Storytellers: Building a 12-foot model aircraft carrier

People form passions over a variety of things - but it's the passions that last a lifetime that usually make the best stories.

EPHRAIM, Wisc. — I’ve been a journalist since I was 18. That’s about 20 years filled with writing hundreds of stories, and meeting thousands of people. But I’ve never done a story as memorable, as interesting, as challenging to piece together, as one about a guy who lives in northern Wisconsin.

He and I met each other a long time ago — on October 15, 1978, to be exact.

"How do I know you?" asked Larry Herbst. "Anne’s my daughter — youngest daughter — the only one that doesn’t have a real job."

Yup, my dad is who I inherited my sense of humor from — and he was going to be the subject of my next story.

I knew I had some decent material after a phone call home. My dad started telling me about a project he had going, and he had me laughing the whole time. He probably wasn’t being funny on purpose — but you can’t ever tell with him. Still, it was hilarious.

“It was in our crawlspace,” Dad said.

The thing that was being stored in our basement for the past 30 years was a 12-foot long hull of a model aircraft carrier. You know, the usual thing people have hanging out, collecting dust in a storage space. He had acquired it years ago — it was a steal, he assured me.

“It was sitting down there and he said, 'I think I’m going to do something with this,'” said Connie Herbst - my mom.

So dad hauled it outside to his shop, and did what he does best — work. And he’s been working on the model of the USS John F. Kennedy CV-67 since June 2017.

Though the size of this particular model is a bit abnormal — my dad working on ship models isn’t. His dad, my grandpa, Bill Herbst, started making ship models for shipyards and the military in the 1940s. Dad and his brother helped.

“We were made to do it—we had to help out,” Dad said. “He (his dad) was the boss—we would each to our part.”

My dad eventually started enjoying the work, and along with his brother, Terry, and my grandpa, they made ship models under the name Sturgeon Bay Model Shop. Though my dad isn’t the sentimental type, he remembered a lot of good things about the times they all worked together before his dad passed.

“If things were going good in the shop, we wouldn’t stop to eat,” Dad said. “We’d just have those big glass bottles of Pepsi, and keep on drinking and be real buzzed up on caffeine by the end of the day.”

My dad said the shop has made more than 200 models — he and his brother alone have made about 60 of them since 1995 — and are still making them. All of the models are intricate, delicate, accurate, handmade, and able to fit into the back of a car. Except for this current edition.

“It’s going to be impressive just because it’s big,” dad said.

Dad has been working on this model alone. He said he plans on convincing my uncle to pitch in this winter. Good luck to you, Uncle Terry. He also said he hopes to have it finished summer of 2018 — one year after he dragged it out of his crawlspace.

“Sometimes I think he spends too much time on it,” mom said. “But I think I’m feeling pretty good about it because it keeps him busy and he enjoys it.”

The other models Sturgeon Bay Model Shop has made have ended up scattered around the country, many of them in museums. The aircraft carrier doesn’t have a home quite yet. He’s been asking me how to sell things on Craigslist lately — no joke. He said he hopes to get $30,000 for it, and said that would be a good deal. You know, for anyone looking for that kind of thing.

“Sure we’re going to sell it — mom doesn’t want it in her living room,” Dad said. “It would fit though — we could call it a coffee table.”

Mom has other plans.

“Maybe he’ll donate it to a museum or whatever—or maybe—maybe you’ll inherit it,” Mom said.

No thanks, mom.

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Even though I’m not a fan of the thing—I mean, I think it’s neat and all, but I don’t need a giant boat model in my house—Dad has buddies who like to stop by when they see my dad in the driveway working on the boat.

“His models are beautiful—I bought one them—they’re awesome,” said Jim Peterman, who stops by occasionally to check out dad’s progress, and has a much small freighter model at his house. “If it was three or four feet long, it would be really nice to have a model like this in your home.”

When I was wrapping up shooting the story about Dad and his behemoth aircraft carrier model, I asked him what he thought about having a camera pointed at him. Did it bother him? He’s a pretty quiet, humble, shy guy.

He laughed and said, “Well, we got you to come home.”

Sometimes it takes a great big boat to help you travel back home again.

© 2017 KUSA-TV


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