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The Mustang and the Titanic

My dad was a classical music freak who knew little about the music except that he liked it. He’d gotten a job at the National Cash Register Corporation in 1958 or 1959 when he was 19 or 20. Typical of many white-collar jobs at the time, the moment he walked into the building at 16th and Broadway, his career was sealed. He would work for NCR for the next 35 years.

mustangHe labored in a concrete room with a workbench and a fluorescent bulb above him. He had a working lamp on the bench. There, he repaired cash registers. Sometimes he was sent into the field, especially after the advent of electronic registers and copiers, to work directly with clients. He saw people in their shops, and more often, in large corporate stores, like the Jones Store or Montgomery Ward..

He hated leaving the confines of his small workshop. He’d rather work by himself. He wasn’t good in the field, though he was a talky and gregarious guy outside of the workplace. He didn’t like dealing with people on their terms. He hated that the customers mistreated the machines. He found himself disgusted at the ways that operators screwed up the devices by sticking paperclips and scissors into holes to free up jammed devices. I remember him coming home in the evening after a day working with customers complaining and cussing.

Most of the time, however, he spent his days in the concrete room. About the time he got his NCR job, a new radio station, KXTR 96.5 p.m., began broadcasting classical music. They played all kinds, from the great composers and symphonies to little known chamber pieces and small quartets. It didn’t matter what was on the radio station, my dad listened. The commercials were never loud or gaudy. They all kept within the dignified tone of the music the station broadcast.

The music was soothing to him. He grew up in the 1950s and during the rock-and-roll revolution. But he was one of the few youth of the time that didn’t go in for that sort of thing. It was too jangly and loud. As a career man, working in the basement, he flipped on the radio tuned to KXTR and had it on all day.

I got my love of classical music from him, and know about as much about it as he did, which was very little. I can see how it soothed the soul of a guy who really didn’t like his job much. We listened to KXTR when he would fix the second-hand cars that always needed attention. He would fix, of course, and I had to watch and hand him tools. He wasn’t good about telling me what he was doing, he expected me to observe and learn. His instructional method left much to be desired. When I grew up, I could do simple car repair. The big stuff, tie rods, cylinder heads, head gaskets, and oil pumps remain a mystery to me.

One of the best memories I have of my father comes from a time he decided to buy and build a model of his favorite World War II fighter plane, the P-51 D Mustang. I have to admit, I still have an affection for the plane, whose smooth lines and futuristic (for the time) design made it look like a plane I would one day learn to fly.

The plastic model had 1,500 parts. We had to assemble everything from the engine to the machine guns (and cameras) in the wings. My dad bought the glue and dozens of paints needed to for the parts. He cleaned off one of his workbenches in the basement, got us two chairs, and lined up all the goods—model parts, paints, glue, tweezers, paintbrushes—along one side and the part of the bench that faced the basement wall.

Working on the model became high ritual for us. For months, after he came home, read the newspaper, and sit down to the family dinner, he would stand and tell me it was time to work on the model. He would grab a couple of beers before we went to the basement and sat in the chairs. When he got comfortable and had his beer open, he would turn on the radio.

Just like when we fixed cars, I was there to watch. He meticulously painted the pieces, trimmed the plastic flashing from them, and glued one part of the plane together, then the next. While I didn’t have much to do but sit and ask questions, we were at least doing something together. The bright light of the lamp on the workbench broke dimness of the basement. The classical music filled in the space around us, giving the bare, concrete basement a reverent, almost church-like atmosphere. I became attached to the smells of model glue, oil-based enamels, and my father’s body processing alcohol. Even today, drunks don’t smell bad to me, they smell like my dad in these tender moments.

When he was working on the model, he attained a gentleness and ease of character that he normally didn’t possess. He was not physically affectionate man. He didn’t have much to do with us kids after he came home from a long day downtown in the basement. He preferred to read the newspaper and drink beer until the 10 o’clock news and then hit the rack. He wasn’t always patient with us kids, or even with my mom.

What made the airplane so special wasn’t that we were working on it together. We were not. He was putting together this model. He let me do a few things, just like when repairing the car. I handed him paintbrushes and fetched the paint from the rows of little jars. I handed him the plastic matrixes that held the minuscule parts. I ran upstairs to get him cold beers from the fridge. But when he sat down to that model, he talked to me like a human being. He answered my myriad questions—about the airplane, the war, life, and work.

I don’t know how long it took us to put together that model. I don’t even think we finished it all the way. My father had a way of starting a project with energy and see that excitement wash away. But we almost got it all together. When we stopped working on it—the times we sat together became less frequent—it sat on the workbench until I ventured to take it in hand and zoom it around the basement, pretending I was the pilot sitting in his little ejection seat.

My son recently bought Father’s Day gifts that we would have to work on together. He loves that kind of thing. One of the presents was a plastic model of the Titanic with hundreds of parts. It came with acrylic enamels (without the odor of acetone). The glue, however, transports me back to the basement with my dad.

I cleared off a space on my workbench and pulled a plastic sawhorse up it. Nick and I laid out the paints and brushes. We were careful to order the matrixes with the parts. We read the instructions and began with the first diagram. He and I are now working on the model a couple of times a week. My goal is to finish the model all the way. It may take up months or even a year, doing one section at a time: The foredeck, the afterdeck, the bridge, etc.

Our first evening working on the model, I made sure that Nick had as great a role in its assembly that I did. We took turns cutting painting the tiny pieces and then cutting them from the matrixes with an Exacto knife. We trimmed away the flash. He glued one piece in, then another. Then, it was my turn. After just a short time, my cares and worries melted away and I was just present, which isn’t a familiar state for me.

There was one thing missing, however, and I couldn’t identify it at first. After two nights working on the model, I realized the basement was quiet. Not a peep.

I’ll fill the silence when we next work on the model. KXTR doesn’t broadcast classical music anymore. We have to wait until after 9 p.m. Monday through Wednesday, and after 10 p.m. on Thursday to hear the classics on the public radio station. In the meantime, I have some CDs that will fill in the gaps. We will be listening to music on an old CD player/radio that my grandfather used in the years before his death.

As an adult, I’ve been able to do with Nick the things I didn’t get to do with my dad. We built a crystal radio—something I always wanted to do. We do camping and hiking, just me and him. Coming up in August, we will take a week out on the Missouri from Rulo, Nebraska, to Kansas City. Father/son stuff.

And, I get to include him in the building of the model Titanic. Both of our hands will be busy with it. Mozart and Beethoven will fill the air around us. I get to relive one of the favorite times of my life—those few months my dad dealt with me as a sidekick and not as a burden.

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