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Saturday Morning, Redux

Ye gods, Constant Reader…autumn is here.

After a week of dreary grey skies, wind, and fairly constant lashings of cold rain, the sun finally came out today with some enthusiasm, so out I went and found it waiting for me.

Though the clouds have abated for the moment and the winds were calm, it was downright chilly today. Autumn chilly, no mistake about it. That’s no joke for me, the MS affects the muscles controlling circulation in my limbs, and they often get clammy to the touch, noticeably cooler than normal body temperature. Add to this the fact that my year round uniform is shorts and a T shirt since with my train wreck of a body I can’t deal with buttons, snaps, zippers or long pants. Even with a lap blanket, when it’s chilly the blistering top speed of my chair (5.4 mph going downhill) makes for enough relative wind to have me shivering, and my left hand was curled up like a spider after being poked by the time I reached my destination.

Still and all, it was a lovely morning and I very much enjoyed the trek out to my flying site. You can’t miss the different feeling in the air, the angle of the sun and the look of the sky you get with autumn. Leaves are already falling, even though it was still emphatically summer only a couple of weeks ago and the temperatures at midday were hinting at blast furnace levels.

I really like autumn, it’s my favorite season followed by spring, then summer respectively. Winter I haven’t much use for, it’s grim, dismal, cold and dead. Autumn is subtler and more complex, just a bit melancholy in a dreamy, wistful sort of way. I’ve come a long way from when I was a kid…I hated fall then with a passion. Summer vacation’s over, and for me the whole back-to-school thing that so many enjoy was for me more like a return to prison after being paroled. Being forced to spend more time around my parents wasn’t the funnest thing, either…without going into too much sordid detail, back then my folks weren’t the stereotypical Robert Young and Jane Wyatt type by a long stretch…let’s just say they had some issues and were extremely good at coming up with new and improved ways to put the ‘fun’ in ‘dysfunctional’ on a regular basis. My mom, bless her, got over the worst of hers, but my dad went to his grave still proudly displaying his timeworn but well-polished Miserable Bastard merit badge. Ah, well.

Since I grew to adulthood, though, I’ve learned to really enjoy and relish the autumn season. We get some pretty fall colors even here in Tennessee, and of course there’s the holiday season to look forward to…and I do, the secret is not to overdo things and keep focused on what I believe are the very real, positive aspects holidays like Thanksgiving, Christmas and the New Year celebration can offer. No rush, mind you, I’ll be busy taking in the fall.

One of the very few good things about multiple sclerosis, at least for me, is a noticeably higher sensitivity to subtle nuances you find even in the mundane things in the world. That hint of melancholy I mentioned is stronger for me these days than when I was healthy, a not unpleasant sense of longing that can almost be savored like a well-brewed tea…and like tea it doesn’t have much in the way of body or substance, but it certainly has a distinctive flavor.

With my relatively new paradigm of motoring about the neighborhood in my powered chair, as the weather cools it means the end of my flying season, no two ways about it. Flying model aircraft is one of the few real joys I have left in my life, and its absence for several months will be keenly felt. Even that’s okay by me, though, since I’m planning some serious therapy this winter in the form of attempting to build some models for next spring, a big unknown for me, given the loss of function in my left hand. That’s why it’s therapeutic, like flying my planes or helicopter, building things demands I use that hand, and I’ve already been pleasantly surprised by the workarounds I’ve been able to learn to fly well and perform other tasks that I’d previously thought weren’t doable. Being left-handed and losing most of the use of that hand is daunting, but learning those workarounds has encouraged me, as well as the fact that my ‘dumb’ right hand has also picked up a lot of the slack.

