Visiting the Missions

As I have described elsewhere, I was from childhood intrigued by the history of the California Missions. Until recently, however, I had not actually visited very many of them. While living in Texas, I visited more Missions in San Antonio alone (five) than I had seen in California. Until 1999, I really only had been to four:  San Fernando, San Francisco, San Juan Bautista, and one of the Missions along the Salinas River. The latter would mean either Soledad or San Miguel, but I was so young at the time, and remember so little about it, that now I really can't tell which one it was. Back in the mid or late 50's, my father had uncharacteristically interrupted our drive to San Francisco to stop off. As brief as that visit was, and as defective and unsatisfactory my memories of it are, at the time it did inspire the notion that it would be nice to visit all the Missions, perhaps on a distant, hypothetical honeymoon. But despite this ambition, it was many years before anything came of it.

When a honeymoon finally came, it was far from California. But when I was in the State with my first wife in 1975, I did take her to the San Fernando Mission, recently reconstructed after the Sylmar Earthquake. I bought a poster of the Missions that I later put up in our kitchen in Austin. Now, after the poster has been in storage since 1979, I hardly recognize it as the same thing, since I am now familar, as I was not then, with details about the individual Missions. When it came around to a honeymoon for my second marriage in 1991, we were in California and did drive up the Coast, through Mission country, all the way from Los Angeles to San Francisco. By then, I had forgotten all about my interest in the Missions, and we visited not a single one. Big Sur was rather more attractive. In the area, of course, I had already seen San Juan Bautista in 1985, though I had stopped off there entirely because of the association of the Mission with Hitchcock's Vertigo.

That is where things stood until the Fall of 1999, when a friend from Austin was at a conference in Orange County. I drove down to show him around the beach communities in the area. Passing through Laguna Beach, and approaching San Juan Capistrano, I realized that I had never been to the famous Mission. I wasn't even sure where it was, though I suspected that it was right in the middle of the city. It was, and we wandered all around it.

The following March (2000), my wife Jackie was at a conference in San Diego. I picked her up when the conference was over, and we spent a couple nights at the Del Coronado Hotel, where neither of us had ever stayed. Although I had visited San Diego many times, and even stayed in hotels in Mission Valley, I had never managed to get to the Mission. So we went. That was on a Sunday, and I thought it was a nice touch that they refused to accept the customary admission donation to tour the Mission, because Mass was actually being said -- thereby avoiding any possible appearance that admission was being charged for Mass or for the Sacraments. The Catholic Church, unlike some religions (or whatever they are), insists that Salvation is free for the taking.

The next year (2001), we were planning a trip for our June wedding anniversary to Santa Barbara. We had been through there many times, but neither of us had ever paid a proper visit, and now I did at least have in mind that the Mission was something to see. The day we arrived we went out on Stearns Wharf for dinner. Wandering through a gift shop on the Wharf, I discovered a display of nicely done refrigerator magnets of all the Missions. The magnets themselves are not marked with their artist or maker but are done by California sculptor Alvin Cabral as the "Mission Reál Collection." Cabral also does a series of miniatures of the Missions, the Mission de Oro Collection. Now, I had always liked Ian Reader's description in his Religion in Contemporary Japan [University of Hawaii Press, 1991] of pilgrimage customs in Japan. A simple New Years Day pilgrimage in Tokyo involved walking to successive temples of each of the seven lucky gods. At each temple, a little figure of each god could be purchased to put in a boat designed to hold all of them. So at the end of day, one has a complete set of gods bringing good fortune for the New Year in their traditional treasure boat. No one seems to have ever thought of the California Missions as constituting a pilgrimage route, and no arrangements or customs exist for anything of the sort, but seeing the little models of the Missions, it immediately struck me that something like that would do.

So I bought magnets for the five Missions I knew I had been to already (not knowing which Mission it was along the Salinas River). I might have anticipated visiting Mission Santa Barbara, but they were sold out of that one! The next day, when we did visit the Mission, they also had the series of magnets, but they were sold out of the Santa Barbara one also! They had other Mission Santa Barbara magnets, but not the one from the series. This was disappointing. But after visiting the Mission, the "Queen of the Missions," we were going to drive over the Santa Ynez Mountains to visit Solvang, a little touristy Danish village -- a very odd thing to find in the middle of California, but more appealing than I thought it would be, since it is more like a town, with hardware stores and drugstores, than like an entirely artificial creation for tourists (which would be the new Legoland in Carlsbad).

