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Learning by Numbers (A literacy narrative)

It begins with the heartbeat-like rhythm that the subway trains made as their wheels rolled by, tuck-a-tuck-a, tuck-a-tuck-a. Occasionally I could hear the screech of their brakes echoing through the tunnel in the distance. The noise would get louder and louder as the trains drew near. Suddenly one would pierce through the darkness of the tunnel, bursting into the station with the release of a high pitch, dragon-like, hiss as it came to an abrupt stop. The doors would open automatically, almost immediately, releasing its passengers. I can still remember the smell of the brakes, the hydraulics, the dirty stale air, and the hustle and bustle of all the people moving hurriedly through the station.

I was 7 years old. I had just finished my school day as a 2nd grader at the American School in London. Today was going to be a big day because my dad was coming home from a long business trip and was scheduled to meet me at the train station, specifically, the stop known famously as Abbey Road. This was our meeting place before heading home together.

I scanned the faces in the crowd until I saw the one I was waiting for, the one I recognized. And suddenly, there he was, dark black shaggy hair parted to the side, long bushy side burns, wearing a brown polyester business suit, hard plastic briefcase in hand. This was the typical business attire for that era of time in the seventies. I gave him a big hug and we boarded the train that would take us to our home in the British countryside, Chorleywood. Dad found us a couple of seats with a view out of the window. I loved watching the beautiful scenery roll by with the security of my dad next to me. I hoped this would be the day that he would enlighten me about the next model airplane we’d be building together. I asked him excitedly, “Dad, what’s in the briefcase?” He responded nonchalantly, “Sorry, kiddo. I didn’t have a chance to get you anything.” Knowing he was probably kidding, I kept my hopes up until we were home and I could hear the click-click of that hard plastic briefcase opening.

We made it home where my mother had a fabulous dinner waiting for us. It was my favorite dinner, chicken and dumplings. After dinner Dad went to the bedroom to unpack his suitcase. When he was finished the briefcase finally came out, “click-click”, and out of it came the familiar model airplane box. I stared excitedly at the picture depicted on the cover of the box. The scene revealed to me what plane we would be building. It was a B-17 Flying Fortress, one we had never attempted making before! We opened the box, instruction manual on top with the plane’s decals neatly tucked inside. The rest of the box is a scattered mess of clear, grey and black plastic pieces, all different shapes and sizes with numbers to identify them. I asked my dad, “How are we ever going to figure out how to put this all together?” He looked at me and smiled. “Chris, we’re going to start with #1 on the instruction manual.”

The instruction manual has pictures and words. Pictures show how the parts go together and are labeled with their identifying numbers. Words describe the sequence of how things should go together, one little piece at a time. #1 started simply: Insert pilot seat into the cockpit, which was aptly labeled “A.” That was easy enough. I found the plastic seat and grabbed my plastic glue and glued the seat into the cockpit. It got progressively harder.

Creating a model airplane involves gluing plastic pieces together. The glue is specifically for plastic and if you are not careful, it can get messy, especially when you get it on your fingers. Creating a model airplane also involves painting the plastic pieces. The model paint is oil-based so it takes a cleaner like turpentine to keep your brushes clean. You can wait till the model is all put together to paint it or you can paint it as you build the model. Dad and I prefer the latter. It gives the model a more finished appearance. The last step is putting decals in the appropriate areas on the model. This includes soaking the paper sheet of decals in a bowl of water until the decals themselves float away from the paper substrate. At that point the decals are ready for putting on the model. Fishing them out of the water was always quite a challenge!

The process of building a model airplane includes many small details. One must pay attention to the details, especially in reading the instruction manual. With the model I was building with my dad, I learned this the hard way.

As we continued to build, my dad left me alone for a minute so he could chat with my mother about the prior week of travels. In my haste and impatience, I jumped from #8 to #12 in the instruction manual because #12 was way more exciting than #8, the one I had been stuck on for a while. #12 involved putting the two halves of the fuselage together! As I started gluing pieces together, I realized that I hadn’t put the ball turret on yet. The ball turret was #10 in the instruction manual. Now that I had glued the fuselage pieces together, it was now impossible to put the ball turret in the fuselage without taking the parts apart.

When my dad returned, he saw what had happened. “Hmmm, I don’t think that looks quite right? Did you jump the gun, son?” “Well, I thought it’d be more exciting to put the fuselage together, but now I have a problem on my hands.” “Well, we need to go back to where you went astray.” Dad helped me pry apart the fuselage without breaking it. We scraped all the glue off the pieces and placed the ball turret inside the fuselage, along with a few other steps that I had missed from not following the manual properly.

I realized an important lesson that day: The instruction manual and its sequence of events is the key component to building a model airplane. As with any manual, a careful and thorough reading of the manual will ensure a successful build. And not to read it carefully will result in disaster.

After carefully following every step in the instruction manual, we finally completed the B-17 Flying Fortress. It was a beautiful sight! It was just like the cover of the box and all the pictures of examples of the best models made. I was very proud of my model. I felt a great sense of accomplishment and pride in a job well done. Could I have done this without an instruction manual? The answer is a resounding “No!”

Thinking back now, that moment was a pivotal moment in my life. Had I not learned the importance of reading an instruction manual well, I would not have found my passion for building things, more specifically, motorcycles and mountain bikes—all of which required an instruction manual. In my life, I have built and restored dozens of motorcycles and mountain bikes: mountain bikes from frame up, such as a 1995 Manitou HT, a late 90s competition tandem mountain bike, along with numerous racing bicycles of all types, including my girlfriend’s Specialized Jett Comp. For motorcycles, I built the Spanish-made Bultaco Fronteras, Pursangs, Matadors, German-made Maicos, and a 1972 Honda CL350 Twin that I am very proud of…known, perhaps serendipitously, as the Memphis Belle, themed after the famous B-17 from WWII. Looking at that motorcycle makes me think of building models with my dad all those years ago.

Dad and I would continue to build things together from time to time. I can remember another time when we built a boat out of a single sheet of plywood. Dad aptly named it “Chris’s Craft”. It was going to be my miniature electric powered fishing boat. The instructions for that project came directly from the pages of a Popular Science magazine. It would consist of 1 sheet of plywood, lots of wood glue, some epoxy and paint. We tested the boat’s buoyancy in our hot tub in the back yard. We got some funny looks from the neighbors when we did that. We must have read and followed the instructions properly because the boat stayed afloat, for many years as I recall. I caught many fish from the seat of that little boat we made.

These days I design book covers for my Dad’s publishing company. The instructions come to me from him and his client. I read them carefully and follow them to produce the desired cover of the book for his client. He is always proud of my work and my attention to detail, a direct correlation to my model building days.

The key to learning is reading. I have learned that if I can read a manual about building a model airplane, I can learn to do anything. Reading a manual requires reading every word and understanding every sentence. You can’t just look at the pictures and you can’t do it out of order. It requires patience and diligence and a desire to learn. If you have these three traits, you can read an instruction manual about anything and the possibilities for creation are endless.

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