In short, there appears to be life in the old dog yet. It’ll be slow going, but I think if I can keep my temper and not blow any gaskets I’ll produce some good results. My first project is a tiny replica of the Great War era Sopwith Triplane, as represented by a kit predominantly constructed of Depron foam and balsa. I expect it’ll be a royal pain to build even though I’d have considered it brainlessly simple just a few short years ago…but the lure and promise of the finished bird is all the motivation I need. Even unpainted it looks glorious to my eyes:

This morning, though, I was mainly concerned with getting my chilled and curled hand behaving at least a little. When I reached my parking lot/aerodrome, I unloaded my gear and found it as useless as I feared it would be. Lecturing and threatening it didn’t seem to do much, so lacking any facility for warming it up, I just sat on it. Yep, I sat on my hand like a chicken warming an egg.

By the by, if I haven’t mentioned it before, I strongly recommend that you healthy folks avoid developing any neurological diseases like MS…not only is it incredibly annoying, it really does cramp the old lifestyle. Yeah, lame attempt at humor…sue me.

Sitting on my hand actually seemed to work, and before long I got my little Aeronca Champ airborne and doing its thing, which is mainly gently flying around and looking pretty. For me, the sight of a classic aircraft purring around in the sky is like balm for the soul, and I enjoyed the time I spent this morning thoroughly. When I decided to call it quits, the airplane cooperated by rewarding me with a perfect landing and I taxied it back to my feet, thinking kind thoughts about this little contraption of foam and little electronic biscuits that gives me so much pleasure.

On the return trip home, the day had warmed a bit, but I wasn’t fooled. The occasionally falling leaves, the tilt of the sun, along with the other things I’ve talked about here were the giveaway Gather ye rosebuds while ye may, the poet Robert Herrick wrote some time ago, as an excerpt from his work instructs:

Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
Old Time is still a-flying;
And this same flower that smiles today,
Tomorrow will be dying.

See? Pretty but a bit sad and wistful, the way I feel about this time of year. In a similar vein, since I’ve already admitted that I believe everything in life should be set to music, I’ll leave you to consider this piece from a different time…

…Okay, okay, I know the song is a bit hackneyed these days, it’s actually about winter, not autumn, and I have no longing in my heart at all for California. Visiting it once was enough, and with all due respect to any denizens of that state who may be reading this, I wouldn’t choose to live there, which goes double for L.A., a city I wouldn’t live in on a dare. Still, for some reason this song just works for me and I always hear it echoing in my head at this time of year.


Saturday Mornings, Then And Now

I’ve fallen into a definite routine since the warm weather arrived. The rest of the year, it’s anyone’s guess when I’ll be up…I’ve always had insomnia to deal with to one degree or another, but since multiple sclerosis sank its claws into me it’s gotten much stronger, and much more random. I might wake up at 5 AM one day, be up for 20 or more hours at a time, and find myself getting up in the late afternoon a few days later.

Since late April, even though the weird sleep patterns are always there, my body seems to have learned to arrange things so I return to getting up in the evenings. I’m usually up till 3-4 AM when I grab a nap, then get up at 6 to go out if the weather’s decent, armed with one of my micro radio control airplanes to do some aviating.

These miniscule aircraft are an absolute godsend for me since their compact size makes them easy to transport in my power chair to the largish parking lot of a bowling alley that serves as my aerodrome about a mile away. They’re a very recent addition to the hobby, becoming available as everyday retail items only a couple of years ago. Talk about good timing, huh?

When I was a kid in the ’70s we’d have just about killed to get our hands on something like these aircraft. We built model airplanes to be sure, but they were simple rubber powered free flight planes…the thought of being able to really fly these tiny machines, to go hundreds of feet in the air, cavort in the sky under full control and return safely to earth was pure fantasy at that point.

We had no idea that the marvelous ships we dreamed of would not only exist but become commonplace realities one day; had we known, I suspect a piece of our present time would have lost some of its color and appeal with the knowing we’d have to wait so many years for those dreams to be realized.

I was reflecting upon this as I motored over to my site at daybreak this past Saturday. I’ve always loved Saturday mornings, especially when the weather was fair. There’s something special about a Saturday, an indefinable sense of promise of fun things happening and good times just waiting to be had.