One of the most curious things about Santa Barbara are the strange heatwaves that can occur there. The "Sundowner" wind is rather like a Santa Ana elsewhere in Southern California. A dry offshore wind comes down off the inland plateau of the Mojave Desert (or just the Santa Inez Mountains above Santa Barbara) and heats with the fall in altitude. This usually happens in the Fall, but can also happen in the Spring. I have also noticed, over the years, some unusual Spring heatwaves that don't seem to involve a lot of wind. Thus, in Los Angeles, I have seen temperatures rapidly rise to over 100o on days both in April and May, though this is rare. Something of the sort happened on Friday, June 17, 1859, in the area of Santa Barbara. After a normal morning, the temperature rose rapidly and at 2PM stood at 133o. This is close to the hottest temperature ever recorded in the United States, which, last I noticed, was 134o in Death Valley. This does not seem surprising for Death Valley, but it certainly does for Santa Barbara. In temperatures like that, birds fall dead from the sky, and plants wither on the ground. On that strange day in 1859, the temperature had fallen to 122o by 5PM and was back down to 77o by 7PM. Nothing so extreme has happened since, but it was a sobbering event. I would find it hard to believe if I had not seen the rapid heating of those heatwaves in April and May in Los Angeles. If it were to happen these days, of course, people (and politicians and activists) would immediately describe the event as due to Global Warming.

On the way into Solvang, I noticed that we were driving right past the Mission Santa Inés (which somehow gets spelled differently than the "Ynez" used for the Valley, the nearby town, the Mountains, and the River, all of which are certainly named after the Mission). Although I was not yet entirely consumed with pilgrimage fever, it quickly struck me, and I made a U-turn, right in front of a Highway Patrol car, to go back to the Mission. The gift shop not only had the magnets, but they had the magnet for Santa Barbara. So I could add two more to the collection. Not far down the road from Solvang is another Mission, La Purísima, but pilgrimage fever had not hit me that hard yet, and Jackie was already overdosing on images of Catholic piety. So from Solvang we just went back to Santa Barbara.

Where the road from Solvang hits US 101, in Buelton, is the Pea Soup Andersen's Restaurant. This has been there since the 1920's and used to sit right next to the highway, before the freeway was built. It still seems to be doing good business. I remember stopping there as a child when my parents were driving to San Francisco. Jackie and I ate there on the way back from our honeymoon in 1991. It wasn't a good time to have a meal there in 2001, but we looked in. Finally, in 2004, I was back to the area and had lunch, pea soup and all (and a hamburger). I left with a can of the soup.

On the way back to Los Angeles, after our 2001 visit to Santa Barbara, I got off the freeway to drive through Ventura. This took us right past the Mission San Buenaventura. We weren't that interested in stopping, but I did want to see it, and there actually isn't much left of the original structures apart from the church. But I began to conceive of making up for lost time and completing the Pilgrimage.

With Jackie off to Japan for conferences and research, I began to think that I could do this quite expeditiously. So, after actually putting her on the plane to Japan, I immediately drove to Mission San Gabriel, which, near as it is, I had of course never been to.
As it happened, its unusual architecture was of great interest, and the gift shop had the magnets for itself and for San Buenaventura.

The next 2001 project would be a day trip down to the only remaining unvisited Mission south of Los Angeles, San Luis Rey de Francia -- named after King St. Louis IX of France. This was on a Saturday, and the church was getting ready for a wedding, with many of the wedding party already there. That was a nice touch. In the gift shop, they had the most complete and stocked up set of the Mission magnets that I have seen before or since. I could only "legitimately" buy the one for San Luis Rey,
but I anticipated a little bit by getting the one for the Mission I tought I might get to next, La Purísima. But the trip ended up involving a little more, since I drove up the valley of the San Luis Rey River. This led to Mount Palomar, where I had never seen the great, historic 200 inch telescope. Once, driving back from San Diego with my parents, I had persuaded my father to turn off the coast highway to go to Mt. Palomar. But the minute we got inland and it got hot, his enthusiasm vanished. Then, when Jackie and I were in the area for our third wedding anniversary in 1994, we drove up there, only to arrive a few minutes after the observatory was closed to visitors! So now, straight from San Luis Rey, I finally made it to the telescope, and also could stop at the Mission San Antonio de Pala, which, however, having been just an asistencia, didn't have its own refrigerator magnet.

