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A Tall Order

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When “Old Ironsides” took to the seas to celebrate her 200th birthday last July, some 3,000 boats dotted the waters off the Massachusetts coast to see the tallest of the tall ships under sail.

But the USS Constitution, as the ship is formally known, actually plunged into the waters off Boston on Oct. 21, 1797. So it seems fitting that the Ventura County Maritime Museum chose this month to open its new exhibit, a tribute to the venerable warship.

Among the memorabilia, paintings and photos on display, the most striking is a 19-foot panoramic photo of the bicentennial sail last summer, Constitution’s first dip into the Atlantic in 116 years.

After the birthday hoopla, Constitution returned to dockside duty as a floating museum in Boston. Ventura County’s Maritime Museum has the next best thing for visitors to see: a 6-foot-long, 4 1/2-foot-tall model, meticulously handcrafted by Jim Berger.

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This is no kit that Berger picked up at a craft store and slapped together on weekends. This beauty took him three years to build, working six full days a week in his Oxnard shop.

“I built every piece on that thing,” said Berger, a crusty 73-year-old retired civil engineer. “Never again!”

In the 37 years he has been crafting model ships, Berger has completed 35 or 37--he’s lost count--but none as large as Constitution. To start with, he obtained copies of the ship’s plans from the Smithsonian Institution and decided on a scale of 1/4-inch to the foot.

At the time, he shared his small shop with model ship builder Jim Azbill, who has since died. “We’d cuss at one another because there was not enough room,” he said.

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After nine months of painstaking work, Berger realized he had made a “horrendous error” in the forward section of the hull. He isn’t one to ignore a flaw and go on, no matter how minuscule.

“I studied it for 10 minutes and then junked it,” he said. The botched hull still hangs from the ceiling of his shop as a “constant reminder.”

If starting over was hard, it was no sweat compared to what lay ahead: fitting 3,000 tiny pieces of copper plating to the hull. Each one had to be hammered ever so lightly to create the look of nails.

Wearing magnifying eyeglasses, he made each of the ship’s 50 guns out of brass. Milling his own lumber, he cut every sliver of wood on the ship, using alder, spruce, ebony and holly.

The model has no sails because Berger wanted the ship’s lines exposed, something he has always marveled at. “It’s amazing how they all work,” he said. What’s even more amazing is that the inside of the model is reproduced in miniature as faithfully as the exterior. A small opening on one side of the hull exposes the inside.

Berger doesn’t claim to be a patient man or even one with a steady hand. “I lost my patience three times a day,” he said. In fact, he claims he took up this solitary hobby to stay out of bars. “That’s the God’s truth.”

His endurance paid off two years ago when he finished the model. It was purchased for an undisclosed amount by Maurice Friedman who has loaned it to the museum indefinitely.

The giant model rests on a rotating pedestal, and beside it is a cross-section of Constitution’s interior, assembled by model builder Jerry Magnuson.

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“It was the largest ship the U.S. had built at the time,” Berger said. “People were afraid that it was so big it would cause a huge amount of water to wash up on land and ruin the houses around there.”

The exhibit, on display until Nov. 21, has other historical nuggets about “Old Ironsides,” which got its nickname during the War of 1812 when British cannonballs seemed to bounce off the ship’s copper-covered hull. She has remained a part of the U.S. Navy since her launch in 1787, making her the oldest commissioned warship worldwide.

Paul Revere, of American Revolutionary War fame, had a hand in the building of Constitution. He provided the copper plating for the ship’s hull. The battle-weary ship--never defeated in 42 battles--was about to be broken up in 1830 when Oliver Wendell Holmes saved her with his famous poem, “Old Ironsides.”

She was saved again in 1897, her centennial, and restored in the 1920s, thanks in part to the pennies donated by school children across the country. During a West Coast tour in 1933--she was towed, not under sail--the ship stopped at 12 California cities, including Ventura and Santa Barbara.

Other photos in the museum’s exhibit show Hollywood’s version of Constitution. The ship’s history was captured in the 1926 silent film, “Old Ironsides.”

BE THERE

Ventura County Maritime Museum at Channel Islands Harbor, 2731 S. Victoria Ave., Oxnard. Thursday-Monday, 11 a.m.-5 p.m. through the winter. Free. (805) 984-6260.


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