This is a universal phenomenon that’s grabbed kids…and adults with at least a scrap of the kid they’d been left in them…for a long, long time. I can’t tell you how far back the lure of a Saturday has been ingrained in people, but you can find examples going back for hundreds of years if you look.

Mark Twain captured the spirit of the day masterfully in his book Tom Sawyer. I hope you’ve read it before, but if not you owe it to yourself to do so. Tom Sawyer more than deserves its status as a classic in my opinion, and never loses its charm no matter if it’s your first or hundredth time reading it. From the opening of Chapter II, he paints us a scene of the fictional town of St. Petersburg, Tom’s home:

Saturday morning was come, and all the summer world was bright and fresh, and brimming with life. There was a song in every heart; and if the heart was young the music issued at the lips. There was cheer in every face and a spring in every step. The locust-trees were in bloom and the fragrance of the blossoms filled the air. Cardiff Hill, beyond the village and above it, was green with vegetation and it lay just far enough away to seem a Delectable Land, dreamy, reposeful, and inviting.

Man alive, I can relate.

In my own case, kidhood was in the early 1970s. Video games were still a long way off. So were computers for that matter, but kids fooled with their radios, portable phonographs, and if they were among the enviably anointed, a real stereo in exactly the same way they obsess today over their computers, cell phones and PS3s. Obviously nothing has fundamentally changed from one period to another, kind of a comforting thought in some ways.

I rarely watch television these days, but I sure did then. Saturday mornings particularly, if you were lucky and your timing was right, could be a fine time to find really good material on TV.

While the other kids were watching mediocre drek on the major networks, you could find neat stuff to see on the second tier broadcasters like New York’s WPIX, channel 11 or WNEW, channel 5. Old Hal Roach Little Rascals and Our Gang shorts, ancient (to us) Warner Brothers, Fleischer, and TerryToons cartoons, and kids’ shows that were really kids’ shows like Captain Kangaroo and Wonderama rather than glitzy, long animated ads for marketing junk toys you see today. I became a fan of Betty Boop, Popeye, Mighty Mouse and the other icons of classic animation thanks to the willingness of these stations to air them.

Apart from running great late night old movies on both channels, I was especially fond of WPIX for featuring the great Chiller Theater on the weekends, showing cool old horror flicks for our delectation. I ask you: how could any self-respecting kid not love Chiller’s marvelous Claymation intro with the six-fingered hand emerging from a pool of blood to pluck the letters spelling out the show’s name one by one before slowly descending back into the grisly mire, awaiting its time until next week when its time came to rise again???

On Saturday mornings a kid could get fired up with Junior Scientist/Young Adventurer fervor watching reruns of the original Jonny Quest cartoons from the mid ’60s. Jonny and The Gang

This show had one of the coolest theme songs ever…and I’m not the only one that thinks so. Not too long ago a nifty album was released featuring modern artists doing covers of a bunch of theme songs from shows that were on at this time, and my personal favorite is the Reverend Horton Heat’s take on the Jonny Quest theme:

Jonny Quest remains one of my very favorites to this day. The bad guys were often fairly silly rather than menacing and there was a constant annoying undertone reminding us that The Government Is Our Bestest Pal, which time has shown to be a bunch of codswallop.

Who cares? In Jonny Quest the characters themselves were the ones that got things done…they didn’t need super powers or gimmicks, they were just individuals who solved their problems by being smart and resourceful. I have to note that this quality is something that’s conspicuously absent in today’s world with its collectivism, groupthink and political correctness, a sad commentary on the state we’ve reached.

The show sure wasn’t shy about depicting violence; in Jonny’s world, the bad guys might be silly, but they had guns, and when they started shooting, Benton Quest and Race Bannon would grab their own guns without apology and without feeling the need to deliver a lecture about how guns are actually very naughty and only the Proper Authorities should have them. The bad guys often died in these cartoons, too, usually with a loud scream of AIEEEEEE! as they were hit by a flying speedboat or crushed by falling rubble. The artists who created this cartoon made it abundantly clear that death was final.