This was beginning to get me geared up. I had now seen ten Missions (plus Pala). There were eleven to go. I thought that five could be visited in one day trip, leaving LA early to arrive at La Purísima about the time it would open. On July 7th, two hours sufficed, back thourgh Ventura and Santa Barbara, back past the beloved Andersen's Split Pea Soup Restaurant in Buellton (the turn-off to Solvang and La Purísima), and out towards Lompoc to the Mission. Since La Purísima is a State Park, it is more a site for historical re-creation than for active religion. I did not gather that Masses are held in the reconstructed church. It is also all open to the public, which is not the case with Missions still owned by the Church, where large parts are reserved for Church business. The Park gift shop, oddly, was not going to be open until 11 AM, but I could even see the Mission magnets on display through the glass door. Since I already had the La Purísima magnet, it didn't matter than I couldn't get it there.

So I drove over the Purisima Hills, through Santa Maria, and up to San Luis Obispo -- named after Bishop St. Louis of Toulouse, grandson of Charles I of Anjou, the brother of St. Louis of France and King of Naples and Sicily. This took an hour, and read out at 57 miles. Mission San Luis Obispo is right in the downtown middle of the city. Finding parking was a problem. I got into a public parking structure a couple blocks away. A gift shop and small museum were the only real concessions to tourism, as the church and other buildings were functioning for Church business. The gift shop, frighteningly, did not have any of the Mission magnets -- except, like Santa Barbara, for its own versions just for San Luis Obispo. The whole Mission complex was landscaped and overgrown far beyond what one sees in older pictures of it. Monterey Street, which had run right in front of the Mission, has been closed off to make for a pedestrian mall. The year of the Mission's founding, 1772, has long been right on the front of the church, but part of the "2" is now missing, as the whole date is almost hidden behind a large tree.

Leaving San Luis Obispo ("SLO") about noon, San Miguel was next, 34 miles away. The contrast could hardly be greater. San Miguel is a very small, sleepy town. Parking was no problem. The Mission has undergone fewer changes and restorations than San Luis Obispo (let alone the entirely rebuilt La Purísima) and seemed a bit more concerned about tourism. Unfortunately, the church was rather badly damaged a couple of years later in an earthquake near Paso Robles. The building was closed, and I am not aware when or if it has been reopened.
The gift shop did have the Mission magnets, and just in case, I bought them for all the Missions I had or would visit that day. A fortunate provision. The church of San Miguel, one of the plainest of all the Missions on the outside, retains much of its historic original painted decoration on the inside.

The next leg of the trip would be into real terra incognita, off of US 101, deep into the Coastal Range, 41 miles from San Miguel. This was along the "Jolon Road," highways G18 from Bradley to Jolon and G14 from Jolon to King City. Although now an obscure back route, the Jolon Road is the original track of El Camino Real, and is still shown as the main road from San Francisco to Los Angeles in the 1912 American Automobile Association route map. I do not know when this was cut off with a direct road from Bradley to King City, along the Salinas River. I had seen on the maps that Mission San Antonio de Padua was on a miltary reservation, but I didn't realize that access would be monitored. There was a gate, a guard, questions, identification, etc. The guard, however, was very friendly and suggested lunch at the "Hacienda," the post hotel built in one of William Randoph Hearst's creations. Hearst had financed a reconstruction of the Mission, so he had been busy in the area. The Hacienda turned out to be on a hilltop within sight of the Mission, which itself lay low in its valley, surrounded by considerable open space. The whole trip in the Coastal Range on the Jolon Road, a two lane road with occasional slow vehicles, was on unfamilar ground, but the countryside was typical California:  scorched, light brown grass and green gnarled oaks. The valley was named by Junipero Serra after the oaks, robles. The Mission has a unique appearance, with a brick campanario, or bell wall, built in front of the actual church, really standing separately while looking more like part of the church than campanarios elsewhere (though less so than at Mission San Luis Obispo). There weren't many people around, though the woman in the nice, air conditioned gift shop said that occasionally quite a few people showed up. The gift shop was large. It didn't have any of the magnets in the series, but it had most of the magnet figures, slightly more elaborately painted, with no magnet on the back, and strings on the top like Christmas tree ornaments. I had never seen this at any other Mission. I wasn't going to get started on that, and wasn't quite ready for lunch. So I headed off the reservation.

