This was an altogether cavalier attitude on the part of the excreting public, one borne of profound ignorance of the facts. In the past few months, I’ve learned that Americans throw away some 17 billion toilet rolls ever year, and that this enormous number is enough to build not one, but two, Empire State Buildings entirely of toilet rolls. Why anyone to choose to build two skyscrapers out of toilet rolls is not something I spend a lot of time thinking about, but if these people have nothing better to do with their time, then let the dolts have at it.
I say this because we here in our happy little burg remember Herb Reynolds and we remember him well. Herb was the printing plant manager for the local weekly newspaper and not at all the sort of man who would indulge strange or outlandish ideas; he was a Republican, after all, and a long-time member of the Knights of Columbus, and he drove an old Ford; and so his neighbors on Mill Street were more than a little surprised when Herb announced that he was going to build an F-14 Tomcat on his front lawn. It was simply so unlike him.
I suppose it was in the Zeitgeist then: Ronald Reagan was President of the United States, it was morning in America, and Tom Cruise was punching holes in the sky and in the box office with Top Gun. Still, why Herb thought building his own fighter plane was a good idea was anyone’s guess—our happy little burg faced no airborne threats to its municipal security that couldn’t be handled with a light propeller-driven aircraft and a large slingshot, and our crack corps of constables could handle any of the traditional terrestrial threats with its usual competence. But no one could deter Herb—he wanted a F-14 and he was going to build a F-14, come hell or high water.
Almost as soon as he started, Herb ran into a number of problems, the first being that he did not know how to build an airplane, any kind of airplane, much less a F-14, and second, that the Grumman Corporation had built the F-14 Tomcat exclusively for the United States Navy and consequently had little or no interest in either selling one to Herb or in telling him how to build one himself. The other problem was that your standard F-14 was sixty-two feet long, or 18.8976 meters for those of you on the metric system, which takes up a lot of room when your front lawn was only about a half acre in size. But Herb, God love him, would not take no for an answer and over the next few weeks his front lawn became the site of intense activity for him and equally intense curiosity for the neighbors and passersby.
At first, no one knew what to make of all the lumber on the front lawn and I think more than one person convinced themselves that Herb wasn’t building a F-14 at all, but rather a more wood-specific aircraft like a Sopwith Camel or a de Havilland Mosquito light bomber, but as time went on it became pretty clear that if Herb said he was building a F-14, he was building a F-14 and not something else. I imagine that the uproar that followed was similar to the abuse that Noah took when his neighbors realized he was building a big boat on dry land. People came from all over the county to see the man building his own fighter plane and to ask the neighbors whether or not Herb was crazy. The neighbors, being good neighbors, refused to badmouth Herb or his project, no matter what their personal opinion might have been, although they did tell people that the small group holding a constant prayer vigil near Herb’s mailbox was more than a few cards short of a full deck. They insisted that Herb had received a message from God telling him to build the plane and that they were leaving with Herb before the Apocalypse swept over the earth. Herb denied that he had received a command from anyone to build the plane and he denied this idea vigorously and categorically, often both at the same time, but neither his denials nor the fact that there wasn’t going to be enough room in the plane for all of them would get them to call off the vigil.
Through all the silliness, Herb kept working on the plane. Two months into the project, the wood pile in the middle of his front lawn had become a clearly identifiable aircraft, even if it was half-scale, very close to the ground, and had no visible means of propulsion. By that time, the novelty had worn off and people simply accepted the plywood jet as if it had always been there. There was even a strange sort of neighborhood pride in Herb’s airplane, the same sort of proprietary pride you have when you know that the world’s ugliest dog lives next door to you; it has nothing to do with you, really, but people know that you live nearby and so you share vicariously in the ambient light of the phenomenon everyone knows about.
By the fall of that year, Herb started hammering the metal onto the airframe. Herb took beer and soda cans, cut off the tops and bottoms, and then cut the can vertically down the middle. Then he’d pound the metal into whatever shape he needed with a hammer and nail the sheet to the plane. I don’t remember how many cans he used to cover that F-14 with metal, but I reckon that Herb must have covered that plane with a fortune in nickel returns. By the beginning of November, Herb had, as far as I could tell, finished the first part of his fighter. Everyone waited for him to put some kind of engine into it, but Herb smiled and begged off. He’d finish the plane in the spring, he said, and afterwards he covered it with canvas and plastic tarps and lashed everything down with ropes tied to heavy wooden stakes that he pounded deep into the ground.
