My Childhood Obsession

By Dave O’Malley

To this day, I cannot stand the glutinous, faux-fruit taste and slippery lack of texture of Jell-O desserts. There was a time many years ago though when I just couldn’t get enough of the stuff. I never really liked Jell-O, even then, but I was hopelessly addicted to the brightly coloured prizes found in each Jell-O dessert pack—the 1.5-inch plastic discs known by kids in the know as “Car Wheels” and “Airplane Coins”. So I slurped the dancing, half-sugar, half-rendered horse-hoof goop by the bowlful so that my mother would feel the need to load up on more to keep her kids happy. I drowned the Jell-O in milk in order to get it down.

 

The coins were also available inside 10-cent bags of Hostess Potato Chips (which were about the size of a family-size bag nowadays) and I was eating so many heavily-salted, deep-fried and trans fat-infested potato chips that I was developing a juvenile ulcer of some sort. Luckily, all the gut-coating cherry Jell-O I was also wolfing down had a sort of pepto-bismolic soothing effect and slowed the erosion of my stomach lining. I hid the bags around the house like an alcoholic hiding fifths of Four Aces in the garden.

 

The “Car Wheels” set came first and I was very excited about collecting them, but not really hooked on them as I would soon find myself. The set numbered 200 and they were colour coded by the decade of the car’s production. Fun, but not much more fun than collecting NHL hockey cards or major league baseball cards. Then came the set-to-end-all-sets—200 perfect little “airplane coins” divided into 8 sub-sets of 25 each – Pioneers, Trainers, BombersFighters, Airliners, Transports, Bushplanes and something called Others which covered flying cars, hovercraft and other assorted weird aircraft. The entire collection was only available to Canadian boys and girls and included nearly two dozen iconic Canadian-designed aircraft such as the Avro Arrow, Silver Dart (the first powered heavier-than-air aircraft to fly in Canada), Avro CF-100, Noorduyn Norseman, de Havilland Canada Beaver, Caribou, Fleet Canuck, Canadair Northstar and many more. More than half the aircraft were types that were operated by Canadian civilian aviators in Canada or by the Royal Canadian Air Force. From the Armstrong Whitworth Siskin to the Beech Expeditor to the Boeing Bomarc—they were all there! This was to be my first introduction to the glorious pantheon of Canadian aviation history. Each coin was a plastic disc with a circular piece of cardboard inserted on one side displaying a beautiful and very colourful illustration of an aircraft—each was numbered so that you could put them in order and keep track of them. Each, when held in the hand, could summon up dreams of flying and adventure like no other talisman available to a baby-boomer child fixated on all things flying. 

 

 

The first category in the collection was entitled “Pioneers” and listed some of the most important flying craft in history. The first numbered coin in the collection was the Greek legend Icarus falling to his death after getting too close to the sun—while his father Daedelus watches helplessly. Icarus was the more famous of the two, but of course he failed where dad succeeded. While Daedalus may have been a fictional aviation pioneer, the last in the category at No. 25 was the Mercury capsule of real life hero John Glenn, entitled “Glenn” and not Mercury. No. 24 was entitled just “Gagarin” and depicted the Vostok 1 capsule in which the Soviet hero made the first orbit of Earth. The illustrator Watt must have been guessing at what that capsule looked like as it does not resemble any image of the Vostok 1 that I have seen. The year was 1962–63, and the Avro Arrow was by then considered a “Pioneer” when just three years earlier, the Arrow was on the verge of becoming a frontline fighter with then RCAF. By all rights, the Arrow should have appeared with the red coins of fighter aircraft, but its cancellation in 1958 relegated it to the “Pioneer” list. The group included the DC-3, an airliner, but most certainly worthy of being called a pioneer. Also on this category was the Canadian-built Avro Jetliner, North America’s first jet-powered airliner, nearly eight years ahead of the Boeing 707 and just 14 days after the British de Havilland Comet 1. Photo: the author

 

My mother was an unwitting accomplice in my life of addiction and crime. When she returned from the grocery store, I always offered “Why don’t you take a rest Mom, while I put away the groceries?” What a good boy. What a devious little addict was closer to the truth. I would set upon the brown paper bags like a ravenous sled dog on a frozen haunch of caribou, ripping them open so that I could get to the gold as quickly as possible. If there were Jell-O packets, I would scoop them up and hide them behind the toaster or under the sink until I could shelve the rest of the groceries. This was to stop my older brother from getting to them first. He didn’t really care that much for the airplane coins, but used them as a form of currency—getting me to shovel the driveway by myself, make his lunch or to punch my sisters. All these I would do for an airplane coin. An addiction is a disease. What could I do?

