There’s nothing like embarking on a theme month to inspire a host of potential essay topics that have nothing to do with the matter at hand.
For eleven months of the year, I flagellate myself trying to come up with marginally workable material. As soon as the Halloween Countdown starts, however, the ideas start coming in fast and furious and can’t be put to proper use until the festivities have ended. The vast majority of these concepts are either “now or never” deals that fade fast if not immediately acted upon, or simply get lost in my skull’s day-to-day churn. It’s rare for one of these flashes to linger long enough for me to get back to it at the start of November, but it does happen — and this post is proof of that.
I mentioned Mattel’s Flying Aces toys a while back during a post about beloved childhood playthings. The planes and playsets ran neck and neck with Kenner’s gyro-powered SSP cars for most favored status in the pre-action figure era, and one of the Polaroids I unearthed from my grandmother’s estate featured my six year old, platinum-haired self proudly clutching an oversized flight deck launcher as I sat in one of her kitchen chairs.
For decades the franchise existed as the dimmest of memories. The name and manufacturer of the line were lost to me, and my generational peers had few if any recollections about the toys. I’m pretty sure one of my earliest Yahoo searches was “Ideal foam rubber planes 70s,” which turned up diddly squat. Things didn’t start falling into place until a kind soul uploaded a page-by-page scan of a mid-Seventies Sears Wish Book to a photo-hosting site around the same time AT was launched. Tucked away in a grainy B&W cul de sac for last year’s Big Things was a listing for the aircraft carrier playset along with the correct name and company responsible.
The discovery launched a decade of periodic eBay searches for Flying Aces toys. Actual listings were few and far between, as wedges of molded foam rubber designed to be launched from catapults tend to suffer a high attrition rate over the course of forty years. What did survive the ages was either too rich or too shabby to merit serious consideration. I probably could’ve scored some random plane in decent condition, but I was really searching for one item in particular.
During the warmer months, my dad used to take his 1973 T-Bird (.05 MPG highway) down to the car wash in Wilmington on Saturday mornings. The place was just a couple of do-it-yourself power-washing berths and a bank of coin-op vacuum cleaners. It wasn’t nearly as exciting as the fully automatic one on Cambridge Road in Burlington — where you got to sit in the car and watch the giant rollers and buffers descent from the rafters — but tagging along with the old man could be an adventure in itself, since it often concluded with sipping a grape Fanta and watching the freight trains roll by on the Boston to Lowell line.
The car wash was located next to a post-industrial brownfield strewn with all manner of rubbish, which meant it was a perfect place to tool around while my dad buffed and polished his petroleum-guzzling land barge. On one unforgettable occasion, I was kicking my way through the discarded pull-top cans and stryofoam fast food containers when I spotted what appeared to be an abandoned Flying Aces jet. Granted, five year olds are prone to seeing a lot of shit that may or may not actually be there, especially coveted prizes magically manifested from thin air.
I ran over to the place where I thought I saw it and found nothing but more wind-herded garbage. After a few minutes (which equals “six hours” in five year old perceived time) of walking in circles and digging around, I was ready to believe my eyes (and greed) and played tricks on me.
And then I found it — an almost new Flying Aces jet plane, whose coffee-colored fuselage and orange-yellow markings provided natural camouflage among Carter Era consumer detritus. I scooped it and ran back to show it to my father.
“Some kid must have lost it,” he said, inspiring a brief pang a guilt until he followed with “but it’s yours now.”
The jet became my special prize, proof that the cosmic lottery had shown me some small favor. The strangeness of its color scheme and markings added to the mystique. My other Flying Aces planes were either WW2 American fighters or contemporary NATO jets. This was neither and sported a color palette which exemplified the era. To this day, the first thing that comes to mind is a mental image of the plane resting on the back of the orange-plaid family sofa beneath the beige macrame netting of my mother’s hanging spider plant.
I’d never run across a similar Flying Aces model during my various searches, until a couple of weeks ago. Some estate sale firm in Florida had put up a near-complete flight deck set for a relatively low asking price. That along was enough to get me to check the listing, but closer look sealed the deal. In addition to the two planes that had originally come with the set, the lot included an additional jet with original backing card — the coffee-hued mystery plane of the Wilmington brownfield.
After a quick consultation with Maura, whose response was “just go buy it before someone scoops it up,” I dropped the dough and had the thing in hand by the end of the week.
Most of these types of purchases are followed by a profound sense of disappointment. The real deal either fails to meet inflated expectations or inadequately salves whatever ancient wound I hoped it would. I’m full aware of this going in, yet it rarely stops me because that’s my particular psychological damage to bear. This one, though, was different.
The jet (a Chinese MiG, as it turns out) had existed in an such an ambiguous state of memory for so long that handling the genuine article gives my the chills. It’s smaller and less detailed than I remember, but it’s decidedly real and with enough heft to sustain the psychic weight I’d placed upon it — memories of a lucky break and happy times and a world cast in warm earth tones.