I did have lunch in King City, and got a phone call from Jackie in Japan on my cell phone as I was headed up US 101 afterwards (the first time I had taken a cell call in a car, but there weren't many convenient times for her to telephone, and it was a rush to get a call from Japan there, right outside Greenfield, California). From San Antonio, it was 47 miles to Mission Soledad. This Mission was just a ruin until the 50's. Then a long building and a small chapel were reconstructed, based on the visible foundations and old photographs. The still ruined adobe walls of the old church, with a slab covering the grave of Father Ibañez, still seem to echo the name of the Mission, "Solitude." The buildings are isolated, surrounded by plowed fields, facing away from the road, approached through a large dirt parking lot. And the wind was blowing. The woman in the gift shop said that wind blew, a lot, almost every day. It all seemed a bit forlorn, which she said is how the friars mostly felt who were posted there. She liked it. The gift shop had no magnets, so it was good I had gotten them at San Miguel. By then it was 3 in the afternoon. It had been a long day, so I headed back to Los Angeles. I drove 268 miles in exactly 4 hours, back down 101 but then over California 46 to Interstate 5. Highway 46 is the old US 466, where James Dean was killed. I had never been over it before. I have also spent years avoiding Interstate 5, but the traffic was certainly moving fast. Despite slow stretches on 46, I averaged 67 mph.

Getting to more Missions was going to be more of a production. On July 24th, I flew up early to San Francisco and rented a car. I drove into the City to pick up a friend of Jackie's, Lynne Murray. Lynne is a mystery writer (Termination Interview, Larger Than Death, At Large), and I thought she might like touring atmospheric California stuff that possibly could be useful for some mystery backdrops. With that in mind, I first drove straight down to San Juan Bautista, just like in Vertigo. She perhaps had never been there, so that was a good start. The gift shop had the Mission magnets, so after my previous experience, I went ahead and got magnets for the new missions I expected we could get to that day.

From San Juan Bautista, it was on to something new, the Mission at Carmel -- San Carlos Borromeo. This was a good place to start and was particularly important, since both Junípero Serra and Fermín Francisco de Lasuén, the founders of 18 of the 21 missions, are buried there. This turned out to be a little confusing, since I had seen pictures of an elaborate tomb for Serra, but both graves were identified under plain slabs in the church. But it turned out that the elaborate tomb was a cenotaph in a separate chapel. It was ordered for the grave in the church, but ended up too big and elaborate to use there. The church, built in stone at Serra's request by Lasuén, stood empty for many years on a barren hilltop, with the other Mission structures disappearing. Now everything is rebuilt, and the whole area is so overgrown with trees and shrubbery that it is hardly believable that the place could have been so open and barren in the past. The gift shop didn't seem to have the magnets.

Next we headed for Santa Cruz, where we arrived about noon and stopped for lunch. Dense and trafficy. Nothing seems to remain of the original Mission. Holy Cross church is on the site of the Mission church, but not in the Mission style. Across the street is a small chapel and building, done in the Mission style, to commemorate the Mission. The gift shop offered little and was without the magnets. We moved on.

Across the mountains from Santa Cruz is the now most legendary Silicon Valley, with Santa Clara right in the middle. The Mission, which had moved around a bit, is now encompassed by the campus of Santa Clara University, which is what the Jesuits did with the Mission land when the Church passed it to them. Almost all that remains of the original Mission buildings is a long abode wall. The final Mission church was on the present site, but it burned in 1926 and was reconstructed somewhat more elaborately. What had been painted features on the front of the church now are done in solid relief. Getting there involved a guard again, and a University vistor's pass. No provision was made for tourists at the church site. I imagine there is a gift shop in the bookstore or somewhere else on campus, but there were no directions to it, so we didn't bother. A stone's throw from campus was San Jose airport, which I flew in and out of once, without noticing that there was a Universtiy or a Mission nearby.

Finally, a bit of a drive, in a bit of traffic, over a somewhat awkwardly arranged freeway system, put us on Mission Blvd. in Fremont, which is where the Mission San José actually is. The Mission is younger than the City of San Jose, and was placed well away from it -- as was often done to keep mission Indians away from Spanish soldiers and civilians. As in Santa Cruz, the old church was replaced long ago with a new one not in the Mission style. The new church, however, was wood, and when it was decided to reconstruct it in the old style, the church was simply jacked up and moved to Burlingame. Meanwhile, for many years all that remained of the old Mission buildings was a long adobe, often called the convento, even though it was not a convent in the familiar sense (i.e. for nuns). By 1985, an adobe (but earthquake reinforced) church had been rebuilt. Now this is often seen in pictures of the Mission. The church is a few yards distant from the convento, and plans are now apparently in the works to fill in the space, as it originally was, with an extension of the long adobe.

