A 44-year journey ended on Lake Norman last week for Manfred "Fred" Kirchner.
Before 150 friends and family, his wife, Judy, poured champagne onto the bow of the radio-controlled scale model of the USS Forrestal aircraft supercarrier that Kirchner began building in 1967.
"May she always have fair winds and following sails," Judy Kirchner said before her husband carried the 36-pound wood ship with the Plexiglas bottom to the water off Jetton Park and maneuvered it for a cruise.
Kirchner, an immigrant from Germany, celebrated his 72nd birthday Monday, the same morning he finally launched his craft.
As a boy in Germany, Kirchner liked building model ships and airplanes from kits. Trained as a tool-and-die maker, the Berlin native built machines in Germany before he befriended a U.S. Army chaplain, who persuaded him to immigrate to the U.S. in 1962.
He was inspired to build the 5-foot-long model of the Forrestal half a century ago , while installing flame-cutting machinery at the Newport News shipyards in Virginia. That's where real aircraft carriers and atomic submarines were being built for the U.S. Navy. He marveled at the immensity and complexity of the American shipyards and resolved to build an aircraft carrier model someday.
He just didn't figure it would take him so long.
"I'm a real procrastinator, or really, really slow," he joked to the crowd.
His 15 job relocations over the years consumed all his time. He worked as a processing manager for a Teflon manufacturer and as an engineer with the former Hoechst Celanese Corp. at locations from Long Island to California.
He said he'll always remember the friendship shown to him by the U.S. soldiers he met as a boy in Germany. Now retired at Lake Norman, he and his wife volunteer at the USO center at Charlotte/Douglas International Airport. The center offers a respite for traveling members of the military.
One of the couple's four grandchildren, daughter Joanne's son Steven, is enrolled at The Citadel military college in Charleston.
Kirchner lugged the wood hull of his model supercarrier in its initial stages to each home the family moved to around the country. Monika Flaherty, the couple's other daughter, recalled how the boat rested untouched with its red bottom up in their garage when she was 7.
When he turned 70, Kirchner put finishing the model on his "bucket list." Since then, he said, he spent "every waking moment" on the model, which he named the USS Forrestal II.
He built it from scratch, using building plans for a 1/200-scale model he obtained in Germany.
"I will finish this," he told himself.
Kirchner often improvised on parts, using tiny sections of window screening for its rotating radar dishes and a nose hair trimmer as one of the radar unit structures, for instance. He did all the intricate work by hand, despite having Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease, a nerve disorder that led to loss of touch sensation in his fingers.
On hand to congratulate him last week were Bill Crawford of Huntersville and Al Brewster of St. Leonard, Md., who were serving on the real USS Forrestal in Vietnam on July 29, 1967, when one of its rockets accidentally discharged on the flight deck and killed 134 of the crew.
They applauded with everyone else in the crowd as Kirchner lifted the boat after a brief ceremony and placed it in the water as a recording played the U.S. Navy song "Anchors Aweigh."