By Fred W. Donaldson
Walter was sort of goofy, and the strangest thing he did was put together balsa-wood model airplanes so they looked like the nightmare of an abstract artist. Some might forgive him, because he was nine and not supposed to know everything, but it annoyed me that he spent money on a model, and it came out a ragged, pointy-edge monstrosity.
Worst of all, Walter was proud of these creations, and since he only talked to me, I just nodded and agreed, pretending praise and wondering what was wrong with him?
Since I was his only friend, and also nine – but capable of great wooden airplane models – I decided it was my duty to fix his mental block.
I knew what was wrong. The balsa sheets were impressed so you could push out the good pieces and throw away the rest. Problem was, Walter pushed out the good parts and threw them away, then tried to make airplanes from the remaining skeleton. It was a doomed plan.
Walter and I lived in Philadelphia, in 1950, and we enjoyed ten-cent movies and ten-cent model kits. We didn’t get allowances, but we had a secret way of making money.
We enjoyed real recycling. If you returned a 12-ounce empty glass soda bottle – Coke, Pepsi, Hires or Frank’s – the local grocer paid you two cents. If you had a quart-size beer bottle – Schmidt’s, Ortlieb’s, Pabst’s or Schaefer – you were paid a nickel.
I liked Walter. He didn’t know or care I was Jewish, but everyone else did. The names didn’t hurt, except when they called me “fat”, because I was fat and ashamed. I heard it at home, too, from my Dad.
The problem was not to have Walter feel like a dope, but still show him how to make balsa planes the right way.
And then I thought of Harry. He owned the hobby shop on Kensington Avenue near Westmoreland, just across from the feed store. Maybe he could help.
Harry was old, probably in his 30s, and he sat outside his hobby shop all day if the weather was good. He had a cheap lawn chair, and when he stood up, Harry walked by twisting his hips and then jerking them back. It was uncomfortable to watch.
When Harry heard the story of Walter using the wrong parts, he laughed and asked me to bring my friend to the store tomorrow around 4 pm.
I told Walter that Harry was going to show us a new airplane model. He was excited, when we arrived at the store, and Harry was already inside with the parts of a model plane, spread out on the counter.
“First, we push out the pieces in the middle, and then throw away the jagged pieces that surround them,” Harry explained.
Harry pressed out one, and then handed another balsa sheet to me and one to Walter. I pushed out my sheet and Walter did the same. When we finished, Harry gave both of us a free airplane kit for watching his “marketing” demonstration.
From then on, Walter made nice planes. Not as good as mine, but still nice.
I stopped seeing Harry a couple years later. Junior high kept me busy. I wasn’t into models or hobbies, just studying.
Harry was a nice guy in my book and I didn’t forget he was kind to Walter.
After high school, it was off to find a job. I ended up as a copyboy at the Evening and Sunday Bulletin. It was a bottom of the rung position, and I was told I would never get on staff, because I never finished college.
Dad didn’t think much of the newspaper business in general, and he began to refer to me as the “scribbler.”
My work schedule was Tuesday through Saturday, and late in the Spring of 1959, an errand took me past Harry’s store, and there he was – in the same chair as before, but not looking quite as old as I had remembered.
We talked about my job, and he encouraged me to do it better than anyone else could. Once, he had to run upstairs because his mother had been disabled for decades, and he had to help here with things.
We walked inside the store – Harry’s hips still moved strangely – and I looked up at the ceiling, where my favorite model airplane of all time was hanging by black threads. It was more than a foot long, wood, painted, USA decals, Air force – stunning.
I asked if he built it, and he did. “What kind of plane was it?”
“It’s a Curtiss P-40 Warhawk, like I flew in the war,” he explained.
Suddenly, Harry was not just the keeper of a little store. And as I asked more, he told me – reluctantly – what had happened.
Harry was one of the first to fly for America against the Japanese invasion of China in World War 2, but his Warhawk fighter plane was shot down early on, and he became a prisoner of war.
“I then lived in a cage for four years until the war ended.
“There were half a dozen pilots, and they would take us to the battles with the Chinese.
“We were let out of the cages, handed wooden swords and told to race across the battlefield alone, screaming Tennōheika Banzai, which meant: Long Live His Majesty, the Emperor.”
The wooden sword attack was to draw machine gun bullets at them and show where to concentrate Japanese artillery. Only a few of these downed pilots survived, and those who did, had many wounds.
The conversation was just a few minutes and I left, humbled.
Decades later, I learned the shop had closed after his mother died, and Harry had married, and was working somewhere
It would be nice to think that from time to time over the years he thought of Walter and me.
Fred W. Donaldson just out of Central High in February, 1959, began his writing career as copyboy for the Evening and Sunday Bulletin. Many promotions later, worked rewrite and general assignment until leaving there in 1965 to edit two Montgomery County newspapers. In 1972 became Sr. VP of InterCounty Newspapers (18 titles) and their President/CEO in 1993. Named publisher and division CEO in 1998 of Journal Register Co. (NYSE: JRC). Retired in 2007. Served three terms as president of my synagogue (BTBJ) and held various posts with the regional and national United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (USCJ). Wife Linda owned and managed a printing company (with real presses!).