 

I even briefly considered a life of crime to reach my goal of the full set of 200—the near-unachievable motherlode that was the dream of every addict. At school I daydreamed of doing a grab and dash at the local grocery store, running pell-mell through the automatic doors with armloads of Jell-O packets—across the parking lot and on down to a nearby PCB-ridden trucking company wreck yard where I would rip them open searching for the perfect high. But I was a good boy. So I just cheated on my elementary school tests instead. My accomplice was Ronnie Lalande (Ronnie Lalande’s name was changed to protect the author!)

 

The red-disced Fighter grouping included a number of aircraft operated at the time by the Royal Canadian Air Force such as the Sabre, Starfighter, Voodoo, Vampire, Avro CF-100 Canuck and even P-51 Mustang. Also included were aircraft previously flown by the RCAF and RCN including the Spitfire, Hurricane, Banshee, and Siskin. Photo: the author

The bomber category came in menacingly black discs and featured everything from the First World War Gotha to the Convair B-58 Hustler, which in 1962–63 was the sexiest aircraft a young boy could ever imagine. Photo: the author

Ronnie Lalande was a sort of bad-boy greaser-come-goofball who lived in the back row of my Grade 8 classroom on the second floor of St Leo’s Catholic School in Elmvale Acres. From there he would dispense rude comments, puerile jokes, winks and armpit farts to the delight of the girls and the scowls of ancient Mr. Forsey, our tyrannical but committed teacher. Ronnie was as dumb as a hockey puck, but he had a leather jacket, a switchblade, a head dripping with Watkins’ hair pomade and a way with the ladies—the 12-year-old kind. When Ronnie ran a comb through his hair, he’d have to wipe it off on something and he took to doing so on my sleeve. Whatever Ronnie wanted you to do, you did. He somehow knew about my airplane coin addiction and made me an offer I couldn’t refuse—literally! I couldn’t refuse it or Ronnie would “clean my clock” as he was fond of saying.

 

The “deal” was that he would give me an airplane coin for each correct answer I secreted to him during classroom multiple choice tests. I would look back at him from the row in front and he would be looking down at his test paper, but pointing with his forefinger at a particular question on a page from the exam. I would then scan my paper for the same question and signal the correct answer by showing one finger on my hand which I held on the top of my thigh if the answer was “A”, two fingers if it was “B” and so on. I broke out in a sweat fuelled by guilt and the knowledge that if I gave him a wrong answer, I risked a purple quilted, satin-lined jet-boot kick to my recently descended nuts after school. 

 

 

Transport aircraft, both military and civilian were in blue discs and included many types of rotary and fixed winged aircraft. Most were cargo or utility aircraft and some, like the Canadair 540 Cosmopolitan and Merlin-powered Northstar, were primarily airliners that also had cargo capabilities. I suppose that if it was a military airliner, then it was deemed a transport. Photo: the author

 

 

Silver was the colour of the Airliner category, bringing to mind the piloted aluminum of many of the day’s passenger aircraft. Wherever possible, the curator James A. Hornick chose to include aircraft flown by Canadian airlines and illustrator Don Watt depicted them in Canadian liveries such as the Trans Canada Airlines (now Air Canada) Vickers Viscount and Vanguard. The Airplane Coins were introduced at the transitional period of commercial aviation when both piston engine and jet powered aircraft were in very common use. Watt was always careful to place the aircraft in authentic scenes—an American Airlines Douglas DC-7 over New York and the Statue of Liberty, a TCA Viscount over Montréal Island, a Sud-Aviation Caravelle over Paris and the Eiffel Tower. Photo: the author

 

