Sometimes I like to point out the absurdity in the fact that, after spending much of my childhood standing bored out of my skull in military-themed hobby shops, I now spend much of my adulthood standing bored out of my skull in fantasy-themed hobby shops (sometimes also called "geek stores"). When, I wonder, do I get to be the one who is not bored out of his skull?
Today, the second day of Spring Break, I was reminded that the former is only a partial memory. The part I'm leaving out is what makes the latter bearable.
From about 1976, when we moved to California, until about 1980, when I settled fully into the teenage agenda, I spent a significant number of Saturdays or Sundays alone with my father. The premise was always "going to the hobby shop." Someone early on must have suggested that it would be nice to bring me along, seeing as from Monday to Friday my dad was mostly in Jack Arnold mode, i.e. "How was work, Jack?" "Work's work."
The experience had been totally different in Pennsylvania. The hobby shop was within walking distance of our house. I don't have many memories of the hobby shop. I think while Dad browsed, I was a few doors away at Davis' Variety Store, the center of my childhood life, looking at Richie Rich comic books with my sister.
Have you ever been to a hobby shop? Am I even calling it by its proper name? Before the Jawa introduced me to the geek genre, I thought they were all the same: very quiet, kind of dusty, full of scale models and strategic military board games, the front counter manned by a guy usually around my dad's age or older who had plenty of time to stand there, smoke cigarettes and talk. I assume they would talk about hobby stuff, though I seldom stuck around to hear the conversation. Instead, I wandered through the store, trying in vain to find something interesting.
I liked Brookhurst Hobbies, in Buena Park, because it had a glass case full of dioramas -- war scenes, of course. There was one on Tustin Avenue that also carried model trains, a particular strain of hobby my dad never got into.
The worst of them was a place called Military Hobbies which, if I remember correctly, was on La Palma in Anaheim. Military Hobbies had no dioramas, and the guy at the counter was austere and strange. But it had the best selection of model airplane kits and military-themed hobby magazines.
Ironically, by the time we moved to California, my dad was well past his model-building prime. In Pennsylvania, his hobby was so intense that every upgrade performed on our house included some kind of hobby-related feature: the new family room had a table that came out of the wall, on which you could assemble and paint model airplanes. Downstairs was the "hobby room," its walls lined with plexiglas shelves, upon which sat scores of historically accurate model planes. A large concave table filled with kitty litter sat in the middle of the room. On it, my dad would recreate specific World War II battles, changing each side's strategies to see how they might have turned out.
Compared to that, his habit post-move barely qualifies as a hobby. But he still liked to go to the stores, buying the military magazines and talking shop while I hid out among the store inventory.
All of those years, I thought I was going along so I could get ice cream. That was the big draw. I knew he'd get me ice cream, unless we went early; then we'd get donuts. At the time, I figured it was a fair trade: a couple of hours of abject boredom in exchange for ice cream or donuts. I was a kid; the real reason I went along didn't occur to me until many years later.
I've been gone from Orange County for over 20 years, and could easily get lost if you put me in the middle of, say, Stanton and told me to find my way home. For awhile there, though, I knew every corner of the place, because in addition to visiting hobby shops and buying ice cream, my dad and I spent every weekend driving aimlessly around to see what we could find.
Sometimes we found out that Anaheim did, indeed, have a downtown. One time we located that Carvel franchise we'd heard had opened in Fountain Valley. Occasionally we ended up at the beach, but most of the time we just drove around, always finding new things, which is why I can't take seriously anyone who dismisses Orange County with the wave of a cultured hand. It may not be Paris, but it kept my dad and I interested for many a Saturday.
It was almost always my dad and I. Very rarely did one of my sisters come along. And it's not like he was going out of his way or doing anything he wouldn't have been doing on a Saturday anyway; but he took me along.
Now the roles have changed. While standing in a hobby shop of any kind is still akin to waterboarding, I am now the guy who decides if we get ice cream or not, where we might explore, what time we will be home.
The Jawa's a tougher sell than I was. Today I practically had to beg him to get out from in front of the computer and go check out this hot dog place on Howard Street. It's Spring Break, which he has envisioned spending in front of his PC, sharpening his Roller Coaster Tycoon II skills until leaving for my sister's, and Disneyland, on Wednesday. So it took a little nudge, but I got him out of the house.
We had hot dogs. Mine was made out of tofu. He only ate half of his, and some onion rings. We talked about Disneyland the entire time. But I could tell. We have some epic battles, he and I. Call me sentimental and apologies to Paul Anka, but I could tell, today at lunch, that he was living the times of his life. Sometimes, you know, the kid is just not cool enough to play the disinterested teen.
You can't consciously create memories; they just happen. But you can put yourself in a position where the little things that stick with you are more likely to occur. You can look back at the things that stand out decades later and say, "Now that I'm on the other side of this set-up, what can I do to add a little meaning to this otherwise mundane day?"
Because as soon as you blink, the window closes. The Jawa just burst into the room and announced that there are now 1,378 people visiting the (virtual) amusement park he created on Roller Coaster Tycoon. He'll be there for the rest of the day, probably, while I sit here typing. And sooner than I think, I'll be Harry Chapin, begging him for a few minutes of his time.
The fake hot dog and fries I ate for lunch today aren't going to do me any favors, health-wise, but in the big picture, they were worth it. And the dorks who work at geek stores are much more interesting than the guy at Military Hobbies.