Thursday, September 10, 2009

Thermopylae


At one time or another, I think most kids are enthralled by some type of build-it-yourself model, be it an antique car, an airplane, train, or ship in a bottle. Ranking high on the list of parent-child "quality time" activities, model building seems almost cliché—makes me wonder how many models are built simply because it's something a parent is "supposed" to do with a child; one of those experiences like fishing or running a lemonade stand, that you are practically obligated to provide if you want your child's early years to be truly complete. And, especially if working on a historic model, it's a project with built-in nostalgia: even as you're only just beginning to work on it, you know you are making classic memories, constructing a keepsake treasure of time spent together, tweezers and glue in hand, brushes carefully caressing the miniature pieces. Something about the scene makes me think of a Norman Rockwell illustration. It's very Saturday Evening Post. Like many children, I have memories of such a project—but memories only; there's no finished product. I suppose that the model-abandoned-in-the-garage/basement/attic is not so uncommon. I don't know what happened to ours, but my father and I often joke about the clipper ship that never came to be. We joke about it largely because of the slogan that was written on the box: "Build a Legend in a Weekend!" Ha. The legend in question was the famous China tea-trade clipper, the Thermopylae. Launched in 1868, the Thermopylae gained notoriety on her maiden voyage, from Aberdeen to Melbourne via Shanghai, breaking records for speed all along the way. She was a fast, beautiful ship, with a green hull, gilded scroll work; her figurehead was a representation of the Greek King of Sparta, Leonidas. The Thermopylae got her name from the battle of Thermopylae, fought in 480 B.C. by allied Greeks against invading Persians, whose advance they blocked at the pass of Thermopylae (translated, according to some online sources, as "the hot gates." So mixed with the romance of the high seas, there was a nod to ancient Greek history. Here's what I remember about our model: hundreds of small, plastic pieces that needed to be separated, painted, glued . . . if we could only figure out where they went. It was a complicated undertaking. We had the box, the pieces, the instructions scattered over the dining room table. I remember my dad and I laying down newspaper, getting small jars of water, using the tiny brushes. I remember our two heads bent together over the work in progress. I don't remember if we focused only on the ship, or if we talked of other things, too, while we worked. I remember the time fondly, and yet—neither of us was motivated to push the project to completion. I don't know why really. We lost our patience, I suppose—though not with each other. Guilty, we'd put away the pieces, take them out again and add on a couple, put it away once more. Eventually, we put the model out of sight, and in time we got rid of it completely. The real Thermopylae also met with a sad end. Sold to the Portuguese Navy, the ship was sunk—some say by target practice—in the first decade of the twentieth century. Its remains were eventually discovered by divers off the coast near Lisbon. But ours was a failure we ultimately agreed to acknowledge in good spirit. We didn't need a model ship to force us together in hours of bonding, and these days, when something seems comically impossible, we will still look at each other and simultaneously say, "build a legend in a weekend," shake our heads and laugh. Family legends take a lifetime.

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