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Going off the rails on a crazy train
John Shepard ( - Wed Oct 6, 2010 21:47:12 GMT - 1123
''Why do I need any more time-consuming, expensive hobbies when I can't handle the ones I have now? ''
This Rastport was written before the events of September 4-8, 2010.

I really ought to know better. I don't have the time or the money for the expensive, time-consuming hobbies I already have.

So why have I started reading Model Railroader?

I last had a train set in the very early 80s. I don't know what year but I'll get to that mystery in a moment. One year for Christmas a vast conspiracy brought a 4'x8' table into my bedroom with an HO double loop and tunnel. It lasted less than a year before someone - not me - climbed up on my bunk bed and fell off onto the layout, crushing the bridge and trestles, tearing out track, breaking the scenery loose from the plywood in one huge piece. There was a promise to rebuild it; it never materialized.

It was actually my dad who built the layout - and in typical Dad fashion, it involved a lot of technology and materials he'd never used before, but he learned it on short notice to accomplish the project. Also in typical Dad fashion, once it was in his court to follow up on it, he started drinking again and disappeared for years.

I do remember the trains were primarily Tyco. One can fill a basement with precision detailed model railroad hardware, and run those miniature trains on simulated timetables and have pretensions of it being some sort of serious thing, like birdwatching or stamp collecting - but one certainly has no pretensions of seriousness when it involves Tyco. They were notoriously unrealistic in the day - kind of oddly proportioned, nonexistent road names, colors ranged from day-glo to Nite-Glo. They were sorta cheap. But that's the point. That's how you had to do it if your parents weren't made of money - but you know, I never felt even the slightest bit cheated when some of these turned up under a Christmas tree.

I remember I had a Tyco catalog and I used to just latch onto that thing and study every picture in it and imagine.

I figure, hey, since in the post-Package era the dominant theme is reclaiming the past for my own, since I'm digging into the vaults of my own life for hobbies, and since the fish thing is working out reasonably well, maybe trains are next.

I did lose interest in trains after the destruction of that layout, very gradually. I think it was a coping mechanism. But on some level it never quite went away. Every once in awhile in my life I'd happen across a cool layout and just be mesmerized. By the time I got my own apartment I was thinking the day might come when I could build an N-scale coffee table.

Then came the move to Portland.

We could never have had model trains in that apartment. Not while the Weasel lived there. Model trains, it turns out, are top of the list of things that inexplicably piss him off. Or not inexplicably - it's just that he has never come to terms with something in his past that happened near a model train layout, and now model trains are a trigger. Once something is associated in his mind with something that made him angry once, you see, it will always make him angry. Movies. Songs. Streets. Seasons. People. You have an argument with him on a particular street, he will always get mad near that street. (He'll also always get mad near you.) I'm not saying what happened shouldn't have made him angry - I'm saying most people have some capacity to deal with their anger.

Model trains are, I suppose, just about the only thing one could have done efficiently with that apartment's strange layout... but I could not have had them, not and endured his mood problems simply from their presence in the place.

So that's a reason to contemplate model trains now: they may not be entirely practical in this smaller apartment, but they also won't serve as a danger magnet.

Anyway. So I have been kind of casually stopping in at hobby shops in the area, just to kind of sample that world again. "Hobby" these days is shorthand for "remote control cars" - model trains are a dying breed and with them, stores that sell them - so I find there are breathtakingly few hobby stores that actually carry anything interesting. But I did stumble into one in Southeast that is just trains. No epic layouts to demo. But if I need a weird part, they'll probably have it. They keep tight hours, so they're not easy for me to get to with my work schedule.

In a little nook in the back of the store, they have a used-stuff bin. A lot of it, unsurprisingly, is late-70s early-80s Tyco.

A gaudy red-yellow-white caboose with the words "Rock Island" caught my eye. I never had that exact caboose but I remember it from that catalog - and I haven't thought about that catalog in years, not until I saw that caboose. I didn't buy it - and between the store's location and my schedule, I will probably not be back there for a long time - it was only two dollars, but it just didn't occur to me that I might really want the damn thing. It's a caboose and a Tyco one at that. I remember wanting it as a kid, but that was a long time ago.

