There’s a field, straddling an invisible property line several miles east of the Hard Rock Casino, somewhere in the bucolic outskirts of Catoosa. Across the grassland to the west is a barn-shaped megachurch with a hunter-green rooftop. To the east sits a toppled, decaying, white trailer, weeds crawling up its side as if attempting to drag the hulking box beneath the topsoil.
This Land Radio visits the Gluedobbers, a club for model plane and gun enthusiasts in East Tulsa.
The grounds belong to the Tulsa Gluedobbers Control Line Club, a group of retired men that devote their ample free time to constructing, painting and flying steel cable-rigged model airplanes. Recognized officially as an Academy of Model Aeronautics chartered club, the Gluedobbers are a small but dedicated bunch—former carpenters, electricians, computer programmers, mechanics—a generation of men used to working with their hands who still take pride in creating something out of nothing. Today, however, there are no planes in sight. Rather, in my arms rests an AK-47, and I’m about to fire it. Unofficially, the Gluedobbers are also a gun club.
The gas-powered granddaddy of assault rifles is not nearly as heavy as I expected it to be. I shoulder the weapon, imagine myself as a Libyan Rebel and aim north. The distant buzz of traffic on Oklahoma 412 pierces the ear guard wrapped around my head and tickles my ear drums, reminding me that human lives depend on my sanity remaining intact as I prepare to fire the Romanian-made death machine.
I brace the butt of the stock against my shoulder, my left hand extended and clasping the wooden foregrip that supports the barrel. My right hand squeezes the southern grip as my index finger nervously massages the cold metal of the trigger guard. I’ve been instructed to avoid direct contact with the trigger until the moment of discharge, but I can’t help myself and fondle the firing mechanism for several seconds. Finally and firmly, I pull.
A short, explosive burst—the butt recoils, digging into my clavicular head, and a small cloud of dust materializes from my target, a dirt bank 50 yards in front of me. My breath catches, I steady myself and pull the trigger again. And again. And again.
I finally lower the gun and pass it back to its original owner, Bob Reeves, an elderly gentleman in a flannel shirt, blue jeans and baseball cap. A retired computer programmer (he claims he invented the program that takes your picture while on a rollercoaster), Reeves owns the property we stand on and has been a Gluedobber for most of the new millennium.
“Now you can say you’ve fired an AK-47,” Bob chuckles.
The Line of Fire
The Tulsa Gluedobbers are part of a hobbyist tradition that dates back to the mid-20th century. Founded in the ’40s, the group constructed and flew control line model airplanes in Green Country, competing in national competitions until the ’80s, when RC (radio-controlled) came into vogue and relegated control line to a cult niche. The club eventually splintered into two separate factions, each retaining the “Gluedobbers” moniker: the RC Gluedobbers and the Control Line Gluedobbers.
The antiquated control line method requires the flyer (or controller) to hold a 60-70 ft line of wire connected to the plane and fly it like a kite. The controller spins as the plane, propelled by an engine, makes circular laps around a designated flight area over 100 feet in diameter.
When RC came along, the level of dedication and skill required to fly a model airplane diminished, and the physicality of the hobby disappeared. Instead of using one’s arms and torso to directly communicate with the plane, you simply control the model with small joysticks on a remote control, like a video game. Many former CL enthusiasts naturally defected to RC. Today, the RC Tulsa Gluedobbers boasts a club membership of 150-200. By contrast, the Control Line Gluedobbers has a roster of less than 30.
“When our generation goes away, this sport is going to die,” Reeves lamented. “The instant gratification generation is what we’re faced with. If they can’t go out and buy it instantly, they’re not going to do it.”
Home On the Range
“We all have a common thread,” club president Lee Thiel advised me. “It’s hot rods, motorcycles, hot women and airplanes.” This may be true, but Thiel excluded another crucial binding interest. Several years ago, shortly after the Gluedobbers relocated to Bob Reeves’ property, a handful of members discovered they shared a 5th commonality: firearms.
“We discovered that there were six or seven of us in the club who enjoyed shooting or liked guns,” Reeves remembered, a few minutes before he handed me the AK-47. “I went to my neighbor and said, ‘Hey, we want to put in a gun range, and the best place for it is right here on your property.’ ” The neighbor had no objections, so Reeves busied himself with a tractor and built up a mud berm for targets. One club member donated a portable shooting bench; another built a similar bench from scratch. The ‘Dobbers then bought a small storage unit to hold all things range-related.
“We’ve got steel targets and two shooting benches, target frames, all kinds of stuff,” Reeves listed. “So we’ve got a pretty good little shooting range out there.”
Reeves owns ten guns, most of them run-of-the-mill .22 rifles or 9mm handguns. The anomaly in his collection is the AK. Though fully automatic weapons are technically legal to own, they are heavily regulated, and importation from outside the U.S. is most definitely illegal. However, there’s a loophole: you can import a fully automatic machine gun if it’s rendered inoperable prior to sale. Reeves tells me that overseas sellers commonly achieve this by cutting the receivers in half with a blowtorch. There are plenty of receiver manufacturers stateside, so all one needs is the patience and skill to rebuild their very own Romanian, Russian or Chinese assault rifle. This is exactly what Reeves did.
“Stupid gun laws,” he grumbled. I asked him to elaborate on this comment, and his response was two words: “Second Amendment.”
“Any restriction on gun ownership whatsoever is unconstitutional. But our great political fathers don’t feel that way.”
Reeves cited the recent shooting in Tucson of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords as an example of why there should be fewer restrictions on gun ownership. “If somebody in that crowd would’ve been carrying, that guy would’ve only got off two shots, and he would’ve been gone.”
Later, the conversation turned to the similarities between collecting guns and building model airplanes.
“It’s all using your hands,” Reeves said. “Tinkering. I play with guns a lot. It’s all tinkering, working with your hands.”
A week after firing the AK, I’m back at Reeves Field, sitting in on the first official Gluedobbers meeting of the spring season. Though it’s a pleasant temperature and the sun is glowing, the wind gusts as high as 40 miles per hour, and the Gluedobbers who bothered to show for the meeting have already told me that they will not attempt to fly in high winds. All except for one.
“For me, I was born flying,” boasts Joe Gilbert, club treasurer. “Daddy flew model airplanes; I never knew anything else but. I’ve flown airplanes since I could walk.” In his early 50s, Gilbert is clearly the youngest of the group. He’s also one of the club’s most skilled stunt flyers, and is the only one brave enough to demonstrate the control line technique on this especially gusty Sunday afternoon.
He directs me to stand just outside the edge of the flight circle. He huddles over his plane—a small, unremarkable yellow thing—on the landing strip for a few moments, and soon I hear the high-pitched drone of the engine. Gilbert moves to the center of the circle and begins to spin. Soon, the plane is making fast circular laps, and Gilbert begins to express his level of skill through elaborate flight patterns that he sends the plane into through manipulation of the control line.
The entire club is all eyes. The buzz of the plane in tandem with the circular repetition becomes hypnotic. Gilbert is in total control. He created this plane, and if he doesn’t land it just right, he’ll destroy it. The yellow dot flies ’round and ’round while Gilbert pushes and pulls and swirls, the star of his own aeronautic ballet. His face is serene and satisfied. Aware of his captive audience, Gilbert executes increasingly complex movements as we all stand entranced. He spins the line lower and lower, the engine’s drone subsiding as it runs out of gas. He weaves once more along the horizon. The abrupt silence carries with it a feeling of slow motion, until Gilbert finally, gracefully lights the plane back down to earth.