Thursday, August 26, 2010

"Lady Be Good"

It is the nature of war that the cessation of hostilities seldom means resolution for many of the participants or their survivors. What we now call "post-traumatic stress disorder" dogs many veterans of every war long after the shooting stops, and those MIA - "Missing In Action" - haunt their families as long as a memory remains to remember those lost.

"Closure" is a peculiar trait in the human species. Burial rituals exist to provide closure to survivors, reassuring them that their loved ones are really dead and have gone on to a better place. In the absence of tangible remains, uncertainty and hope battle in its place; gnawing uncertainty that the missing will ever be found alive and undying hope that they will indeed be found alive.

Occasionally that hope, against all odds and rational sense, prevails. Thirty, forty and even fifty years after the end of World War II, a ragged Japanese soldier would emerge out of the jungle like a living wraith to remind the world that fervently wished for miracles do occur.

But that result is so very rare. Typically any resolution is a confirmation of the worst fears a family can have.

The "Lady Be Good" was one such example. An American B-24D Liberator heavy bomber flying with the 514th Bomb Squadron, 576th Bomb Group - known as the "Liberandos" - the Lady flew from her base in Libya on 4 April 1943 to bomb targets in Naples, Italy. She never returned. Assumed lost in the Mediterranean Sea, the crew was classified as MIA and the families left to wonder and hope against all hope.

In 1958 the Lady was spotted from an airborne petroleum company survey aircraft nearly intact and 440 miles inland in the Libyan desert. When a recovery crew from Wheelus Air Force Base, then an American installation on the coast of Libya, reached the wreckage they found that the radio still worked, food and water were on board and drinkable tea was found in a thermos. But there was no sign of the crew.

A search was later initiated and eventually the remains of five of the crew were found in 1960 eighty miles north of the wreck site. Additional searches recovered two more crew remains, also in 1960, one 20 miles and another 27 miles further north. An eighth crew member was never formally found or identified, although it's possible his remains could have discovered in 1953 by a British patrol and buried in the desert. The ninth and last crewman was never accounted for.

The resulting investigation concluded the plane's Automatic Direction Finder broke during the mission. The crew asked for a heading back to base, missed the flares and other attempts to guide planes back home and overshot the coast by over 400 miles. The crew, seeing the sand dunes at night, thought they were still over the Med and bailed out. The Lady flew on for another 16 miles by herself and landed in the desert.

Eight of the nine crew members were able to regroup and, thinking they were near the coast, decided to walk out. They shared a single canteen of water for eight days, making a trek of eighty miles in 100 degree-plus heat, before five could not continue. Three pressed on, the last dying alone 27 miles beyond his comrades.

The last days of the crew of Lady Be Good were recounted in the journal of the co-pilot. The tragic end suffered by the men could not have brought comfort to the families, but it did bring closure.

For those of us of a certain age - or those who study the history of World War II aviation, the saga of Lady Be Good is well known and of near-mythological status. It is no surprise that someone would take up the challenge of capturing that incident in a diorama.

This presentation was extremely well done. I have seen several photos of the crash site and this is a remarkable accurate representation of the remains.

This is not the first diorama of the Lady Be Good, nor will it likely be the last. And rightly so. As long as someone remembers their sacrifice, the crew of the Lady will live on in the memories of a new generation. War has severe consequences and should not be undertaken lightly. It is the lesson we must continually learn, it seems, but it is the least we can do for those who serve and die, and the families who are left behind with uncertainty and impossible hope.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Caproni Madness

My mother always wanted me to build a sailing ship model. When I was in high school she bought me the big Revell kit of the USS Constitution. At one point I even started it, and did pretty good with the hull, captain's quarters and gun decks. What did me in was the sails and rigging. To me it was as tedious and mind-numbing a job as there was. I finally gave it up and retreated to my first love, airplanes.

In the world of airplane modeling, biplanes and other multi-winged aircraft probably come the closest to the trauma of sailing ships with their plethora of wing wires. Early aircraft were fragile things and boasted a host of struts and wires that helped give the wings rigidity. But they are a bear to put on.

I've never tried rigging a biplane before. Fortunately my interests are primarily from 1930 onwards, but at some point I probably will try my hand at it. There are some early multi-winged types that I do want to build someday.

With that in mind, it is always instructive and awe inspiring to me to view a well-rigged airplane model. This is one of them.
The Caproni Ca-3 was one of the world's first heavy bombers, making its combat debut on 20 August 1915 with the Italian air force in World War I, almost exactly 95 years ago. Like its contemporaries, it featured open cockpits, fabric surfaces and lots and lots of struts and wires.

