I learned a life lesson putting together a scale model of a U.S. M-3 Lee tank.
I didn’t know it at the time. All I knew was that my dad had decided we would jointly work on the model on a table in the living room after dinners. I’m pretty certain he didn’t undertake this project with any goal in mind other than indulging his fascination with World War II materiel together with me. But I look back at it as emblematic of some of the most important things I learned from him.
I’m not sure why he picked the Lee. Probably for the novelty of it. A stopgap with obvious design flaws, the tank was an ungainly twin-gunned vehicle dating from the early days of World War II. It was nicknamed the Iron Cathedral, and it wasn’t a compliment.
The M-3 had a high silhouette more appropriate to an object for target practice than a combat vehicle. The Russians got 1,000 M-3s through Lend-Lease and dubbed them “the Coffin for Seven Brothers.” For our part, we switched over to the iconic Sherman as soon as we could.
Any scale model that is the least bit complicated is a daunting proposition, especially when you are kid. You open the kit and there are pages of complex instructions, a couple of plastic trees holding together dozens of small parts and some decals. The disparity between this starting point and the depiction of the gloriously realized model that adorns the top of the box is always stark.
And there are no shortcuts. There are two options: taking one careful step at a time, adding up to hours and hours of concentration, or putting the kit back on the shelf and forgetting about it.
Finishing is an exercise in the art of patience, as are so many characteristic father-son activities, whether fly-fishing or fixing an old car. They are an implicit education in following directions, in getting details right and in delayed gratification — in short, in all the qualities that are important to success later on in almost any walk of life, even if you never catch another trout or pick up another wrench.
Slowly, night after night, our Lee took shape. At first, there were a few random parts. The hull. The turret. The main gun. Then it started to look like something. We painted the body and all the accoutrements — the ax and other tools on its back. We moistened the decals, the insignia and other identifying markings, and carefully applied them. We heated a piece of plastic and stretched it until it looked like an antenna. Finally, we had a reasonable facsimile of a Lee tank, and the deep satisfaction of an intricate project done right.
My dad was the gentlest and most patient man I ever knew. I would have learned from his example whether we had built that tank or not, but it stands out as a shared experience in his painstaking care.
He was an English professor with the heart of a military historian. After we built the M-3, he took up scale-modeling as serious hobby and built every major tank, aircraft and ship of World War II, and then some. There are planes in his study that I will have to consult an aviation expert to identify. Until the end, his worktable was scattered with paint bottles, glue, razor blades, tweezers, X-Acto knives, brushes of every size, and emery boards — all the paraphernalia of his exacting craft.
Eventually, our Lee got relegated to the basement. It was a simple kit compared with the ones he completed later. But after he passed away last year, I dusted it off and took it home with me. The awkward old Lee has a minor place in military history, but an outsized place in my heart, as a token of what my father bequeathed to me.
Rich Lowry can be reached via e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.