But what happened was, after seeing that and bringing up long-dormant brain circuitry, by the time I got home I remembered that catalog, almost every page of it.

Well, it's 2010 and if you remember a catalog, someone has scanned it and put it online. I looked for it. Heck, I figured looking for it might help me pin down the years of my train obsession.

Worth knowing that I am capable of operating multiple obsessions at the same time, in shifts. Otherwise I would not have had time for trains, fish, dinosaurs, Transformers, Star Wars, and GI Joe in the first half of the 80s. I don't recall how they overlapped chronologically - I do know I never found a need to combine interests, I'd have had no use for Star Wars Transformers for example, but at the same time I had to merge my Star Wars and GI Joe collections to have enough action figures to be interesting, turning them all into new characters and creating something unique from the mashup.

I can pin down my Star Wars interests to the period following the release of Empire Strikes Back. And obviously Transformers can be dated to no earlier than 1984, the year of their release in America. Fish, probably 1983-ish. Cute girl in fourth grade, 1984. Computers, 1984-85. From then on, things were securely pinnable to specific years.

I wondered if the old Tyco catalogs differed enough from year to year - in the way old Radio Shack catalogs did not - that I might, through the haze of years, find that exact catalog online somewhere. And if so, which year was it.

It turns out to be the 1978 catalog. The giveaway is the "Tru-Steel" page with the tracks running between the letters; this is not found in other years, and I remember studying the picture to see if I could figure out where the tracks went after they disappeared behind the letters (and being disappointed that some of them went nowhere).

Catalog from 1978, possible evidence that I was interested in trains in 1978.

I was born in 1975.

Now the math adds up.

In the first grade (1981), in our art class we had a substitute teacher one day who was going to teach us how to draw a train. Oh goodie, right up my avenue of interest. Except that - and I'm five at this point in the tale, and I still caught this vibe from her - she thought she was teaching a roomful of three-year-olds. She draws on the blackboard a set of train tracks like you're looking down on them, then a primitive steam train out of geometric shapes like you're looking at it from the side - with its wheels on the rail of the top-down train tracks, looking as if it is balanced on one rail. I commented out loud that this wasn't right, that she was drawing it wrong - and I don't know what all I said to her but she walked out of the classroom and left the school in tears. Seriously.

Nice to know my asshole streak started early. And it's a great story to tell at Saturday Market, about the time I sent an art teacher home in tears because I told her she was doing it wrong.

Realistically though - who was this substitute teacher, that the criticism of a first grader can undo her? Somebody's wife, owed a favor or something? I guess in some districts, substitute teachers don't have to have any qualifications or experience. I mean I wasn't rowdy or destructive, the classroom wasn't rioting, all I did was tell her she drew that picture completely wrong. I assumed at the time she drew it stupid-looking on purpose because she thought we were stupid and figured that was about our level; I was insulted and I must have returned the favor pretty good. But still. I've seen teachers brush off abuse like water. I've seen teachers get angry when students speak up. I've been sent to the principal's office for mouthing off to a teacher. But that's the only time I've ever seen a teacher break down in tears. I think it may have been the first time I'd ever seen a grownup actually cry like a five-year-old. And I'll always wonder: what was she expecting? That five-year-olds are pets, with no personalities or opinions of their own, docile creatures who will accept anything a grownup does in lieu of education because obviously they are too small to have brains?

I'm proud of what I did that day. No really. Some people need to be handed a massive dose of their own failure early on, before they get it in their head that they want to make a career out of this thing they never even realized they are completely unsuited for.

I was interested in, playing with, and reading about trains even before I got in Kindergarten. I remember being in preschool (so this would have been 1979 or 1980) and there's some sort of musical number we're rehearsing for our "graduation" and one of the props is this HO-scale steam locomotive (which of course they realized early should be my prop) and I'm wondering why they've been holding out on me, they actually had a piece of HO rolling stock and never said anything. So obviously that interest began very early. How early?

We are seriously down the vaults here - approaching the Singularity, approaching my very earliest memories. And while it's possible that a 1978 catalog did not come to me in 1978, we are still talking about 1970s memories here. Trains may well have been my original hobby - and I haven't got a clue what must have sparked it, did I get a train set first, an oval on carpet? Did I see a train set somewhere (possibly the famous layout at the Indianapolis Children's Museum) and think it was the coolest damn thing in the world? To a three-year-old any train would certainly have been - in any scale, whether tiny and smelling of ozone (as for some reason Tyco steel track and power supplies always did) or enormous and rumbling.

