Balsa Wood Lessons

Yesterday on my walk through town I passed one of the local gift shops and saw this classically designed balsa wood plane in the window. The store’s proprietor knew what she was doing, putting that pretty little plane in the window for old guys and young kids alike to see. If the store had been open, and I’d been carrying my wallet, I might have been tempted to make an impulse purchase–because, for those of us of a certain age, a balsa wood plane brings back a lot of memories, and life lessons, too.

When I was a kid, I got a balsa wood plane as a gift. I don’t remember who was the giver, but I do remember being fascinated with the notion that the plane was made with a kind of wood. This was wood? It wasn’t the kind of wood I was used to in, say, a baseball bat or the trunk of a neighborhood tree. This wood was ultra-light and brittle, the better to glide through the air like the Wright Brothers’ plane at Kitty Hawk. Balsa wood planes were the definition of “flimsy.” That didn’t mean they were any less fun and weren’t cool, either. After all, this little plane could fly! UJ and I spent many happy hours playing with our balsa wood planes, trying to see whose plane could glide the farthest on a warm summer day.

But there were important lessons attached to the little balsa wood plane. The balsa wood plane may have been the first toy that I actually had to consciously take care of. It couldn’t take a beating like, say, a little rubber football. You had to be gentle in putting it together, or one of the wings would break in half or thin strips of balsa wood would chip off, interfering with performance. You couldn’t just leave the plane outside in the rain or on a chair where the plane could be crushed into smithereens by Uncle Tony’s descending posterior. And you had to be mindful of where and when you took the plane out for a glide, too. Really windy days were bad, because the wind inevitably sent the plane cartwheeling into the concrete patio or a neighboring house, and launching it anywhere near a tree was certain to result in your plane being firmly lodged in the crook of a branch or amidst the leaves and limbs, with no way to knock it down that wouldn’t bust the plane into sad little balsa wood shards.

I’m sure I went through countless balsa wood planes before these lessons really sank in–but I’m also sure that, if I bought a balsa wood plane now, all of the old careful handling reflexes and experiential knowledge would come back in a rush. The lessons that come from the disappointment and loss of a favorite toy that you could have avoided if you’d just listened to Dad and Mom and been more careful are lessons well learned.