Display of Blue Angels aircraft.

Display of Blue Angels aircraft.

Model vets pursue miniature hobby

Big passion for small-scale replicas

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.”

Historical military aircraft line the top shelf of one display cabinet in the converted garage of Fred Benninghoff, an Army veteran. He also designed the windows using glass blocks and old bottles filled with water and food coloring.

Historical military aircraft line the top shelf of one display cabinet in the converted garage of Fred Benninghoff, an Army veteran. He also designed the windows using glass blocks and old bottles filled with water and food coloring.

The Friday evening club of small-scale modelers discuss who’s building other tiny tanks needed for an upcoming contest. Left to right are Dave Campbell, Roy Schlicht, Ray Scott and Fred Benninghoff.

The Friday evening club of small-scale modelers discuss who’s building other tiny tanks needed for an upcoming contest. Left to right are Dave Campbell, Roy Schlicht, Ray Scott and Fred Benninghoff.

More in Crosswind

Joel Atienza’s uniform’s USAF/USSF patches prior to transfer. Photo provided
Oak Harbor 2010 grad selected for U.S. Space Force

Joel Atienza’s advice to Space Force hopefuls? “Remember, ‘The sky is not the limit.’”

Capt. Robert Miles, retired U.S. Navy, served in active duty for more than two decades before teaching Oak Harbor High School students leadership, confidence and practical skills through Navy Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps. Here he is pictured throughout his career. Photo courtesy Jason Lamont
Oak Harbor NJROTC alums come together to honor mentor

Capt. Robert Miles had a lasting impact on his NJROTC students at Oak Harbor High School.

t
A Hero for All Time: Research reveals a decorated former Fort Casey soldier

Coupeville woman writes book about local WWI soldier who gained Col. George S. Patton’s admiration.

t
Curious about World War I memorial, woman researches the names set in stone

A WWI memorial in front of the Island County courthouse honors eight men who died in service.

The men and women of the VAQ-132 Scorpions gather for a photo during a change of command ceremony April 5 at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island. (photo provided)
Scorpions hold change of command at NAS Whidbey

Cmdr. Kerry “Beagle” Hicks was relieved by Cmdr. Marcus “Oompa” Kephart as… Continue reading

w
Growler squadron, Whidbey business owner partner to light up hangar

The “Gauntlets” of VAQ-136 hung a large sign to mark the Growler squadron’s 50th anniversary.

t
World War II vet will be featured in Navy League’s virtual Veterans Day event

A World War II from Freeland reflects on memories from his time in service.

Golden Swordsmen reach halfway point in deployment

The Golden Swordsmen of Patrol Squadron Four Seven, based at Naval Air… Continue reading

Lt. Nick Woods, attached to Explosive Ordnance Disposal Mobile Unit (EODMU) 5, controls a Mark II Talon remotely operated vehicle (ROV) during a Certification Exercise (CERTEX) on Naval Air Station Whidbey Island, Wash., July 16. Elements of EODMU-1 and EODMU-5 qualified as ready for future operational deployments during the CERTEX, which centered on integrating the two units’ Sailors with a goal of building a cohesiveness that will help them counter undersea threats and contribute to winning the high-end fight once deployed in support of Navy and geographic combatant command mission priorities. U.S. Navy EOD is the world’s premier combat force for eliminating explosive threats so the Fleet and nation can fight and win wherever, whenever and however it chooses. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Marc Cuenca/Released
Ordnance training held off Whidbey

U.S. Navy Explosive Ordnance Disposal Mobile Unit One from San Diego and… Continue reading

Whidbey SAR conducts life-saving missions

A Search and Rescue (SAR) team from Naval Air Station Whidbey Island… Continue reading

VA surgical care better than or equal to non-VA hospitals, according to new study

U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs today announced that VA hospitals outperform or… Continue reading

New tenant command at NAS Whidbey
New tenant command at NAS Whidbey

The Navy stood up its newest tenant command, Tactical Operations Control Squadron,… Continue reading