I was born a geek. My earliest recollections are of telling my grandfather that I am three years old - and of reading a newspaper. There was a sale and I knew because two whole pages of the Indianapolis Star were taken up by the enormous word "SALE" which I could read. I learned to read from Sesame Street... and Tyco catalogs and Model Railroader.

Well, let's strike a happy medium and say 1979.

Seeing that Rock Island caboose in its scary colors - not paint either, I think it was molded in those weird colors - hit something in my brain. I could still feel it. I could still feel the wonder of that catalog - it was, for a moment, 1979 again and the world is 1/87th scale and plastic. That's one of the oddest sensations I've ever felt in my life, of experiencing memories that are thirty-plus years old and fresh. I do need to get used to it - lots of memories are going to start being thirty-plus years old. But you know, I don't have a lot of memories of the Seventies, so to have one such memory resurface, in such vividness, is something amazing.

The really eerie part is realizing that some of who I was in 1979 is still in here. I'm certainly not proud of a lot of the dumb things I did as a kid, but the me that absorbed that catalog and had all those crazy ideas of what kind of layout I wanted - the me that probably could have designed and built such a layout, at least the landscaping and track placement, not the wiring - was a complete entity in 1979... a kid I would not be ashamed to be again.

Who was I in 1979? I remember so little from those times except the trains, and when prompted, the trains flood back in astonishing resolution. The me that formed those memories in 1979 is still here in enough detail to replay them. I was four years old, and given that I have no memories before the age of 3, I assume that at four, I only had a year of memory, because I was not forming them before that. Which means that this part of me, the part that deals in trains, the part that deals more generally in making my own worlds on the realization that I can, the part that deals in chasing those worlds whether they are in my past or my future, is the earliest part of me that formed - that the artist in me existed all along, that maybe the artist came first and the rest of me was formed, hastily, around it.

But you know what else I think? I think when you're young there's a sense of wonder and magic, and when you're old there's a sense of nostalgia, and it's the same thing which our conscious minds try to figure out what to do with. I was, in 1979, nostalgic for the future that I thought I might get from that catalog someday.

It's the job of an artist, I now realize, to always chase those odd feelings at the edges of our consciousness - memories of things that never were, colors and scents from rainy days on another world, photographs we remember but have never seen.

I didn't have that Rock Island caboose but it was in that catalog and I remember it and its wild colors. I wanted it. I wanted the entire catalog. But I remember wanting that caboose. I haven't thought about the red-and-yellow Rock Island caboose in thirty years.

I could have had it two days ago for two dollars.

And done what with it?

It's obvious that if I am going to do model trains again, it must be two things: small and cheap.

Small rules out HO gauge, and therefore even if I got back down there and spent two bucks, that caboose would be an orphan, useless on anything I might build.

That leaves N, Z, and T scales.

Z is stupid expensive. You can build a circle of track that fits on a record player but a powered locomotive - just an ordinary diesel locomotive - will set you back $175 for something the size of a thick crayon.

The size below that, T scale, is barely even available in the United States. It is so tiny you have to use tweezers to get the trains on the rails, there are no production switches made for the scale yet, and it is currently only made by one company in Japan who only makes model Japanese commuter trains... and I don't want to know what it costs.

That's OK. N isn't a bad scale. It's common enough that I can get parts and accessories, doesn't cost much more than HO, it's big enough to get you some detail, small enough to fit in tight spaces.

Tight enough to fit in the apartment alongside all our other hobbies? That is not yet clear.

I am under orders to build no train things at the current time.

My idea to build a layout that swings up into the wall for storage was shot down.

So was my idea to build a shelf system around the bedroom and run the trains along the walls.

Much of this, it's to be admitted, would be a hell of a lot easier in a tiny scale. If I could fit a working layout in a briefcase, I'd do so, and just break out the briefcase when I need my train fix.