There was a limited ru
n kit of the Ca-3 by Miekraft. I'm not sure if this is it, but it certainly could be. Even so it looks like there were several enhancements made to the model during construction. It is one fine job and many people there thought for sure it would take Best of Show. It's one of those showstopper type models that some people do to vie for the top award.
But as I mentioned in an earlier post, I voted for the Kraken. Nevertheless, this is a beautiful job and well worth winning whatever awards it could garner. It's almost enough to make one try World War I aircraft...almost.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Round Up the Usual Suspects - 1

I will close out the figures part of the IPMS Nationals with a few of the many excellent pieces that caught my eye. Certainly this bust of Wolverine from Marvel Comics' X-Men is a stellar example of the quality of craftsmanship out there. I don't know if this is a kit, but the sculptor did a magnificent job of capturing Wolverine's ferocity. The modeler's finishing job of painting, coloring and shadowing was equally outstanding. I thought the glare of the ceiling light on the other side of the curtain made for a cool image. I was very happy with the resulting photo.

I particularly liked the finish on the werewolf's tongue in the above piece! It looked so real. And the drool was nicely disgusting, too. Again, I don't know if this was a kit and how much was the original sculptor or how much was the modeler, but the end result is amazing.

King Kong was another nicely finished figure. The little Fay Wray was well done, too.

Every convention has to have the perquisite "Chick-in-Chain-Mail" entry in the figures contest. It's a Science-Fiction/Fantasy staple and since the majority of modelers are male, models of scantily clad Amazon women are a staple, too. While there is something totally illogical about going into combat in a metal bikini, it is nice to look at. In retrospect I suppose it makes about as much sense as the Picts painting themselves blue and fight naked. I know what I'd prefer to look at....

Historical figures are very much a staple of IPMS conventions. There are lots and lots of plastic, resin or metal figures available (one of the few exceptions to the "majority plastic composition" rule IPMS) covering virtually the entire range of human history. The Spartan Hoplite (above) and the armored knight (below) are but two examples.

I hope you all enjoyed the figure round-up. Next we'll look at some aircraft models.

Friday, August 20, 2010


The sub-genre of fantastical war machines and their alien pilots is a fertile ground for modelers inclined to that aspect of the hobby. Science Fiction and Fantasy are huge draws, especially for the folks that specialize in figures. It's not hard to see why.

This vignette was done by the same young man that did the Kraken. Obviously the quality of the Kraken was no fluke: the guy is an extremely talented and imaginative modeler. As you may note in some of the photos this effort caught the fancy of a magazine who offered him a chance to write an article about his creation for publication - and payment. Not too shabby.

I thought the use of lights was particularly well done in this piece. Note the translucent frontal areas of the alien which seem to suggest fluid-filled cavities swimming with weird internal organs. The glowing exhaust spheres of the hovering body/vehicle are well done as well. Again, like the Kraken, the stance of the figure is very natural looking. I think a sub-title of this entry could be "stopping to smell the (alien) flowers."

It will be most interesting to see what actually won in this competition and how close I came to picking the winning entries.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Let's Get Kraken!

Once again I took a longer hiatus than I intended. I was off to the IPMS (International Plastic Modelers Society) 2010 National Convention held in Phoenix, AZ in early August. When I returned I had an article I had to write for the Engineering Department's internal magazine and so that occupied more of my time. Then I needed a break from all the activity!

But I am back and loaded with photos from the model contest. I will not bore you with too many images from that contest, I hope, but some models do stand out and I will cover them in the next few installments.

Oddly enough, it wasn't an aircraft that I thought deserved Best of Show. It was this figures diorama that to me encompassed not only the consummate skills of a superb modeler, but the creativity of a mad scientist and the imagination of an artist.

Unfortunately the model covered up the title of the piece - assuming it even had a one - and the modeler's name was not written down either (of course not - it was a contest). I do know the modeler was a young Asian kid from Berkeley, CA, and I had a chance to briefly talk to him. I'll post his name when I find out who he is, hopefully when IPMS/USA posts the contest results on their webpage.

Nevertheless I do know the central element of his diorama is the Kraken (Octopus). The arms are sculpted and were carefully placed in position to dry. The other figures were modified and mounted on an "oil rig platform." It is also lit with battery-powered LEDs.

