BY: JAMES F. O’NEIL
“The P-51 Mustang is arguably the world’s most famous fighter of all time.” —
The 1987 movie Empire of the Sun contains a scene with the very young Christian Bale shouting “Cadillac of the Skies!” as a flight of P-51 Mustangs comes shattering the quiet over the prisoner of war camp. A dramatic scene, to say the least, as part of the film’s story.
Well, the Mustangs are not Cadillacs, but are “actually” Rolls Royces…. (Well, a Packard-Merlin copy of the Rolls Royce engine. There. That’s for history.)
In 2004, I began to be a Collector of Mustangs. Not literally. I had entered a second childhood/youth-hood, complete with books, Internet writings and pictures, and lists and statistics about the plane, the P-51. No baseball cards this time; no “Red Menace” cards I collected in the 1950s; no SSI (Shoulder Sleeve Insignia) of various USAAF and US Army forces and divisions as I had done for my Boys Scout merit badge days; no comic books, model kits, nor coins for sorting and collecting.
My collecting days, beginning with those desires to have a collection of something “way back then,” were never as involved with or as enthusiastic over any item as has been my interest in this particular airplane. I cannot explain it either. It just happened that way.
Originally, when I started this airplane “addiction,” or passion, for whatever the inexplicable reason, I had not any particular make or model in mind. I knew I wanted to read about and find information on The Flying Tigers for sure.
When I was in sixth grade, I became a babysitter for a neighbor down the street in Chicago. The husband and wife heard I was a reliable kid with a paper route. They had a small boy who needed an occasional sitter. I was asked over “for an interview” and hired. It was a great weekend job, putting a little guy to bed on a Saturday night–though my early Sunday morning paper route had to be taken into account.
While sitting in the quiet during those times, I read the classics about medieval knights and adventure stories and Hardy Boys books (like The Tower Treasure or While the Clocked Ticked. Those books written in 1927 seem so old now; but in the early 50s, they were “current,” less than 25 years old. By comparison, the first Harry Potter novel was written in 1997….)
And that was that–almost. I was babysitting for an original World War II Flying Tiger.
I heard few of his stories, but did see his jacket and pictures, medals and insignia. It was the inception, I am convinced, of my innermost love of things flyable, of WWII stories, Flying Tigers, Seabees, Iwo Jima and John Wayne, and more and more and more.
Then… “Grow up!” Well, not quite like that. But there was high school (and reading stories about pilots), and college (and reading about pilots and WWII, or William Shire’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, instead of studying my philosophy assignments). And so on…and on….
2004. Indeed. I never gave up on any of the topics or stories that intervened from then until what started in 2004. I had an opportunity to re-channel, and started collecting.
Plastic, diecast, sizes, pilots, fighter groups–too much to collect without a Plan. I made a Divine Plan for Collecting Airplanes. Many times, the plan changed, kept changing–until I could focus, and that I did.
I always did “like” the “Cadillac of the Skies.” (Even the Flying Tigers gave up their shark-mouthed P-40s and transitioned to flying P-51 Mustangs.) I began my “serious” love affair, as much as I could, with this special, well-known fighter plane.
There you have it. I have not ridden in one; I have been up close and personal, however–and have known and visited with WWII pilots and even have some autographs and books signed (typical “love-affair,” groupie-fan activities).
I have been to air shows on a limited basis, and to the right museums housing beautiful examples.
In addition to an in-cockpit flight film I have that puts me in the seat, I have been thrilled by a few movies for Mustang Lovers: Red Tails, The Tuskegee Airmen, Saving Private Ryan, Hart’s War, and, of course, Empire of the Sun. In the latter, Steven Spielberg used restored P-51s to portray the era accurately. Most effective.
Collecting can be fun, yet dangerous if time and money are taken from family duties and obligations, or from a person’s “normal” behavior. I have tried to be balanced and ordered in what I do: How many books can one have about a topic? Or models? Or…well, however many are needed. And there’s the rub. Want vs Need. I remember from King Lear: “Reason not the need.” I’ve tried that one too many times.
I think I am doing all right, learning from my childhood ways–and errors. But mostly my memories of past hobbies and collections are all good. My comic book collection was lost in a flooded basement. Coin collecting became too expensive for me as prices of metals rose. I still am animated when I see a beautiful new FOREVER stamp. But not enough to fill a postage album anymore. Downsizing living space has made my model collection very selective. I do not want a collection I cannot see, or touch. I am funny that way.
So that is how I came to this place in time and space, having a collection, loving to collect, and having a favorite special object from the past that continues to give me pleasure, physical and intellectual. I love the P-51 Mustang!
© James F. O’Neil 2014