Early on in the process of cleaning out my Dad’s house, It became abundantly clear that I’d underestimated the magnitude of his train collection. During one visit, I plumbed its true depth. I sat down on the toilet in the home’s one full bath, which was so unbearably filthy that I’d tried to avoid using it but nature won out (also winning out was the fact that no other toilet in the house worked). To keep my mind off the microbial mass, I slid open a vanity drawer, figuring I’d find wet wipes, Q-Tips or razors. I did not expect four Pennsylvania Railroad passenger cars. The bottom drawer held a partially assembled locomotive, along with a stockpile of couplers (the things that hook train cars together), small screws and tools. Dad had been riding the rails on the john. This explained the sign leaning against the sink back-splash: “Kindly flush toilet after each use – except – when train is standing station.” Early passenger trains had what they called “Hopper Toilets” which simply “dumped” their loads right out onto the ground below. This knowledge may fortify the significance of your mother’s warning to “stay away from the tracks.” Perhaps one had to “Mind the Crap” along with the Gap?
Dad had little workshops all over the house. His railroad claimed its right of way across it’s entirety; through another two half-baths, the kitchen, garage, attic, dining room, living room, den, basement, and all four bedrooms. In every drawer in every room, trains covered tables, desks, shelves, chairs, and sofas–even the arms of sofas. There were trains on the floor; trains in paper grocery bags in the halls, trains piled above and below the dining room table and inside the china cabinet. Train magazines and books stacked on shelves and in boxes and in heaps on the floor. The only place we did not find trains was inside the fridge.
Aside from organizing the railroad, we had to wade through garbage and personal papers including cancelled checks and paid bills going back to the 1950’s. We unearthed useless knickknacks, 20-year-old leaking cans of tomato paste, musty stuffed toys, hundreds of hand tools and books, suitcases and boxes filled with bedding, curtains and tablecloths, broken furniture, baby and toddler clothing worn by all five kids, half-empty cans of paint, varnish, and turpentine. We battled spiders, earwigs, ants, silverfish and mouse droppings, armed with masks, gloves and sacrificial clothing.
I use the term “trains” broadly. A model railroad collection includes more than just locomotives, tenders, track, passenger and freight cars. There are boxed kits to build locomotives, cars and buildings for a layout. There are parts—you cannot imagine the variety; brass “details” for locomotives, couplers, decals (so you can slap the name of a railroad onto your train), trucks (wheel assemblies that all cars sit upon that literally “ride the rails”), engine motors, switch machines (to move your track to the left or right so that the train can go where you desire), car parts, such as doors and ladders…I could go on. Now imagine that these “parts” are not well-organized, and are all over the house. I vacillated between tossing it all into a dumpster and jumping in front of a train. But like most things in life that are initially overwhelming, you find your way. And maybe you find the humor in it. The process of sorting through nearly sixty years of my father’s belongings was time-consuming and challenging; it was also a wonderful journey of discovery.