For me, the beginning with Airfix, the English maker of scale models and figures, was one afternoon in what I believe was 1974, when I was 8 or 9. Up to that point I had been no more into toy soldiers than the next kid, I suppose. I probably had some Britains and “green soldiers,” but I knew little of World War Two or any of its men or machines. That changed very distinctly when I went to my cousins’ house across town that day and saw their HO scale Airfix soldiers out in the dirt. It was the British Paratroops. I was blown away. At that size, the little soldiers could be massed in a way that larger soldiers could not. Seeing a line of tiny green helmets sheltering in a firing position, or a squad of them rushing across an open space, captured my imagination right then and there, and I was hooked — permanently, it seems.
I soon got my own Airfix men and played with them for hours outside in the dirt at my house or, very often, in the raised sandbox my father had built for us. (He may have built it for all three of us boys, but the cats [yuck] and I were the only ones who really used it.) I had all the Airfix WWII types: British Infantry and Paratroops, U.S. Marines and Paratroops, Russian Infantry, Japanese Infantry, and the old-style German Infantry, Afrika Korps and 8th Army. I also had the WWI types (British, French, German and American), as well as the American Civil War and bright yellow Napoleonic types. It was a lovely routine I had going: walk home from school, play outside in the sand with my soldiers for two or three hours until dark, then watch Gilligan’s Island, Beverly Hillbillies, Gomer Pyle, or Star Trek before and during dinner, lovingly prepared by my mom. Ah, the ’70s!
By the time I was 11 or 12, I had hundreds of soldiers, all Airfix, and lots of tanks and planes, many of them also made by Airfix. I had a few friends, Franz, Trevor and Eddie, all of whom had similar collections going. For a few years running we held annual “wars,” once at Trevor’s, once at my house, and once at Franz’s. As the date for the year’s contest approached, we would engage in a sort of arms race, spending every last dime at the local hobby store. A box of 48 soldiers was $1.00, $1.04 with sales tax. We worked feverishly to build as many tanks and planes as we could, so they could be brought to bear in the upcoming battle. In that spirit, Trevor once bought two Airfix Zeroes (it was unheard of to duplicate a type), didn’t even bother to paint them out of the baby blue they came in (also an unheard-of expedience), and called them the Bombsey Twins. You can be sure I wanted to shoot them down at the earliest opportunity.
Those were some of the best times of my boyhood. We used our little collections to play out every desperate, heroic trope from every war movie we had ever seen. In one famous episode, my C-47, which had survived enemy fighters and flak, dropped (literally, from a handful held near the plane) Airfix U.S. Paratroops into Franz and Trevor’s territory. The parachutists stood up on the spot where they landed and were shot immediately by any defenders within range. Those who remained fought back, taking turns, until only about ten remained. As we knew from the movies, that was the moment to surrender. Trevor, in command of some Germans, took charge of the little prisoners and issued an order: “Line formation!” I dutifully stood my gallant survivors in a straight line. With great, unspoken glee, I and everyone else began to realize what Trevor was going to do, and when he did it, shooting the captives down in cold blood, as it were, with a mouthy, staccato sound effect of machine-gun fire, we started laughing and could not stop, except to repeat the fateful words over and over: “Line formation!” The fact that none of us might laugh at all today at the horrifying notion of offing unarmed prisoners is perhaps part of what makes it a treasured memory; it was from a time when our brains and morals just weren’t that careful. That episode was just one of many moments, in the narrative we created on the fly as we played together outside, that we would savor for a long time to come.
As we grew up and out of the time of life when we could play together like that, the models gradually turned back into a more solitary pursuit, in the pattern that has basically continued until today–for me, at any rate. I think I am the only one who has continued the hobby. In this new, “adult” phase of the hobby, Airfix has had a lot more competition than it used to, and for a long time I came to see Airfix as somehow substandard. Compared, for instance, to the far more detailed ESCI (now Italeri) figures I first saw on my first trip to Germany in 1983, many of the old Airfix figures seemed downright primitive. I realized that Airfix models, too, were actually rather clunky and hard to put together properly, especially compared to the Japanese models I had built more and more of. As a “serious modeler,” I eventually decided that Airfix products, though certainly cheap, were mostly to be avoided.
And yet, for the last six months I have been building nothing but Airfix models, rekindling my affection for the brand. I have been delighted to see the company come out with retooled versions of older kits, as well as new kits, which are of very good quality, even if they are not always as detailed or complex as some other makes. I have built the Airfield Control Tower, two sets of the RAF Fuel Trucks, the RAF Emergency Vehicles, the Bedford QLD and QLT Trucks, a Mosquito Mk VI, and now a Beaufighter and two Spitfires, all as I have painted RAF Personnel and the new WWII British Infantry. My wife might smirk, cluck or recoil to hear me say this, but I feel love and gratitude for the stuff! Now my three-year-old boy and my six-year-old girl both enjoy working on these models with me. Airfix may turn out to be their “gateway” brand, too.