The message was unsophisticated but crystal clear: if you attack people like the heroes in the show with lethal force, they aren’t going to scatter and hide like frightened bunnies, they’re going to defend themselves with whatever level of force is needed to make you quit it, and if that means your secret laboratory comes down on your head and squishes you in the process, too bad…you started it.

Getting back to the meat of the matter, there were the toys…those wonderful toys, to echo The Joker from the Tim Burton Batman movie. Saturday mornings were a great time to enjoy these…school was out, so you were usually mercifully free for a while of finger-wagging authority figures and assorted busybodies and nannies, with their lectures and platitudes.

There wasn’t some tiresome lesson to go along with your playthings, you just enjoyed them for their own sake. Sure, then as now there was lots of useless junk, but we kids knew the difference. And we knew what to ask for on birthdays and holidays.

The perennial favorites for me always seemed to be made by Mattel. You might get busy turning out bugs, monsters or assorted uglies with your Mattel Thingmaker, baking the liquid Plastigoop into solid, slightly rubbery creations in metal molds using the sinister looking (and smelling) Thingmaker heating device that got blisteringly hot…literally. If you were stupid and/or careless you got a nasty burn for your trouble, and so learned at an early age not to be stupid or careless.

Nowadays, of course, such a device would never come close to passing muster. It and its contemporaries were given the bum’s rush long ago, sacrificed on the altar of the new religion of the quest for perfect safety. Anything that might burn, cut, or cause harm if swallowed has been hustled off into oblivion, replaced by things with soft or round edges, things that could never hurt a child, no matter how badly mishandled.

Therein lies the real tragedy here: by shielding kids from the unpleasant consequences of a minor burn or scratch from their toys, they never learn the valuable life lesson that being stupid and careless can have (surprise!) unpleasant consequences. All too often they grow up into stupid and careless adults who often experience this lesson far too late, when they start messing with adults’ toys that can maim or kill not only themselves, but other people who get in the way.

Sorry to be blunt, but Rainbow Brite, her dimwitted Care Bear cousins, and the rest of the bumbling, ineffectual crowd of popular ‘characters’ representing toys that were thought up by soulless focus groups and committees, whose highest priority wasn’t making things kids would really enjoy, but making a quick buck while shielding their butts from all possible liability can all go straight to Hell.

I want my Thingmaker back.

A fledgling aviator from a very early age, I already had a history of thirsting for anything new and novel that had to do with airplanes. At the age of five or so in the mid 1960s,I remember clearly being thrilled to bits when a cereal company’s promotional toy arrived in the mail in the form of an airplane.

It was a red plastic Cessna 150 that had an electric motor and went round and round from a string suspending it. It didn’t light up or do anything fancier than go around on that string, but I loved it.

And yes, box tops were involved.

The Cessna was made of a crude species of 1960s plastic that couldn’t hold a candle to modern engineering plastics, but was actually not at all a bad representation of a 150…coincidentally the same type of full size aircraft I first flew ten years later!

Early impressions are the strongest ones, I’m sure. That first model was a harbinger of things to come, and was the start of a lifelong love of small flying machines.

A few years later when the 70s were getting into swing, good old Mattel came through with their Vertibird helicopter. I don’t recall when I first became aware of it, but it was just the sort of gizmo that could threaten to make a kid like me spill his bowl of Frankenberry in excitement.

I wasn’t much of a helicopter guy, but the Vertibird was exceptionally cool and I determined to acquire one. I don’t recall whether it took Christmas or a birthday to provide a suitable occasion to justify receiving one, but I eventually got one for my own.

Like my first little Cessna, the Vertibird basically went around in circles, but it was capable of a lot more action while doing so.

