My maternal Grandfather was among the people who inspired me the most when I was growing up. He was an immigrant from Germany and supported himself and his family as a house painter and general carpenter. He could make anything out of wood and frequently made us, his grandchildren, all kinds of cool wooden toys.
Alas, like too many childhood things, most of the toys he made me disappeared over the years. They were victims of my family moving, or letting my younger brothers have my things when I grew up and joined the Navy. However, one toy did manage to survive, abet in a state of disrepair. Recently, I took a trip down memory lane and restored this old toy.
My maternal Grandfather, Eric Wilkens, grew up on a dairy farm in Blexen, Nordenham, Germany, on the banks of the Wesser River. As a young man he worked in the shipyards across the river in Bremerhaven. At some point he joined the Dutch Merchant Marines and spent a few years as a sailor, seeing the world by sea. When his ship docked in New York harbor sometime about 1920, he decided to stay in the United States. Eric ultimately settled in Queens, buying a house in South Ozone Park where my Mom grew up.
Eric made his living as a self-employed house painter and carpenter. He also loved to fish and when he wasn’t working he was off fishing in the estuaries around Long Island. As we (his grandchildren) were growing up he never seemed too busy to make us cool wooden toys. He could build anything out of wood. I remember his little wooden whistles that seemingly took him only few minutes to whip out.
One of the toys he made me, way back in the mid-1960s, was a toy ocean liner. He modeled it after the great trans-Atlantic ocean liners of the early 1920s. It was a very cool toy, and something I really treasured growing up. This toy survived our family move from long Island to the Hudson Valley town of Burlingham in 1972, but by that time had already suffered severe battle damage. When I left for the Navy in June 1974 my two younger brothers inherited everything I didn’t explicitly pack away. Regrettably, this toy ocean liner was one of those items I didn’t pack.
When my brothers moved away Mom redecorated our bedrooms and rented them out to borders. They brought her much-needed income over the next thirty-some years she continued to live in that house. The toy ocean liner seemed to disappear sometime over those years. I thought about that little toy often. It was one bit of my childhood I really missed loosing.
Around 2014 my Mom became too old to continue living by herself. My sister Melinda moved Mom in with her family in Tennessee. My sister and I, along with some of Melinda’s children, proceeded to clean out and sell Mom’s house that had been in our family for over sixty years. While clearing out the attic my sister discovered my old toy ocean liner. When she gave it to me, it was the first time in about thirty-five years since I last saw it. It was much the worse for years of living in Mom’s attic.
I brought it home and vowed to renovate it. Then put it away over the next several years while life happened.
Periodically over the next several years I pulled it out from basement storage and thought about how to renovate it. The fore and aft masts, with their rigging, was long gone, leaving large holes in the decks. The decks were badly scratched, and there were chips of paint missing all over. I was torn between completely rebuilding it and just touching up as needed. I wanted to keep it as something my Grandfather had made for me, but I also wanted it to look close to the way he first created it.
Last summer, between college classes, I pulled this little boat out of storage again. This time, I vowed that when I finished school I was going to work this restoration project. This time, I kept it on my hobby table so every time I walked into my hobby room I would see it. It kept my guilt levels high enough not to forget about it.
I finally decided I was only going to paint where obviously damaged or parts were replaced, and leave most of the hull and superstructure as-is. The toy was almost sixty years old and fully deserved to show it’s age. Just not show any battle damage.
So, several weeks ago, as my school wound down and I finished my final semester projects, I started restoring this venerable old toy. I first replaced the masts using wooden doweling. I worked from memory on the size of the original masts. The superstructure was loose and easily fell off, so I glued that back down next. One of the lifeboats had broken off so I carved and re-glued a replacement. There was a hole in the deck and large chips of wood missing up at the bow. So I patched the damage using epoxy wood filling and carefully sanded down the patches. Now, I was ready to paint.
My Grandfather always used oil-based paint as that was the only paint available up until the early 1970s. I wanted to stay with oil-based paints so I used brush-on Testor model paints. I was able to match colors fairly easily; white for the masts, lifeboats, life lines and superstructure touch-up. Black for the touch-ups on the hull areas. The only place I deviated in color was on the deck.
The decks were originally some shade of green, and I knew ocean liner decks of that era were teak wood. So I repainted all the decks in “wood” color as defined by Testor. I could not match the color of the hull red, so I left that alone completely. I was torn on repainting the blue stacks but finally decided to leave them be. As my final touch, I replaced the rigging between the masts (which would have been the ship’s radio antenna) and a stern flag.
Given that I had put off restoring this toy for five years, the work took surprisingly little time. And the gains were well worth the effort. This may seem to be a small thing, and it is. But, this little toy connects me with a man I revered as a role model while growing up. I became a sailor, and learned not to be afraid of tackling home improvement projects, largely because of my Grandfather. Someday, I might even learn how to fish.