Growing up in ancient times, long before the days of Christmas sales starting in August, I could tell Christmas was getting closer when the mailman delivered a thick book to our house around Halloween, the Sears Toy Catalog. In these days of instant on-line ordering, it’s hard to explain how the anticipation would build in a kid back in those days, badgering our poor moms after school: “Did it come? Did it come? Is it here yet?”
After its arrival came the days of reading and drooling over the pictures of the toys and the models. I’m almost embarrassed to admit that long before I lusted after Lisa in the 7th grade I lusted after a Cox control line PT-19. I can still remember the first time in the late 1970s when the Piece of Cake radio control airplane appeared in the catalog. While I never did buy one, it was my first distant exposure to this new thing called a radio controlled airplane.
Without enough resources for flying lessons, the local hobby shop became my substitute airport. Occasionally I wonder today if the owners of the hobby shops in Alameda ever guessed that the geeky kid balancing sheets of balsa on his bike would someday be flying heavy airliners around the world, and still find peace in the simplicity of a sharp knife on a piece of balsa. With the explosion of RC in the 1980s, a grownup version of the Sears Toy catalog started showing up in my mailbox, the Tower Hobbies catalog with its bright ads and catchy phrasing. Instead of spending my money on beer, women, and fast cars in my 20′s, I spent it on balsa, Monokote and Carl Goldberg kits.
When I returned to building radio control airplanes in the mid-2000s I was happy to find the local hobby shop was still alive and kicking and had not gone the way of the dodo bird. Performance Hobby in Burlington, Washington was owned by Craig and Suzy, open 6 days a week and you could always count on a warm welcome as you walked in the door. I hate the clichÃ© of going to a place “where everyone knows your name,” but Performance is one of those places.
If I stopped in on a quiet day we might talk about Craig’s daughter and how proud he was of her learning to fly Cessnas, or of Suzy’s worry about her son working as a contract truck driver in the Middle East. On a busy Saturday I’d just as easily jump in to answer questions from a customer and nothing would raise my blood pressure faster than when someone would demand Suzy match a price they had seen on the internet. We all knew that when they needed help they’d appear at Performance, but I never once heard Craig or Suzy deny help for an item purchased elsewhere. The workshop in the back of the store usually had a project going and Suzy’s office wall was covered with pictures of local modelers and their projects.
I would occasionally order hard-to-find parts through the internet, but it was more fun to stop on the way home from the airport – jetlagged out of my mind – for a laugh or to talk to some unassuming older gent who might turn out to be a master machinist, or see myself in the father and young son or daughter quietly examining and debating a kit for their first project together. Of course, more than once Suzy or Craig would greet me with “Have you seen this?”, knowing I was a sucker for a ParkZone microCub or new addition to RealFlight.
I’ve written this story in my mind a few times over the last year, always meaning to get back to it but never quite doing so. A couple weeks ago I was stuck in the build of my Proctor Enterprises Curtiss Jenny, and needing inspiration I drove the 30 minutes down to Performance. Suzy was busy with a customer when I arrived and we exchanged smiles and waves. Craig greeted me with his deep voice and helped me find some batteries for the Great Planes micro F-86 I had gotten for my birthday. We shared some shop talk, Craig asking how I liked the F-86 and me asking how his hobby of restoring classic trucks was going. I wandered down the aisles, reverting as always from a grownup back to a gear-head teenager, poking into corners for treasure and seeing things I wanted but had no need for, stopping to examine parts for inspiration and talking with other modelers doing the same thing.
When I left an hour later I had what I needed and a little more. A hug from Suzy and a rumbling “See ya” from Craig always left me feeling better than when I had come in. It’s been just over a week now since that visit and as I sit here in my layover hotel room in Delhi I can only stare numbly at the email telling me of Craig’s sudden heart attack and of Suzy’s loss.
When you get down to it, it’s not the airplanes and cars and boats that make this hobby so great. It’s the people.