The Mission gift shop was well stocked with magnets. I already had the magnets of all the Missions I had visited. But there were two left. It would have been a very long and difficult drive from Fremont to try and get to the northern Missions before they closed that day. They would have to wait. How long would it take before I got to them? What if they stopped making the magnets? So I anticipated the future visits, as I had done already, by buying the magnets for the San Rafael and Solano Missions. It is nice to leave a little something left to do, so that the pilgrimage fever will not be healed entirely.

Now, in 2006, I finally got north again and finished the tour of the Missions. Jackie was at the Association of Asian Studies conference in San Francisco. So I drove up to be with her and, while she was busy, headed off to San Rafael and Sonoma. So on April 8 I arrived at San Rafael Archangel, at the corner of 15h Street and A. In 1817 San Rafael was originally an asistencia of the San Francisco Mission, as a "sanitarium" and hospital for Indians suffering from the fogs and cold in San Francisco. In 1823 it was made a full Mission, the last established under Spanish rule. Nothing is left of the original mission buildings. Now there is a large church on the site and smaller reconstructed chapel in the Mission style. At the time of my visit, a priest at the altar was explaining transsubstantiation to some visitors.

A pleasant drive to the north is Sonoma, though it is off the main highways and requires some local turns to get to. The town, however, is sturdy and historic. The Mission San Francisco Solano was the last to be founded, in 1823, and the only one founded under Mexican rule. In 1834, the commander of the Presidio in San Francisco, Mariano Vallejo, was ordered by Governor Figueroa to move his garrison to Sonoma to counter the Russian presence at Fort Ross. Barracks were constructed, which still stand, across the street from the Mission, and this briefly made Sonoma the center of military power in Northern California. Vallejo was also charged with secularizing the Mission. The Russians left in 1841, and the garrison was officially discharged in 1844, though by then Vallejo had been paying them personally, since support from the Mexican government had disappeared. The town was briefly important again, when in 1846 the local Americans declared their independence from Mexico and proclaimed the "Bear Flag Republic" at Sonoma. Just a few months later, however, American troops occupied California, and Sonoma. By the 1850's the town had fallen into the relatively obscurity in which it continues. Mariano Vallejo, however, continued in residence, turning the barracks into a winery. His home in town can still be visited, and the nearby city of Vallejo is, of course, named after him. The Mission, meanwhile, had suffered some neglect and damage. The church was rebuilt in 1840, abandoned in 1881, and then restored in 1912. The Mission is now not run by the Church but is part of a State Park, along with the barracks and Vallejo's home.

If I had needed magnets for my visits of the last two Missions, the gift shop at Sonoma had them, as San Rafael had not. One of the nicest things at Sonoma was a room full of paintings by Chris Jorgensen (1860-1935) of all the Missions as they were in 1903-1905. These are an invaluable record and give an excellent impression of the state and surroundings of all the Missions as they were before modern restoration and urbanization.

After thus finishing my tour of the Missions, I thought that for a suitable end of the pilgrimage I would drop by the Dolores Mission in San Francisco when I got back into town. I had not actually been to it since the early 70's. This turned out to be rather more difficult than I might have expected. First of all, just getting back into the City was a problem, since the traffic on I-80 was backed up from the Bay Bridge Toll Plaza to many miles north of Berkeley. For a good hour I was moving at no more than 10 or 15 miles per hour. Finally back in the neighborhood of the Mission, I discovered that no parking was available for blocks and blocks around. Perhaps this was just a phenomenon of a Saturday afternoon, or perhaps now it is the permanent condition in San Francisco. The cars were so jammed together, I couldn't see how most of them could even get in or out. Becoming a little weary of the hassle, I put off the visit. The next time in San Franscico, I'll know what to deal with.

