A model life? Petaluma's Mike Fulmer wouldn't say he's lived exactly that.
The Vietnam years certainly were less than ideal for the former Marine.
"I was pretty angry after the war," confided Fulmer, 66, while taking a smoke on a patio at his home, a comfortable retiree apartment complex off McDowell Boulevard. "I had a lot of beautiful memories, but also convoluted, complex nightmares. I still do."
The ire and disquiet he carried after his honorable discharge from the Marines in 1968 prompted a personal rebellion. He rode with the Hells Angels for about a year. Becoming a renegade biker and spending time in jail wasn't his proudest achievement in life, but maybe it helped him discover he wanted to get back to a lifelong love of working with his hands.
He put in 10 hard years traveling from Alaska to the Red Sea as a master welder with Aramco, Saudi Arabia's state oil and gas producer. He then took a shot at making a career of the creative avocation that's fascinated and challenged him since he was a kid in Omaha.
Fulmer was made to build models. He believes he inherited from his late mother, Alice, a painter, the artistic ability and patience it takes to build from scratch -- no kits, no mail-order plans, no easy-on decals -- gloriously detailed scale models of airplanes, cars, spaceships, trains, you name it.
He opened a shop in Visalia and began creating custom-built models for museums, businesses and collectors. His success as a professional modeler led to him being hired by San Francisco-based Bechtel Corp. "I built models of nuclear reactors," he said.
In 1979, his welding skills won him a job at filmmaker George Lucas' Industrial Light and Magic special-effects company in Marin County. The first "Star Wars" blockbuster had come out two years earlier and work was under way on "The Empire Strikes Back."
Fulmer was hired to set up a welding shop, but he couldn't hold his tongue when he heard special-effects director Richard Edlund complain about wrestling with a four-foot, 65-pound model of Han Solo's spaceship, the Millennium Falcon.
Fulmer told Edlund he could build a 24-inch Falcon in 30 days, and he did. Not long afterward, Fulmer became ILM's head model builder.
He went on to create magnificent machines in miniature for dozens more movies. The flying bicycle in "E.T." was his. "I made three of them, actually," he said.
He received an Academy Award nomination for his special effects in "Always," the 1989 aerial firefighter movie with Richard Dreyfuss and Holly Hunter. He handmade air tankers with 14-foot wingspans.
A brother, Joe Fulmer, went to work for Lucas, too. The two of them were together the night in 1999 that Joe Fulmer won an Oscar for Technical Achievement in the development of motion-controlled, silent camera dollies. Through the course of Mike Fulmer's work with Harrison Ford in the "Star Wars" and "Indiana Jones" films, he came to admire the actor more than any other. It made for a memorable day when Lucas asked him on the set of an "Indiana Jones" film if he'd perform a stunt for Ford. Fulmer tumbled off the hood of a car that then ran over him.