The “system” worked like a charm and the coins started rolling in. Rolling in a bit too well, I started to think. Perhaps Ronnie was filling his pockets with Jell-O boxes at the store or maybe he was rolling other aero-geeks like me in the schoolyard. Either way, I could see a spiral of crime sucking him and me into a vortex of illegal activity that led straight to the confessional, then to reform school and ultimately to Hell. So, after about three tests, I met Ronnie down at the St. Leo’s schoolyard and in a squeaking voice told him it was over. I should have known that once you are a made-man, it’s never over—unless of course you have a beautiful Wyatt Earp Colt 45 “Buntline Special” cap gun stuck in your belt. Ronnie snatched it out of my waistline (something I had back then) and pointed it at me like it was loaded with silver bullets. “This”, he said, waggling the barrel, “is mine now. And if you blab, I will come for your entire stupid airplane coin collection and clean your clock at the same time.” Then he sneered and, walking away with my prized Buntline, spat one final word back over his shoulder like the massive loogies he loved to deposit in the schoolyard—“Dork!”

 

I thought I got away fairly easy, but to this day, I still feel like a dork, such was his power over me in those days, before I grew to six foot four inches and 250 pounds. I like to think Ronnie spent the rest of his life behind bars or living toothless and alone above the Chateau Lafayette House Tavern in the ByWard Market, eating beans from a can, my Buntline sitting on the soiled nightstand, but I never saw him again after that year. 

 

I never did get the complete set, for General Foods discontinued the practice after a year or so. Lucky for me I guess. Sometime in my 40s I ran across a complete set of the coins in their “poker-chip” carrying case and bought them. I looked at them for a few days then simply put them on a shelf (with the Jell-O and chips) and forgot about them. Somewhere along the way, they disappeared (Ronnie?) but after first publishing this story in 2007, Karl Kjarsgaard brought me a full set, still in its shipping container. It remains a cherished possession.

 

Today, 55 years sober since quitting “Airplane Coins” cold turkey, I am now surrounded by the spectacular real-life aircraft of Vintage Wings of Canada and it occurred to me that our collection of 17 historic aircraft includes 12 that were featured as coins of The Great Canadian Jell-O Desserts and Hostess Potato Chips Airplane Coin Collection—Mustang, Hurricane, Spitfire, Swordfish, Sabre, Harvard, Finch, Chipmunk, Tiger Moth, Stearman, Cornell and Beaver.

 

James A. Hornick, the historical consultant to Jell-O on the coins set was well versed in Canadian aviation history for nearly every important Canadian type was featured along with many types flown in Canada but manufactured elsewhere. Above are just some of the aircraft featured that were designed or manufactured in Canada. As a young boy who would go on to become a graphic designer, I was particularly taken with the quality of the 200 colourful illustrations by artist Don Watt, who was just 14 years older than me. Each image was painstakingly executed in black and white then gloriously coloured with vibrant and sometimes over-the-top background hues. Watt took great pains to put most of the depicted aircraft in its appropriate context. Watt had worked with Avro on the Arrow project prior to doing the work and he made a name for himself later in life as a Canadian advertising executive and marketing guru—the man said to have come up with the idea for Loblaw’s “no-name” products.

 

The Bush Plane category was coloured appropriately green. Being a Canadian, utility aircraft used in the north were quickly becoming part of my heritage. So many of the types depicted in this category were Canadian designs and are among the finest aircraft of the type ever designed—de Havilland Canada’s Beaver, Otter and Caribou, the Noorduyn Norseman, Fairchild Husky and Sekani and Fleet Freighter. Photo: the author

Yellow of course was the most logical colour for the trainer category with most of Canada’s training aircraft up to that point being painted in the yellow of the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan. The category included the Link trainer, not an aircraft per se, but the world’s first full motion simulator. Vintage Wings of Canada operates or has operated six of the aircraft in this grouping. Photo: the author

Any aircraft that did not fit nicely in any primary category was deemed to belong to the catchall “Other” group. The Grumman Tracker and Avenger are in this category rather than with the Bombers likely because they are anti-submarine aircraft. This category included flying wings, gyroplanes, X- planes, flying boats and cars and observation aircraft. As well, the large number of rockets demonstrates the 1960s belief that soon fighter and bomber aircraft would be obsolete and that rockets were the futureThe last aircraft in the collection, No. 200 was the Hovercraft, portrayed hovering rather impossibly over the water. Photo: the author

 

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