And he did all this not a moment too soon; in the middle of that November the temperature dropped nearly thirty degrees in less than a week and by Thanksgiving we were already expecting the first heavy snowfall of the year. That was a bad winter; every other week, it seemed there was yet another snowstorm dropping unprecedented amounts of snow and ice on us, until by mid-February there wasn’t anyplace for us to put all the new snow. And through it all, everyone wondered if Herb could actually get his F-14 to fly. Arguments raged back and forth in every part of our happy little burg, with some people arguing that there was no way for the plane to take off; Herb’s front lawn was just too short to serve as a runway, even if the plane was made of plywood, and others arguing that if Herb ran the plane down Mill Street and got the green light at the corner of Mill and Rector Street, which is always a tricky proposition even in the best of times—that light has a long red and a very short green, the better to generate traffic tickets with, you see—then Herb shouldn’t have a problem getting airborne. Then the naysayers would ask the believers, are you out of your mind, for crying out loud, and the argument would begin anew, and sometimes get violent, especially if there was alcohol involved, and in a good many of these arguments, alcohol was involved. After a couple of real knockdown, drag-out fights in some of the local taverns, the police were seriously considering telling Herb to get rid of his plane altogether, but they couldn’t find a legal way of doing it. You can’t really tell a man who isn’t being a public nuisance that he’s being a public nuisance. That’s how it was that winter, during which Herb said nothing about his plane or his plans for it. We would have to wait for spring for the answers to our questions.
Spring came, as it is wont to do, and yet there were still no answers. The tarps stayed in place and the curious had to stand on the sidewalk and watch Herb duck under the tarps everyday with tools in his hands and give no explanation of what was going on. The lack of information drove a lot of people over the deep edge. People you wouldn’t think cared one way or the other about Herb Reynolds and his F-14 turned out to have intense opinions on the matter. My mother, for example, almost punched out an assistant curate at our church when he told her that it was unkind and uncharitable to call Herb a gobsmacked idiot. Mom didn’t think that she was being unkind or uncharitable; she was just telling the truth as she saw it and she didn’t need some fresh-faced boy just out of the seminary to tell her any different, thank you very much.
And then, one morning in late spring, the tarps were gone, and there it was, Herb’s creation in all its glory. Crowds came by to gawk at the plane and the vigil keepers prayed harder than ever because the end of days had arrived and there were so many cars on Mill Street that the cops had to come in to control the traffic. People had their cameras out and took pictures like they’d never seen an airplane before, and, in truth, they hadn’t, at least not one that looked like Herb’s airplane. Herb’s F-14 was dull gray, just like the ones the Navy flew, but there were no markings on this warplane except for Herb’s call sign, which he’d painted in big bright red letters on both sides of the fuselage; his call sign, unimaginatively enough, was Herb. The other thing that struck most people was the lack of a cockpit canopy, surely, almost everyone agreed, a necessary component in any supersonic aircraft.
Some friends and I were debating what all this might mean when Herb himself came out and waved to the crowd assembled on the sidewalk. He was wearing a gray sweatshirt and sweatpants and he wore a New York Jets helmet on his head. I always liked that touch; it seemed appropriate, somehow. We watched him climb into the cockpit, which was a matter of swinging one leg after another into the plane; the F-14 was no higher in the spring than it was in the autumn. A moment later, we heard the plane’s engine roar to life, and we knew the truth, and the truth did not set us free. The disappointment was more than some people could bear; many a strong man went to Murphy’s Bar & Grill that day to drown his sorrow in a generous glass of Tullamore Dew and to eat a hearty portion of crow, and the vigil keepers went off to a nearby Dunkin’ Donuts, where one of our local gendarmes had found the face of a suffering Jesus etched miraculously into a jelly doughnut with raspberry filling. I can tell you that yes, there was no joy in our happy little burg on that evil day, even if mighty Casey hadn’t struck out.
There may be dumber things to do with your time than turning a John Deere riding mower into an unflyable airplane, and I know that watching Herb driving that fighter/mower up and down his front lawn with a beer in one hand was one of the great disappointments of my life, and I suppose that building skyscrapers out of toilet paper rolls counts as one of those dumber things to do. Why anyone would want to do this sort of thing eludes me, but then, lots of things elude me these days. It seems to me that if you really wanted to save paper you would skip the toilet roll entirely—it is a rather insignificant part of the whole toilet-industrial complex, after all—and encourage people to stop using the paper itself. In many parts of the world, people use a rock or a piece of a brick to accomplish the same purpose, and rocks and bricks not only do not pollute the environment but have the added advantage of being washable. Just something to think about the next time you hear about those skyscrapers full of toilet paper rolls.