Traveling around to the Missions, I began to notice the very same statue of Junípero Serra, staff in one hand and rosary in the other, at different Missions. I have found these at San Gabriel (seen at left), San Fernando, San Buenaventura, San Miguel, San Antonio de Padua, San José, and San Rafael. There may be others I have missed. All say they are dedicated in memory of "Eugenie B. Hannon," and seem to have been placed recently, in the 90's. The statues are nicely done, but I am unaware of the story behind them. Serra himself has been under consideration for Sainthood for some time. The sticking point over this now mainly seems to be a political one, with protests from California Indians to the effect that Serra was responsible for a genocide against them. The deaths of California Indians, however, were mainly from disease, which was as distressing to the Church as to anyone. For all the crimes attributable to the Catholic Church, the approach to the Indians in California was relatively voluntary and benign. The purpose was, indeed, cultural was well as religious conversion. The Mission Indians learned how to build the buildings and tend the fields, groves, and flocks as well as live according to the moral dictates of Catholicism. The Missions are thus monuments of the Indians, as the Church sometimes argues. Unfortunately, the living conditions at the missions, especially those directed towards preserving the virtue of the girls, involved a proximity and confinement that helped spread disease. At the same time, the Missions were supposed to protect the Indians from the Spanish soldiers and settlers (the Californios) who occupied California at the same time. Missions were sometimes moved, as Serra himself moved San Carlos, to get away from concentrations of soldiers (in that case, in Monterey). Mission Santa Cruz suffered greatly from the unwanted proximity of unruly settlers at the Pueblo Branciforte. When Spanish authority, and supply, were withdrawn with Mexican independence (1821), the entire military and civilian establishment in California became dependent on the productivity of the Missions. The Mission system was up to the challenge, but the exactions were resented and created new tensions. The mistreatment of Indians by soldiers at Santa Inés led to an uprising there and at La Purísima in 1824. Exactly what the Indians were protesting is clear from the circumstance that in the middle of the uprising they helped put out a fire in the Church at Santa Inés, and the Priest at La Purísima, Father Rodriguez, held out with the Indians in the Mission when a troop of cavalry from Monterey besieged and recaptured the place. Subsequently, Mexico decided that the Mission system should be disestablished and that the Indians should take over the resources they were already tending. This "secularization" of the Missions in the 1830's did not work out well. The paternalism of the Church had not actually prepared the Indians very well for really running the farms, groves, and ranchos; and the Mexican authorities in California were often more interested in diverting Mission lands and assets to themselves and their own friends and relatives. The Mission Indians, even when not already decimated by disease, thus often simply melted away, even while the private inheritors of the Mission assets rarely managed them well, indulging rather more in looting than in development. Whether modern California Indians embrace the Missions, and the Church, as part of their own historical and religious heritage, or reject them as instruments of the ruination of their pre-Columbian Eden, is individually up to them. I think preferences go both ways. Some detest having been called after Missions (e.g. Gabrielinos), while others still use such names (e.g. Luiseños). Attitudes to Serra are going to vary wildly depending on these preferences.

In the summer of anti-American anarchist rioting and looting in 2020, on July 11th an arsonist got to the old church of the San Gabriel Mission. The building was gutted, but the walls are intact. Full restoration is possible. Vandalism against statues of Junipero Serra has been a feature of the rioting, and one statue in Golden Gate Park was pulled down, without protest from, say, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who actually attended the canonization ceremony for Serra at the Vatican. Hostility to Serra and the Missions, of course, is part of the general hated by the Left of European colonization in the Americas; and pride in Latino (now mutilated to "Latinx" or "Latin-Ex") hertiage is immediately forgotten when activists occasionally remember that the Spanish were conquistadores. Since a majority of American voters seem to have endorsed crime, anarchy, and vandalism in 2020, this is not the end of the matter.

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Waterline Models

I do not remember how it started, but when I was a child I began building plastic models, mainly of ships. Eventually there were enough of these that my father put up shelves in the corner of my bedroom to display them. When President Kennedy was assassinated, I dedicated one of the aircraft carriers to him -- now, of course, there has been a carrier (CVA-67) named after him, and there will be another one (CVN-79).

There were several things about the models that irritated me, however. They were usually on a variety of scales, which made the destroyers the same size as the battleships and aircraft carriers. This did not give a very good sense of the relative size of the ships. Also, it was hard to know what the ships looked like in the water, since the models always included the below-the-waterline parts of the hulls, something that would not be seen in real life except before the ships were launched or while they were laid up in dry dock. Not as fundamental, but still irritating, was the small number of aircraft provided with the aircraft carriers. The packed deck of wartime photos, with planes ready to take off for a strike, was something I could never reproduce.

Almost all my models were by Revell, and they were almost all American ships. They were not all World War II ships, since I had a number of Forrestal class carriers. Indeed, the earliest carriers I had here Midway class. References in books to the "big" Essex carriers of World War II were a little perplexing, since I never saw a model of any such ship, let alone a pre-war Enterprise or Lexington, and they would not have been "big" in comparison to the Forrestals. The models also seemed to focus on post-war cruisers, like the Canberra (CA-70). I did have a Fletcher, and Revell was big on Iowa class battleships. They also had models of the Arizona and Pennsylvania, though those seemed to be the only pre-Iowas that they bothered with. I had a model of the Admiral Graf Spee, though I got it mainly because there wasn't much else that wasn't American. Although the Graf Spee's sinking was one of the early dramatic moments of World War II, it is not in itself a very impressive ship. The choices of product, which ignored many historic and interesting ships, were a little perplexing to me, even at the time.