The whole scene has a strong "steam-punk" element to it and he confirmed that the genre was an influence, but not wholly so. Take a look at the following images and marvel, like I did, at his inventiveness and incredible modeling ability. Capturing a natural-looking human posture, with all it's subtle nuances, is extremely difficult, as is realistic figure painting and weathering. And the Kraken ain't bad, too (note the eyes in the last photo)! That young kid did it all with this vignette and it held me in awe. I hope you enjoy his work, as well.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Ode to Grandma; Requiem for a Possum

Today would have been my grandmother Viola Crawford's 105th birthday. She is the woman sitting on the couch next to my grandfather Charles, who is holding me when I was about 6 months old. My mother Mary is on the floor, my aunt Lena is on the far left. I think that's my aunt Pearl and her husband Claude between Lena and grandma.

I had reason to think about her today, not just because it was her birthday, but because of an incident I witnessed this afternoon. It is sad and perhaps morbid, but as I get older in life the press of mortality begins to make its presence known and so I think about such things more often.

I had to go to our Sector office today to give a new hire briefing. I do this every week with another fellow. He's the unofficial TRW historian; I'm the unofficial Northrop historian. In any event, I was stopped in the left turn lane at the corner of Aviation and Marine. The turn signal had just gone red for me, so oncoming traffic was still waiting for the green.

I noticed something very small and white running in the crosswalk in front of the waiting cars. It was a baby opossum. The little thing just managed to get to the center line when the light turned green and the cars began to move. It's retreat was cut off. The possum tried to continue across the street, but traffic on my side was still moving and it spooked the baby back to the median stripe.

I knew this would not turn out well, but there was little I could do but watch and hope a miracle would happen. None came.

The poor creature was terrified. It couldn't go back; it shouldn't have gone forward. But it did.

It made it part way across the first lane before it was hit. Unfortunately it was not killed. The pain was palpable and the poor creature writhed in agony. The light changed and the cross traffic turn lane began its transit. The third vehicle around the turn rolled over the possum and the writhing stopped. The possum was dead and I began to tear up and cry.

I became aware of death at an early age. I don't know why; no one I really knew died when I was five, or at least that I can remember. But I do know I was terrified of it. I remember asking my mom why people had to die. She told me that if people didn't die they would grow so old they would shrivel up and turn to stone.

That wasn't very helpful, but what else could she say to a five year old that would've made them feel any better? The heaven option didn't sit well with me, either, for some reason, but it was better than nothing, I suppose.

The reason I bring this all up is because many times I've thought about what it is people think and feel before death. There are so many unpleasant ways to die. That poor possum showed me one way. There was fear. There was pain. There was blessed release. And I mourned.

My grandmother on the other hand....

I watched my grandmother, who was strong and willful and a force of nature, become a hollow shell. It was a long, lingering illness that took four years to kill her. As she neared the end it became unbearable to watch. What I remember most is the vacant, thousand yard stare and the look of what I perceived - rightly or wrongly - as fear: fear of the unknown.

There is a line in the song "Old Man River" that goes, "I'm tired of living and scared of dying...." I know I heard her say she was tired of living; I'm guessing she was afraid of dying. There was fear there and I could see it.

As a result, she lingered and withered and became a ghost of her former self. In the end, she needed permission to die, to know it was okay. I suspect she's not alone. Once my mom told her it was all right, she passed that night.

I wonder if people are the only creatures that need "closure?" We lament the lost and wonder if they will ever return. We need the burial rituals to assure us our loved ones are really gone and hopefully to a better place.

Will the mama possum miss her baby? Or was it weaned and out of sight, out of mind? I guess it depends. If no one comes back when they are expected to then they are missed, at least for a bit. But life goes on and so do they. But do they mourn and need closure?

I have seen cats go into mourning and wail for a lost companion. Some recover; some never seem the same. So it is with people. Circumstances and personalities will drive responses, and so will emotions. It all depends.

In the end it was a relief when grandma passed. She was no longer suffering. In the end it was a relief when the last car rolled over the crippled possum. It was no longer suffering. They showed me that there are some things worse than dying. It is the process I'm scared of now, not the result.

But it is no use fretting about it as the end result is unavoidable. We all will face the great unknown at some point and plunge into the darkness to who knows what. I don't want to be scared and I don't want to be in pain. And I don't want to die abandoned and alone. But I can't control any of that. All I can control is what I do now. And that's okay. In the end it's how you live that counts.