Don’t call them old men and don’t call their hobby little kid stuff.
They are proud veterans of various military service and proud to pursue an ageless passion called plastic modeling.
Every Friday evening, they dive into kits that contain plastic scale models of aircraft, cars, armored tanks, ships, movie monsters and more.
Currently, the half-dozen friends are working on a group collection to submit to an upcoming show and contest. Each are constructing an American tank, M41 Walker Bulldog, that’s now used by many national armies.
“This tank was exported all over the world,” says Roy Schlicht, who served in the Navy from 1987 to 2007.
He checks out three small-scale armored tanks, each created with a unique look. They represent Austria, Germany and New Zealand.
Ray Scott points to his handiwork, painted in brown camouflage.
“It’s New Zealand military,” he says. “That took me about two weeks. I even drew a little kiwi on the back.”
The guys inspect the tiny tank without picking it up because it’s not completely dry.
“You make us all look like a bunch of amateurs, Ray,” proclaims Fred Benninghoff.
The hobby is time consuming and it can become obsessive, some say.
But it’s also relaxing, educational, keeps them out of trouble and keeps their spouses happy.
“My wife always said ‘I’d rather have you sniffing glue than out drinking at the bars,’” jokes Shawn Gehling, who served in the Navy from 1978 to 2002.
Sitting at tables in the cool confines of Benninghoff’s Man Cave, otherwise known as a pimped-out garage, they pass the time squinting at parts and chatting and reminiscing about old times.
Over the years, some women modelers have joined but there are none in the group now.
Most of the guy talk revolves around modeling and models — but it has nothing to do with beauties or bikinis.
“We used to put on model contests at the YMCA on Pioneer Way and they had a group called North Whidbey Plastic Modelers Society,” says Dave Campbell, in the Navy from 1990 to 2010.
“We’re certifiable now but not a club,” adds Gehling.
They laugh about one avid modeler who ran out of space at his house to display his models so he kept them at a hobby store. Then the store sold them all.
That was back in the day when Oak Harbor had two hobby shops and one train shop, and model kits were viewed as toys for eager young boys.
These days, modelers tend to be adults assembling kits for collections. Many are former members of the military who like to recreate the actual equipment they used in service. Model kits have been used as dexterity therapy and for emotional healing at vet centers.
Model enthusiasts say it’s a relatively cheap hobby, compared to other pastimes such as golf, boating or skiing. But that’s only if kits don’t end up stacked and packed away in closets, sheds, under beds and other out-of-sight places.
“Everyone here has a model stash somewhere,” declares Benninghoff, the elder of the group who served in the Army from 1963 to 1966.
He points to the other half of the garage where his classic bright red 1972 Plymouth Scamp — of real size dimensions — is parked.
“The upper part of the garage there is filled with kits,” he says. “My wife asks all the time, ‘You going to sell them? You going to sell them?’”
The answer is a resounding ‘no,’ says Scott, who served in the Navy from 1984 to 2005.
“There’s a few reasons we buy them and don’t build them,” he explains. “Maybe the kits will go out of production or we say we’re waiting until we retire.
“Most modelers I know have a huge collection and build maybe only 1 percent.”
Scott remembers meeting Benninghoff in 1985. They gathered at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island back in the day when it was open to the public.
Now, they meet in Benninghoff’s brightly colored Man Cave that’s lined with shelves and glass cabinets displaying hundreds of models, dioramas and collections.
Keith Johnson worked at NAS Whidbey for 28 years as a private contractor. Now retired, he’s keen on model trains but sometimes chooses ships or aircraft from the past.
“You try and get something in history and try to replicate it the best you can,” Johnson said.
Most modelers have stacks of books on aircraft, trains, ships, automobiles, motorcycles and other topics of interest they’ve been accumulating since their first whiff of modeling glue — which is no longer toxic and “smells like oranges.”
Or so they claim.
Benninghoff recalls being 5 or 6 years old when he first fiddled with a model airplane.
“Of course, back then it was balsa wood,” he says. “Every time, I cut my finger using a razor blade. I bled and every time the doctor fixed me up.
“I pretty much cut off the top of every one of these fingers,” he says, holding up both hands.
His buddies can’t resist adding insult to injury.
“Model kits were pretty well established in the 1970s when most of us began,” says Gehling. “Not like Fred who had to whittle his own airplane from a tree his Dad cut down in the back yard.”
It’s all in good fun.
They obviously enjoy each other’s company.
These modelers seem models of long-lasting friendships, the kind spanning decades and generations, family joy, family tragedy, illness and death.
They try and spread their love of the modeling hobby to the younger set but admit it’s tough to compete with electronic gadgets and gizmos.
Among six, none have children who took up the pastime and only one of their grandchildren has expressed interest.
“What everyone does here is like being a master craftsman,” says Johnson. “We’re a dying breed.”