Late in the period when I was building models, although still while I was in junior high, I think, a company came out with a set of models, a battleship, a carrier, a cruiser, and a destroyer, that were the same scale. I can't even remember what this company was, or what the ships were, except that the cruiser was the World War II Springfield light cruiser and the battleship was, I think, the North Carolina, which were choices intriguing enough in their own right. Nothing seemed to come of this innovation, however, and I was losing interest in the hobby. I saw an ad once for a Japanese "table top" series of models, but I never saw these in any stores. Before long I graduated from high school (1967), and had moved away, the models ended up in a box -- with books on their old shelves -- and later I even threw them away.

Some years passed, and I was back in Los Angeles for my high school 10th year reunion in 1977. One of the memorable associations of the reunion was that I made a date at the reunion and we went and saw the recently released Star Wars at Grauman's Chinese Theater in Hollywood. Another memorable association was that I decided to go and check out my old favorite hobby shop, Kit Kraft, which still exists at Laurel Canyon and Ventura Blvd. in Studio City. There, on their shelves, sat a revelation:  the Waterline Series. Four Japanese modeling companies, Hasegawa, Tamiya, Fujimi, and Aoshima, had divided up the entire Imperial Japanese Navy of World War II and had set out to build all of it, to a common scale (1/700) and in waterline versions, without any of the hull below the waterline. They also had separate boxes with extra planes for the aircraft carriers. With all my old objections answered, I had to see this. So I bought a destroyer, a cruiser, a battleship, and an aircraft carrier to take back to Austin, just to see what they looked like side by side.

Now I can't even remember just which ships those were, since it wasn't long before I found a good hobby shop in Austin and began getting more. They were beautiful kits, though the four companies did not build to the same quality standards. Hasegawa and Tamiya were excellent. Fujimi was only slightly worse, but Aoshima sometimes seemed rather poor. Even so, the Aoshima models were better than the kits, still the same after 20 years, that Revell had continued putting out. The inferiority of the American product, and the apparent complacency of the companies, was painful -- many people were beginning to feel the same way about Japanese and American automobiles, with much more serious consequences, about the same time.

At first I built ships without painting them, and had space to display them on the wide board-and-brick bookshelves along one side of my living room in Deep Eddy Apartments. On scale, a shelf was about a nautical mile long, which could hold a line of five capital ships. I didn't beginning painting ships until a couple of years later, just before I moved them back to Los Angeles. Then I went so far as to assemble enough aircraft to spot on the decks of the carriers of the Pearl Harbor Strike Force (Akagi, Kaga, Soryu, Hiryu, Shokaku, & Zuikaku) the numbers and kinds of planes, with their squadron markings, that were in the first air strike against Pearl Harbor.

The Japanese companies also made a few non-Japanese capital ships, like the American Lexington and Enterprise, which American modeling companies had never bothered with, the British King George V, and some other British and German ships. They did not, however, make any non-Japanese cruisers or destroyers. The breakthrough in that respect came from a new Japanese company, Sky Wave, which introduced kits, not only for American Fletcher and British O Class destroyers, but for American, British, and German motor torpedo boats. This made it possible, in principle, to show John F. Kennedy's PT-109 being run down by the Japanese destroyer Amagiri. Sky Wave followed with a variety of 1/700 land based aircraft, Japanese, American, British, and German, landing craft, buildings, port facilities, even tanks, trucks, and jeeps. This was wonderful stuff, beautifully done. I bought extra torpedo boat kits just to use the torpedoes for the "Kate" torpedo bombers in the Pearl Harbor Strike Force. Then the British company Matchbox began making some 1/700 waterline ships, including a few British and American cruisers and the HMS Kelly, the ship sunk from under the later Lord Mountbatten (it could also be built as other members of the K class of destroyers). It seemed like a Golden Age of naval ship modeling. Meanwhile, war gaming had exploded into new life, with a shower of imaginative and intriguing simulations of naval and land battles, recent and historic. I was never much of a war gamer, especially with the complicated ones, but they made for interesting study even if one did not play them -- some material from a Simulations Publications, Inc. (SPI) Guadalcanal wargame is included at A Guadalcanal Chronology.

