of winter yields to the occasional day whose warmth and sun hint of the spring to come, my mind inexorably turns to one of the great mysteries of our time.
What ever happened to those balsa wood planes with the plastic propellers that you’d wind up and send flying helter-skelter all over the neighborhood back around 1950?
I feel sorry for today’s children with those remote-controlled craft that go pretty much where you want them to go. What kind of lesson is that for kids?
So, having grown tired of the little 10-cent unpowered gliders that you fired off with a mighty heave of your arm, I decided one day about 60 years ago that I would upgrade to the real thing.
These new doohickeys were bigger and had wheels like real planes and lots of neat markings. But, best of all, they had propellers that you’d wind up with a rubber band.
The package always showed the plane taking off, doing a loop-the-loop and then executing a perfect landing as the joyous young owner rushed to claim it.
The packages lied. The planes taught me an important adult concept: Your flight plan doesn’t always work out the way you expect.
I vaguely remember my first propeller-driven craft. Takeoff? Hah! If you didn’t break the rubber band by winding it too far, the plane would struggle along for a few feet and then veer off the sidewalk into the gutter.
So I tried holding it in my hand and tossing it. At least it became airborne. But it never went very far before losing power and plunging to earth from maybe four feet in the air. Adjusting the wings or tail only caused a crash landing from a different angle.
The next plane I got was an aeronautical step forward, I thought. In an era when the U.S. Air Force was rolling out experimental craft, I pinned my hopes for the future on a contraption that looked like a vertical stick with a propeller at both ends.
So I wound the two propellers and sent it off. It rose well enough, but then it took a deviant course (you couldn’t adjust it) and plopped itself down on the rear part of a roof across Loomis Street in Wilkes-Barre’s Rolling Mill Hill. Even if we’d known the people, I don’t think we’d have persuaded them to climb up and retrieve it.
Probably an ordinary kid would have quit right then and there. But I was tougher. Within about a week I rolled out The Hornet.
Wow, was that thing impressive. At a staggering 49 cents, with its monster wingspan, its thick rubber band and its guaranteed buzzing noise, it augured serious flying.
So after due admiration I adjusted the tail and wings for a circular climb, wound up the propeller and tossed my mighty Hornet into the air.
Naturally I hadn’t factored the tree across the street into my ETA. Right into the upper branches the Hornet powered, and never came out, joining the stick thing in history.
Recently I went online to look up balsa-wood planes powered by rubber bands. They’re still available, though I don’t see any kids flying them.
Anyway, I learned something. When life shows you gloriously happy people and successful flights on the side of a box, beware — somebody’s probably trying to sell you a bill of goods.
And if not, there’s probably a roof or a tree that will jump in your way.