There is a bigger picture to consider as well. If I'm not drawing because leaning over a table to draw is causing Meteorites, leaning over a work surface to do trackwork or to paint a boxcar is going to be just as bad. Model train layouts are never finished - if I started one, it would become my life's work. And once we get a bunny again, well, that'll curtail the model railroading quite a bit - bunny quality time, bunny maintenance, and best of all, bunny hairs becoming foreign objects on the tracks.

And the thought has crossed my mind that, like the fish, the trains thing might be yet another attempt to plug the still-aching wound left by Francesca.

But so what. I've always swam in deep hobbies.

Besides. Trains are cool.

And when I was a kid I had to spend more time reading about trains than playing with them, just owing to the amount of time my trains were out of commission. Maybe I had to wait 30 years to be able to play with the doggone things.

There is a temptation, once I get something going, to select a caboose of 1970s Tyco style in N scale and paint it in the Rock Island colors.

Maybe that can be my theme - N-scale trains painted in homage to 1970s HO-scale Tyco. Prototypical accuracy? Who cares.

The train sets I had from that catalog, if one is curious, I think were the Santa Fe Action Set and the Silver Streak. I got one of the sets one year for Christmas by itself, an oval of track on the floor, and the second one materialized along with the big layout - what I don't remember is the crane loader from the Silver Streak, I think the plan was to integrate it into the layout at some point and it just never happened. I am recollecting largely by picturing the train cars in my hand, I can remember very clearly the Ralston-Purina boxcar, the green hopper, the gondola car with the miniature culverts that stacked together, the green Burlington Northern boxcar, the silver Texaco tanker. And I think I remember the chrome Silver Streak engine and caboose. Or am I misremembering? Some of these same cars were also used in the 1978-1980 Rock Island set. Did I have a flatcar - or was it the Rock Island car carrier with the frame broken off?

Is my mind telling me something about that Rock Island caboose, that somewhere in Indiana is its exact twin?

Do I remember a crossing gate with the little arms that flip down when the weight of the train rolls across the intersection?

Do I remember the tiny, wheels-glued-on automobiles that rode in the car carrier before the frame broke?

Do I remember the gray-and-red of the Santa Fe Alco 630, or the red-and-yellow-and-white of the Rock Island Alco Century 430? One piece of evidence against it being the Rock Island is, the Alco Century 430 is the same engine as Silver Streak and I would have noticed them being identical except for paint.

(How the heck would I duplicate the Silver Streak's chrome paint job in N?)

(I don't think anyone even makes an Alco 430 in N.)

...Or was it the Comin' Round the Mountain, with the SD-24, green hopper, car carrier, and flip-down gate... from the 1979 year? Pretty sure Silver Streak was the second train I had, maybe the catalog came with it, or maybe was picked up at a store or something and didn't come with either set.

My old trains - the trains themselves, no trace is believed to remain of the layout - are preserved in a box in my grandparents' closet, in rather impressive condition for 1970s plastic. I saw them in 2000 before we moved; it came up in conversation and they said "you know, we still have your trains." Even the little gandy dancer still exists. And not an inch of rail to run it on.

If I ever get back that way, I might get to find out which sets they were. I know I only had two sets - two engines, two cabooses, and the various freight cars between them - and I'm pretty sure one set was the Silver Streak.

All of it is, as I mentioned, HO, so whatever rail I build now, those won't find a home on it.

I solved the mystery of why there are no Alco Century 430s in N: turns out there were only sixteen of the real Alco C430 built in real life. Tyco never cared, if it was a cool-looking engine they would invent railroad names for it. Modern manufacturers and N manufacturers are a little more prototypically-minded: if there were only sixteen of this locomotive ever made, it's unlikely you are going to need one and therefore there won't be much of a market for them. The Alco Super 630 is much less rare, does exist in N, and a few enterprising hobbyists have modified them into C430s.

I think I actually like the 630 high-nose better anyway. Only reason I wanted a 430 is so I could chrome it and make a Silver Streak out of it.

Seymour, Indiana is a railroad town; the town itself was founded where two major midwest lines cross. I may have gotten my start from that - from, anywhere you're going in town, any time of day, you will be stopped at a railroad crossing. They since took out one line and elevated the other, reducing the time you spend staring at trains - probably also to do with, you know, fewer trains in the first place.

