Friendly Aircraft Spotted!

I previously wrote about how recipe cards could work as playing cards by the simple addition of ranks and suits. In so doing, I also mentioned other cards that could work with such things, like greeting cards, or in this case, flash cards. This is a practice that has been around for a very long time, in fact; the two decks I’m looking at today are recreations of decks from the second World War, used by the Navy Department for educational purposes.

The idea of games being used as wartime aids is not solely limited to cards, of course; it is well documented that manufacturers like Waddingtons created special versions of popular games like Monopoly to be sent to Allied prisoners of war, which actually housed hidden compartments containing metal files and silk maps to aid in escape attempts. That, arguably, is the most famous application of the game as an informational gadget.

Slightly less famous, but arguably no less important, is the Spotter deck, designed and distributed by the U.S. Navy Department to help soldiers and civilians identify military aircraft. 52 different planes are printed, in random order, in silhouette form. These include everything from the American B-17 “Flying Fortress” to the Japanese Zero, from the German Stuka to the British Spitfire, but also transport and cargo planes. To a casual observer, a lot of these planes do look the same without the benefit of paint colors and squadron emblems. But that’s precisely the point of the cards: if you’re watching the skies at sunset and see a squadron of planes flying towards you, the sun at their backs, you’re not going to be able to make out a paint job. So it’s important to identify not just the basic shapes of the planes, but also the distinguishing traits. Bubble canopies, pontoons, number of engines, wing angles, tail shapes, the slope of the fuselage. They were all important to learn, especially when being able to tell a Zero from a P-40 Warhawk was literally the difference between life and death.

The 1998 revision of the Spotter Cards bears a famous propaganda poster, a set of rules for a “spotter game,” and the two Jokers bear historical legal notices from the Navy Department.

Action Products, in 1991 and 1998, made two replicas of one such spotter deck, usually sold in air museum gift shops. Not an awful lot is different between the two; the 1991 version has a simple “WWII SPOTTER CARDS” label on the navy-blue back sides, and the 1998 version is instead covered with a famous US propaganda poster, “The Men Who Fly ‘Em Say, ‘WE’VE GOT THE AXIS’ NUMBER NOW…B-29!'” The 1998 version also replaces the admittedly creepy-looking Jokers with replicas of a notice by the Navy Department explaining that these documents were classified and concerned national security. But because they also come printed with suits and ranks like a regular French deck, they’re as good for their intended purpose as they are for a good old game of poker with the boys from your flight squadron. Though I should admit, neither of these decks is one I’d use for regular play, because the laminated paper cards tend to grip to each other too well, making dealing and fanning difficult. I can’t blame Action Products for that; card-playing isn’t the primary purpose of the cards, after all.

I feel that I must go on a bit of a tangent, though. Back in January, my family had planned an outing to the Evergreen Aviation & Space Museum in McMinnville, Oregon. My grandpa, on my mom’s side, was in the US Marine Corps and wanted to visit the museum one last time. My nephew, Lucien, also really wanted to go. I’d been interested in going, because I knew Grandpa’s time was limited due to a developing cancer and complications from his chemotherapy, but also (slightly) because I wanted to buy a deck of spotter cards from the gift shop. But the day we were all planning to go, Grandpa was having heavy chest pains and decided that it wouldn’t be wise to leave. Lucien was devastated, and I was disappointed, but I understood that that was how it had to be. I figured we’d have another chance soon. Well…we never got that chance. As I write this article, it has been less than 24 hours since I’ve heard that my grandfather died of a heart attack in hospital on the morning of Sunday, February 5th, 2017.

I’m greatly saddened by this loss. I’d planned on buying two decks of spotter cards, to give one to Grandpa and keep the other for myself, so that we’d have keepsakes of each other (and, in Grandpa’s passing, his deck would go to Grandma). In the absence of being able to do such a gesture, and to place a very important deck in my ever-expanding collection, I had lost hope. But then, my dad looked through his boxes of trinkets, and found two decks that he’d purchased from air museums in 1991 and 1998.

Dad’s always been interested in learning about military hardware, especially WWII planes. Neither he nor Grandpa were old enough to have fought in the war, but they both knew the distinctive sound of a diving Stuka. Dad had many a conversation with Grandpa – his father-in-law – about WWII films and dogfights. These cards, initially bought because they were just cool little souvenirs, meant enough to him that he kept them stored for 26 years, until now, 2017, when he dug them out and gave them to me. They’re not quite keepsakes of my dear departed grandfather, but ultimately, they’re just things. Sentimental value doesn’t have to be literal, I figure; I can still look at these cards and remember Grandpa by them. So, I really have Dad to thank. I’m still going to buy another deck the next time we visit Evergreen, though, because I’d feel just awful if I were to wreck them.

What I ought to do, then, is dedicate a shelf in my ever-growing deck collection to special decks and keepsakes, in honor and loving memory of my grandfather. And if I ever find a deck in Marine Corps livery, that’s going right on that shelf.


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