Then came the oil "crisis" of 1979. As oil prices shot up, plastic, of course, became more expensive; and then the economy slumped, reducing sales. In poetic parallel, the air seemed to go out of the Waterline sails. New models stopped being introduced. This was especially frustrating because a key Japanese aircraft carrier still had not been modeled, the Zuiho, not a very impressive ship, but a member of the Strike Force at the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands in 1942, when the Hornet was sunk. The whole hobby seemed to stagnate, and hobby shops began to carry fewer kits. Even when the economy revived, modeling seemed to shift over to cars and aircraft, away from ships. I even wrote a letter to Tamiya in Japan, asking what they planned to do with the Waterline Series. They wrote back that they supported the continuation of the series, but had nothing else to promise.

One encouraging development in the '80's was a couple of 1/700 destoyer kits, of the Gearing and the Allen M. Sumner, put out by a little local outfit, "Albatross, Ltd." of Huntington Beach or Stanton, California. These were nice kits, and I bought several out of fear that they would end up disappearing, which they did.

When I began going to Japan in 1987, visiting my future wife while she was working there, it became possible to see what was offerred in Japanese stores. The "Tokyu Hands" store in Shibuya, in Tokyo, had a large modeling section, with some new Sky Wave kits that I had not seen. This was nice, but no real breakthrough, and, discouragingly, by 1993 (the last time I was in Japan), the naval kits seemed to be disappearing from there as they had earlier from American hobby shops. Sky Wave even went bankrupt -- the U.S. recession of 1991 continued in Japan, of course, for most of the decade.

Eventually, I wrote a letter to Hasegawa asking if and how I could order directly from catalogues or stores in Japan. Their answer was not very helpful, until a Japanese friend (a model buiding Zen priest) re-sent the inquiry for me in Japanese and got a much more responsive result. They referred me to what is now Hobby Link Japan on the Internet. Since I find American hobby shops still very poorly stocked with Waterline models, this now seems the preferred way to find out what is available and get it.

The situation, indeed, has revived somewhat. Sky Wave kits are now manufactured by Pit-Road. Hasegawa has, at long last, issued the Zuiho. I have not noticed the old Matchbox kits recently -- the company has apparently been bought by Mattel, and their website doesn't mention any plastic models (but I do see kits of the Kelly still available elsewhere on the Internet). A Chinese company in Hong Kong, DML, has some 1/700 waterline stuff, including the anti-aircraft cruiser San Diego (which Matchbox had previously done). Even Revell, although still continuing with the same miserable kits from the 1950's, has gotten into the act with some 1/700 kits made in Hong Kong, including, gloriously, the World War II light carrier Independence (CVL-22). This ship, built on a light cruiser hull, can now be compared with a corresponding light cruiser, the Cleveland (CL-55), put out by Sky Wave/Pit-Road. With Essex and Independence class carriers, and the Enterprise and Saratoga, one can put together in 1/700 the American carrier groups from the battles of the Philippine Sea and Leyte Gulf.

Pit-Road even has some kits of never-before-made World War II battleships, like the Pearl Harbor veteran West Viriginia, unfortunately, these are not standard plastic kits, but expensive and made of some kind of resin, which my regular plastic glue doesn't work very well with. Evidently, this is some new side to modeling that I don't know about.

The choice of product is still a little perplexing. Why British modelers have never made the ships in the line of battle at Jutland, or classic World War II battleships like the Warspite, is astonishing. And anyone who makes yet another model of the Admiral Graf Spee should be jailed as a War criminal. The Waterline precedent of building an entire navy has never been followed for the other major navies of modern history. The venerable battleship Texas lies at anchor at the San Jacinto Battlefield, and her sistership, the New York, is familiar to paper money collectors on the large Federal Reserve Bank Note $2 bill, but no American modeler has bothered reproducing these ships, or the interesting Brooklyn class light cruisers. We shouldn't have to wait for Japanese companies to do all this.

Many recent models I have bought but not built, since I have not had much time for this stuff recently. And I have a small stock of extra kits that I suspected might cease to become available, like the Gearing and Kelly. The 1994 Northridge earthquake tossed most of the Pearl Harbor Strike Force off my bookshelves, to be covered by the following books. In the dark I thought I was walking on some of them. Fortunately, I wasn't, and the damage could be repared, though over the years some masts and antennae have gone missing. Since I never believed in gluing planes to carrier decks, some of them seem to have flow off on the strike during the earthquake and never returned. But I have backups. Hopefully, someday I will have enough leisure, and display space, to do justice to all the ships. And someday model making companies will have the wit to stop making junky versions of the same ships over and over again.

Hobby Link Japan

The Battleship Kongô

Advanced Japanese Destroyers of World War II

Philosophy of History, Military History

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