Model trains are kind of dying off. I mean, you can put kids in front of an epic layout and they will stare as if it's the face of God - but it's a rare kid who remembers that awe five minutes after they walk away. I sometimes think the problem isn't the kids, the problem is parents, who are terrified their kids might develop an imagination and have got them trained to forget about awesome things four minutes after they see it.

But then, full-scale trains lost a lot of their magic when they stopped using cabooses.

Portland, meanwhile, could have a thriving industry of young model rail enthusiasts if someone would do a production run of Tri-Met MAX trains. I have actually seen a homebuilt MAX in HO scale, but my thought is, somebody ought to make cast-resin shells you can attach to, say, a Bachmann engine. I think there's a market for that and someday I might try to fill it.

(Tri-Met might balk, of course, because they don't want it to become too obvious that any eight-year-old with a train set can do a better job than they do.)

Tyco is of course long gone now - and for generations they were the mass market model train lords - and maybe that was the problem, if you went to K-Mart and bought a train, it was Tyco, and the weirder their line got, the funnier the faces kids would make when they saw it. By the 1980s it was just ridiculous - in 1982 they had an A-Team train, in 1984 they had GIJoe and Transformers trains, in 1986 they had "turbo" trains that ran on slot car track and could go up walls, and these are as bizarre as they sound. So nowadays, if you look real hard you might find some Thomas the Tank Engine stuff with plastic rails, but the days of going down to Wal-Mart or Sears and coming home with an HO train set are over.

I think model railroading could make a comeback. I mean, I didn't expect actual musical instruments to suddenly become popular again - it was Rock Band and the like that got kids interested in seeing what the real things were like. Maybe it's just a matter of kids deciding there's nothing tangible in a video game - and like me, they'll ache for real physical objects. I figure just like Thomas the Tank Engine caused a minor resurgence of interest in model trains a decade ago, all it'll take is some sort of mass media thing, a movie or something, to make it popular. Like if Justin Beiber ever got caught admitting he has N scale trains (I'm sure he doesn't) you'd see N scale sets at the corner gas station. (Rod Stewart has a monstrous HO layout but nobody ever interviews him anymore.)

It'll have to wait for the economy to improve. People are still willing to buy toys if they don't suck, but no toy company is willing to gamble on what they think isn't a sure thing, nor is any store going to give toy aisle space over to a gamble. And what an executive thinks is a "sure thing", well, that's the root cause of the recession, ain't it?

It's just like I keep saying: if your economy is based on getting people to buy plastic shit, oughtn't you have plastic shit people might actually want? This year's clothes are ugly, this year's toys are boring, video games are expensive to produce, nobody can afford houses, and we wonder why people aren't spending money. Obviously it's the Democrats' fault.

Model railroading is in part a cottage industry - you do have the mass market stuff, but if you're serious, and you will be, you will make some stuff yourself or buy custom, small-run stuff from people who made a small business out of it. My concern is simply its utter lack of visibility at the moment, that you can never get as excited about a boxed train as you can about seeing a live layout in action, and unless there's a once-a-year model railroad expo in your town, you never see that anymore. Malls, particularly, have spent the last decade killing hobby stores or much of anything besides bad clothing stores, sleazy pet stores, and cell phone vendors.

Also residing at my grandparents' house in Seymour is a box containing my uncle's old trains - 1950s Lionel, stamped-tin, three-rail O gauge. They were brought down from the attic to show me their existence - and to hook them up one time and try them - and I have no idea what condition they're in now, but let's just say, if they're the way they looked when I last saw them, they're worth a lot of money. And I would not dare sell them. I do think they should be displayed somehow.

Another thing I wanted and never had: steam engines. I could do that now, except for two small problems: one, they are more expensive, and two, many of them have restrictions on the tightness of the curves they can go around, which creates problems if I'm trying to squeeze a layout into this apartment.

On the subject of prices: you will find online vendors offering high quality model locomotives in the tiny scales for, not kidding, a thousand dollars for a three-inch-long model - and they sell out fast. A brass steam locomotive with handmade detailing in N or Z scale might be $1495.

If I go Z, if I can get away with spending $100 on a locomotive I think I'll be doing damn good.

HO and N, you can get cheapo complete sets - locomotive, some cars, track, power supply - for about $70.

