By John Flack
Strange as it seems, I cannot come up with a single object that means much to me since I became a teenager. Prior to then, there were a few that are important to me, even today. There was my version of “Citizen Kane’s rosebud”, an illustrated book on space travel by Werner von Braun. There was also a model of a German WWII tank that I built, an American Flyer train set, as well as a collection of Philadelphia Phillies baseball cards from the 1950s. In looking back, there is clearly a difference between who I was and what I became before and after my father’s death that probably explains this. I will write about it someday.
By the age of 12 I had built many models. I enjoyed making them and I was good at it. Although the process is simple – one just follows the directions and glues the pieces together in sequence – it does require some skill, and a lot of patience, to do it well. Almost all of my models were of military planes and ground equipment, such as tanks and artillery pieces.
The best job I ever did was in building a German Tiger II tank, also known as King Tiger. On a lazy summer day with nothing much to do, I biked the mile or so to downtown Media, the small town in which I grew up, and bought the model kit at Richards, a 5 & 10 type store, that sold lots of model kits. Since it was my money I was spending, I’m sure I looked at lots of possible choices before deciding on the Tiger tank.
This was during a period in my life, after beginning to read the World Book encyclopedia in 3rd or 4th grade and learning about WWII, when I was fascinated by it, especially the German military weapons. Part of my fascination had to do with the V1 and V2 rockets, as I was also deeply excited by space travel. Another, presumably darker side of me, was drawn to conquest. I remember reading about Alexander the Great and his conquest of the known world by age 34. Likewise, I was fascinated by the German conquests in the first years of WWII. I was too young to know or care much about the suffering and atrocities that accompany war; I was thrilled by the victories and acquisitions of other countries. Too, my ancestry on my Mother’s side is German – her family line included 2 Hessian mercenary soldiers who defected during the Revolutionary War and settled down to farm in what is now South Philadelphia. My first bike was made in West Germany. Reflecting all of this, I was inwardly proud to be of German descent.
In school or while doing homework, I would often draw planes, ships or tanks doing battle with other ships, tanks or planes. After drawing the combatants, I would draw lines for bullets, shells or rockets and show them blowing up their targets. Almost always, it was the US against German forces – as I would place US flag symbols or swastikas on the planes, ships, etc. I considered the Germans to be underdogs and would frequently end up with their side winning the battle. I once told someone about this childhood behavior, when I was well into adulthood, and they wondered how my father, who fought Germans during WWII, felt about this. It was a good question and one that, to my chagrin, I had never thought about before. Although Dad was in the Battle of the Bulge, I never remember him commenting one way or the other about my activity and how it might have affected his emotions. I’m sure he was aware of this game I played, I felt no need to hide it, but he never reprimanded me. I have wondered ever since what his feelings were. Hopefully, he just considered them to be silly child games that would pass as I grew older and came to understand the horrors of this war, but I’ll never know.
Reflecting my positive feelings for Germany in building my new model, I made sure I took the time to build it right, including carefully painting the face of the Tank Commander half standing in the tank turret. The turret rotated, the cannon moved up and down, and the treads worked so that the tank could move. The body was made of gray plastic and with the black German decals the coloring was ideal. There was something special about it. I had built it about as well as I could, it looked good, it played into my enthusiasms, all the parts worked and it was fun to play with, but there was some other undefinable characteristic that made it not only my favorite model, but one that I still think of and miss to this day. I can’t say that about the other models, many of which I burned, while simulating battles, the summer after my Dad died.
The tank is long gone now. It most likely was left behind in the attic of my Mother’s house along with other treasured childhood objects when the house was sold and there wasn’t sufficient time to move everything out before ownership changed.
My feelings about conquest and war changed as I grew older. I learned about the Holocaust, the use of slave labor to build V2s at Peenemunde, Nazi eugenics philosophies, Dr. Mengele, and other inhumane behaviors. Although I’m still proud of my German heritage, I am baffled that a culture with so many impressive achievements could have its people impose such horrors upon others. On the plus side, they now seem to be a pacifist nation, unlikely to foment war again.