The helicopter itself was just a skeletonized plastic frame supporting a semi rigid arm that powered its rotor from a motor in its base and transmitted commands from a control unit to tilt it fore and aft to fly forwards or backwards as well as varying the power to go up or down. Of simple construction, it was brilliant in action, bringing an unheard of level of control to motorized toys.

You didn’t have to pretend to carefully maneuver your rescue helicopter to snag poor stranded people with the machine’s handy grappling hook and whisk them to safety back at the landing pad, you actually did it.

Of course, this taught another important life lesson: the difference between pretending to perform a task, where of course everything always worked just as planned, and having to do it for real, which required patience and finesse if you wanted to succeed. Those little people were hard to pick up…it took careful jockeying and power management to snag one, even though they were helpfully provided with oversize rings held over their heads!

I spent many happy hours on many Saturday mornings zooming around at speed in my helicopter or rescuing those poor hapless people over and again. I missed or dropped them many more times than I was able to pick them up and deposit them safely back at home base, but I learned a lot about the need to spend the time developing the skills required to do the job. Instant gratification? Never heard of it.

The ne plus ultra of toys came out around this time as well, again courtesy of our old friend Mattel.

The Mattel SuperStar was revolutionary in many respects, a free flight airplane with a geared electric motor for a powerplant, powered by small nickel cadmium batteries that could be recharged by simply plugging the included charging unit into a jack in the fuselage. This was the direct precursor to today’s free flight and radio controlled airplanes, and incorporated a lightweight molded foam wing and tail surfaces, mounted to a similarly lightweight fuselage of thin. flexible plastic. It was ready to fly, without any real assembly, right out of the box.

Since tiny micro radio control systems were still decades away and obviously unavailable, Mattel designers did the next best thing. Using a clever mechanism driven by the propeller shaft, a rotating cam could be snapped onto the underside of the plane that would allow a lever connected to the rudder move in and out of the cutouts in the cam, thereby making the plane fly a programmed pattern. As I recall, you also got a couple of uncut blank cams in the box so you could make your own flight programs!

Note done yet, the Mattel engineers went a step further, adding light sprung steel arms, also activated by the cam, that could release little skydivers with thin plastic parachutes in flight.

You don’t often see that kind of thoughtful engineering these days and I truly miss that kind of inspired innovation.

There were too many other fabulous things from those days to list, but I think I made my point…by making toys like I’ve talked about available to the kids of my time, Mattel and other manufacturers laid a solid foundation for us not only to play well, but to learn valuable lessons about the way things really work in the world.

This kind of thinking seems to have taken a back seat to slick marketing, hype, and making a quick buck in recent times…in short, there’s a whole lot more sizzle and a whole lot less steak around today.

The good news is that very thinking is alive and well, at least in my hobbies, even today. The new paradigm fascinates me: though the machines I enjoy may be constructed from inexpensive Chinese components, you can’t miss the signs of American and European ingenuity that put everything together.

Today I’m flying my Parkzone Ultra Micro T-28 Trojan. It is indeed tiny, spanning just under 17 inches and weighing a mere 1.3 ounces, but don’t be fooled by its size, this airplane is capable of almost every flight maneuver the prototype can do.

Though the landing gear is fixed, its low drag assures that it barely detracts from flight performance, but its soft foam wheels and spring steel gear legs handle the pebble strewn asphalt I fly from.

Best of all, if you keep the power around 50%, the plane flies in a realistic, almost stately way. I really need to get one of those inexpensive keychain video cameras to velcro to a hat to catch some of those neat flybys…there’s lots of videos showing the airplane in action, but I’d kinda like to see mine on the screen!

Of course I’m writing this part after the fact, my airplane flew as gracefully as always and returned home with me safely. It was a glorious morning to be out…which is what got me started thinking about Saturday mornings in general.

It was a welcome respite from the usual stresses, worries and pain…once one of these is up in the air, you really can’t focus on anything other than flying the airplane.

Both the kid and the adult in me…both pilots…were mighty happy.