile on his face, the shape of his hand, his gray combed back hair, and the beige jacket he was wearing. I think of the warm feeling that I got when he put the money down on that model I was holding. I find myself searching for that same feeling from time to time, eventually finding it in the most surprising of places.
I found it when I returned the gift he gave me to someone else. The gift of kindness to strangers. I have repeated that man’s kindness more than once in my life, for no other reason than it makes me feel good to duplicate what was done for me. It might be a coffee in the morning for the unsuspecting driver behind me at the drive-through coffee shop, it might be the tab for a random person in a fast food line, done without their knowing. It might be picking up the tab while at dinner with friends. Sometimes I think that kind man is part of the reason I became a teacher. Who knows? See, it isn’t always the biggest, most showy things in this life that make a difference for someone else, but the small kindnesses that resonate, like continuing ripples in water. These are the things that matter, and the things that make us just a little more human. Someday, I might be in a store looking at models to build, and a little boy might be looking to round out his ceiling with a P-51 Mustang but doesn’t quite have the money. I hope I’m in the same aisle.