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Big on a Small Scale

Hobbies: Couple combine history, memorial and fun in model of Titanic.

July 18, 1997|DOUGLAS P. SHUIT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Cecil and Pat Gates' scale-model replica of the Titanic may not be pretty to look at on land, but who ever said obsessions had to be pretty?

Besides, Cecil Gates says his Titanic is best viewed from a distance, dismissing suggestions that he tried to capture the opulence and beauty of the original.

"They are designed to look real from 50 feet," said Gates, like his wife a retired Los Angeles schoolteacher who now lives in Northern California.

Viewed from a distance--if you are into oceanic disasters and let your mind drift--you just might get a charge out of seeing this copy of the star-crossed ship that went down on its first voyage in 1912, taking more than 1,500 lives with it, Gates said.

That's what the Gateses are into--history, memorials to those who died at sea and, somewhat incongruously, fun.

When you ask Gates whether he ever lets anyone else pilot his version of the Titanic, he makes it clear that he is the captain.

"I guess you could say I'm the one who sets up the deck chairs," he says, unable to resist the line.

Only this ship is too small for deck chairs. Think of the scale models of the little trains that run at Travel Town in Griffith Park and you get the idea.

It's the fun part that was the reason the Gateses hauled their model of the Titanic down from Lake Almanor in Northern California to open the 14th annual American Boating Jubilee Boat Show in Long Beach this weekend.

The Gateses have this obsession with old ships, particularly ships that were sunk or were shot up during World War II, like the Arizona, which went to the bottom in the attack on Pearl Harbor. Or the aircraft carrier Bunker Hill, which was torn up pretty badly in World War II but didn't sink.

And the Titanic, the most storied of them all, the subject of books, movies, television shows and numerous World Wide Web sites. Artifacts from the actual ship are being displayed in a special exhibit on the Queen Mary.

Over the years, the Titanic has become synonymous with disasters and bad luck. As if on cue, two high-profile entertainment ventures, a movie and a Broadway show have encountered technical difficulties in recent months re-creating the disaster.

But Gates' piece of the Titanic legend, a 22-foot long by 8-foot tall (counting the smokestacks) fully operational boat, has so far managed to stay afloat, though it's rarely in the water these days.

It's part of the couple's so-called Friendship Fleet. The fleet once numbered seven boats, but is now down to four.

"It is what we call a hobby out of control," Pat Gates said. "It has introduced us to some wonderful people, a wonderful way of life. These funny little ships attract a lot of attention when they come into the harbor."

Cecil Gates grew up in Hawaii, and at age 18 lived through the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and watched as the Arizona sank.

Drafted into the Army when World War II started, he married Pat not too long after the war. The couple, who have been married 50 years, helped each other complete their educations, then settled into a home in Woodland Hills and began 30-year careers teaching in San Fernando Valley schools. Pat taught first- and second-graders at Woodlake School; Cecil was the head of the industrial arts department at Cleveland High School in Northridge.

The boat-building bug hit Cecil as a child living in Hawaii. He was building outrigger canoes with his brother while still in elementary school. The bug caught on in a big way again in the 1970s, when, as part of the nation's 1976 bicentennial celebration, he built an 18-foot replica of a battleship that he named the Bicentennial.

The couple took the ship across America, carrying with them pen pal letters from Los Angeles students that were distributed along the Atlantic Coast. Sailing into New York Harbor with the historic tall ships was the thrill of a lifetime, the Gateses say. The couple took the Arizona down the Mississippi in 1991 to mark the 50th anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

In launching their fiberglass and plywood model of the Titanic about 10 years ago, the Gateses took no chances.

"We had a secret launch with friends at 4:30 in the morning just to make sure we wouldn't be embarrassed if it sank," said Pat Gates.

One of their friends couldn't resist showing up with a plastic iceberg.

"Cecil was on the PA system yelling, 'Port! Port! Port!' like he was trying to avoid it," his wife said.

But Cecil Gates succumbed to the moment, turning into the fake iceberg. "I couldn't help it," he said. "I rammed it just for old times' sake."

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