There may be a way to cheat and have a train layout without eating up much floor space: it's called, don't have a turnaround. I've seen people build "linear" layouts into windowsills, shelves, desks, etc. All you can do is run the trains from one end of the table to the other, then I suppose you'd have a couple of switches at each end, and you'd disconnect the locomotive, have another one in the wings that is pointed the other way, and bring that one up and attach it to the other end of the train for the return trip.

Who cares, as long as it's awesome.

That's going to be my rule of trains: the only way to do it wrong is not to have fun.

Model trains, barring I suppose the danger of electrocution and of course the wallet damage, or minor technical things like too-sharp curves or thick flanges on code 55 rails, are probably one of a very few things in life that are this way. Fish, for example, can be done wrong - too many fish in too small a tank, wrong species together, etc. and it is harder to do them right - and what's right for them takes precedence over what's right for you. I'm fine with that, now that I seem to have gotten the hang of it - but you know, no train is going to complain about the quality of my layout. I'm not going to do timetables or realistically represent interstate commerce with loading and unloading freight. I just want trains that move through a little world. It can be gaudy and wrong, to the point where I am actually serious about taking at least one piece of N rolling stock and modifying it to look like Tyco HO from the day - and why? Because I want to. My rails, my rules.

If indeed I ever have rails.

Hmmm. When the Cube of Denial Mk. 4 is constructed later this year, there will be shelves along the wall. I might reserve one shelf for a pair of N tracks and some scenery.

I am astonished to discover that T scale - the tiniest production scale - is actually a lot cheaper than Z scale. The problems do remain: it's insanely tiny, there are no switches yet, and the only trains available in that size are Japanese commuter trains. But there's something to be said for being able to build a complete circle ten inches wide.

One more train memory before I drive you up the wall with all this stuff.

There was (or may still be) a chain of pizza restaurants in Indiana called Pizza King, where your drinks were delivered by a train. There was actually a G-scale or O-scale model railroad in the walls, with a little hatch that electronically locked; a train would pull up to your table, with your drinks on a flatcar, the hatch would unlock and you'd reach in and get your stuff.

Is that not the most awesome thing you've heard all day?

Epilogue September 12, 2010

So we went back to Indiana for a few days. Was at my grandparents' house and did not mention the trains, did not say "hey, can I see them for a minute? I'm trying to remember which ones I had in 1979 so I can write a mile-long Rastport about them."

I had hoped to get my train fix from the Children's Museum but that sort of fizzled.

And a project at work has been getting me down.

So I went and bought something to cheer myself up.

Yes, that's the one. They still had it and it was still two bucks. Kinda looks more like a McDonalds than a caboose, doesn't it? I don't actually intend to do anything with it, except maybe build a display for it - an homage, not to a caboose I owned as a kid, but to one I wanted as a kid, a proxy for the trains I did have... and possibly a model for an N-scale version I intend to build at some point.

(They have a mountain of used Tyco gear... as do most train shops. Saw a Silver Streak caboose at another train shop but passed it up, not wanting to accumulate a heap of unrunnable HO gear myself.)

As for the N-scale layout I am going to build, well, here's my first piece.

Arnold Rapido 0228B 4-6-2 "Pacific" in Baltimore & Ohio colors. I found this guy for $20. Looks like it was made in about 1970 and it's seen better days - most of the linkages are missing, but at least it's symmetrically missing the same things on both sides. But they put it on the test track and ran it - it does actually work - and I just kind of fell for it. I haven't got so much as an inch of N-scale track to run it on... but it'll make a great track tester when I do.

I've taken the aquarium about as far as I can take it - I haven't lost interest, but it is full, the days of coming home with new stuff to add to it are basically over. And so begin the days of coming home with new stuff to add to a model railroad. Probably at some point to include the railroad.

I've already modified the wheels on this locomotive so it's compatible with Code 55 track. Worth noting this is, to date, the most hardcore thing I've done yet as a model railroader - a lot of hobbyists would shelve a 1970s Arnold rather than go the trouble. I happen to like this unit, way I see it the dings and dents and busted linkages add character, and moreover, establish the slightly non-authentic nature of my railroad before it even gets built.

Next step: start getting the desk built.

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