All it took was a zip and a bang to captivate Paul Gaertner for life.
Then an 8-year-old Detroit resident, Gaertner’s fascination with a 10-cent model airplane was an itch that needed to be scratched immediately.
"It was a little model that was made out of Balsa wood. It had delicate little parts that I put together and covered with the provided yellow and blue tissues," remembers Gaertner, who now lives in Gainesville and is a member of the local Civil Air Patrol.
"The instructions said to wind the propeller — which was attached with a rubber band — backwards and launch it over high grass or some other (soft) environment."
His inner-city surroundings left the young pilot at a loss for grassy landing strips, but he was not to be deterred.
"My neighbor had a garage at the rear of his property and a long driveway. I stood at the street edge of the driveway and launched that little booger," Gaertner said with a laugh and happy memories twinkling in his eyes.
"It flew straight into the garage door.
"I was hooked from then on."
His newly developed passion followed him throughout life.
As a middle school student in the 1940s, Gaertner was hired by a summer camp in Wiley, Ga., to be the model airplane instructor. And as a young recruit aboard a U.S. Navy battleship, Gaertner’s knowledge lead to the senior officers appointing him as the "hobby officer for the entire ship."
If his first flight attempt had failed, Gaertner jokes that he would’ve taken up another hobby like stamp collecting.
That may have been entertaining for a young boy in the 1940s, but what about the adult version who has turned his basement into an aviation shrine and modeling workshop?
Albums of rare stamps may be pretty to look at, but they likely wouldn’t be as impressive as the two-dozen model planes hanging from Gaertner’s den ceiling.
Curious to know if he built them?
"You bet ya," Gaertner said. "Every one."
There are finished planes like a Beechcraft Staggerwing and others — like the Grumman Wildcat — waiting to be pieced together.
He even has a few remnants from the days when he became fascinated with radio-control planes. That temporary shift began after he was "cut loose" from the Navy, following the end of the Korean War. During that time, Gaertner was living in Virginia and helped establish a radio-control model airplane club, which is still in existence today.
As is the natural progression in life, Gaertner eventually came back to his rubber-band "engine" roots.
Although he enjoys the challenge of fitting the tiny pieces together like a "skilled cabinet maker working in miniature" that’s not what has kept Gaertner’s interest all this time.
"One of the joys I get from this hobby is doing a good job putting together a bunch of little pieces and seeing the results," Gaertner said.
"It’s like being an engineer working on a bridge. Every evening after he’s completed his work for the day, he can turn around, look over his shoulder and say, ‘I did some of that.’
"There’s a joy in being able to see your work, but the No. 1 reason I’ve stuck with modeling is the companionship of fellow modelers."
Not only does being around like minds give you an outlet for sharing, it also builds a gateway for growth, he says.
"My years in northern Virginia were the most creative and satisfying in my life as a modeler because I joined a club called the Maxecuters," Gaertner said.
"We would meet in a big grassy field outside of Washington (D.C.) on every good Sunday when the wind wasn’t blowing.
"There would be 15 of us, all with our little planes that all had rubber bands down the middle. It was a good time. I’ve stayed in touch with some of those people all these years."
Not only was Gaertner flying planes, he was also building models since the group’s emphasis was on flying miniatures of real aircraft.
"That was when I built a number of planes," said Gaertner, about his time as a Maxecuter member from 1990 to 1995.
"One was a British World War II aircraft that was camouflaged in the green and brown.
"Another was a little French acrobatic plane. And another one was a yellow Piper Cub, which was a (popular) model of that genre."
Each of his planes tell a story and Gaertner knows them all, like the a bright-red, twin-engine fighter plane with "yippee" printed in bold letters on the bottom.
"This was decorated and flown during World War II as a morale booster," Gaertner said.
It’s not just the "yippee" plane or the red-tailed one modeled after ones flown by the Tuskegee Airmen, all of Gaertner’s planes are from the WWII era.
"That’s the limit I set for myself. I don’t deviate from it," Gaertner says.
After all these years, he may not be able to remember why he created the WWII-era only rule or the model of his first plane, but that’s immaterial now.
All that matters now is the feeling that has sustained him from a young boy to manhood.
"I don’t remember the model, but I remember the addiction to it," Gaertner said.
"I remember watching this little plane fly straight as an arrow into the garage. Bang!
"You don’t forget that.
"Building these models takes patience, but the end results makes you want to be patient."