Early on in the process of cleaning out my Dad’s house, it became abundantly clear to me that I’d underestimated the magnitude of his train collection. In the early stages of the excavation, I plumbed its true depth. Managing to avoid using the one working bathroom in the house as it was so unbearably “neglected,” I eventually caved. To distract myself from the microbial horror, I slid open a vanity drawer, expecting a collection of wet wipes, Q-Tips and razors. Nope. There, in perfect order, lay 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), along with small screws and tools. Dad “rode the rails” on the john; this discovery provided an explanation for the sign tacked to the bathroom wall: “Kindly flush toilet after each use – except – when train is standing station.” Early passenger trains had what they called “hopper toilets” that dumped their loads right out onto the ground below, lending import to your mother’s plea that you “stay away from railroad tracks.” I suppose in those days, one had to mind the crap and 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 (model) 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 is time-consuming and challenging; it is also a wonderful journey of discovery.