Author: maryrr

Model Trains: Doing vs. Being

My Mom and Dad were as different as bees and cats; one focused on doing and the other on being.  Through my immersion in Model Railroading, a hobby that takes up many fruitless hours and requires tremendous patience, I have realized that my parents’ disparate traits are parts of me to be reconciled.

My mother embodied perpetual motion, doing household chores, running up and down stairs, yelling at one or more of us to pick up this or clean up that.  Raising five children was no easy task; after all she carried a diaper bag for 12 straight years! Her whirling would end after dinner when she collapsed on the couch, falling asleep almost instantly.

She was a hyper-devout Catholic who demanded strict obedience to religious doctrine. Aside from our required attendance at Sunday Mass and attending Catholic school, all three of my brothers served as altar boys. The ubiquitous painting of Jesus whose eyes followed you no matter where you stood hung prominently in our living room while a large print of The Last Supper watched over the dining room table.  We even had a Holy Water font at the front door and…prayer books on a small table in the first floor bathroom.  I know there are many who have prayed to the porcelain god but I doubt that a single one of them thought, “If only I had a prayer book.” Perhaps my mother sought to narrow down the categories in the bathroom library. I suspect she was driven either by unyielding religious guilt or by shame, perhaps from unspeakable childhood trauma.

Dad's Favorite Sweatshirt Dad’s Favorite Sweatshirt

My Dad was an object at rest whose favorite sweater provided this simple introduction:  “Tis’ Himself.”  When he arrived home from work, he sat down at the kitchen table to read the paper while sipping a cup of coffee.  In the summer, he would spend the early hours in his garden and then stop for a sandwich which he ate in the den (sometimes with a can of Rheingold) while watching the ballgame, shirtless.  Sometimes he’d pick up a train he’d been working on and hours would pass as he absorbed himself in its challenges, forgetting about the garden or whatever project he was working on at the time, and night would fall.  Immersed in his hobby, he tuned out the world. Understandably, this was extremely frustrating to my Mother.  But this is not to say he was careless. While it’s tempting to blame, we cannot see or judge our parents with any objectivity; we hardly understand ourselves.  Only they know what happened and why, and they’re gone.  And when they leave, we change.

I got on well with my Dad; we shared many interests, including a love of words, history, learning, and jerry-rigging.  We laughed at the same things.  Yet these days I find myself struggling more with my Mom’s legacy.  I too am an object in motion; my mind is busy and so is my day.  Somehow in childhood I translated her busy-ness into “I am only as valuable as what I do and accomplish.” I long to feel the simple bliss of just being; of valuing myself for who I am.  “Tis’ Herself”.

Missing Pieces

I like jigsaw puzzles; they’re purposeless yet satisfying and meditative. When starting a new puzzle, I find and connect all the edge pieces and corners to make the outer frame. Then I’ll either randomly patch the rest together while checking the picture on the box, or separate all the pieces into piles of like colors and patterns. I’m making order out of chaos using my senses rather than logic and analysis; it’s a respite for the mind. Once complete, I feel a sense of accomplishment tempered by a sense of loss at having to crumble it all up and put it back in the box.

Uncoupling someone else’s model railroad collection is a puzzle, indeed. There’s no picture on a box to match. Everything is piled, boxed, and clumped together randomly—at least this is the case with my Dad’s collection. So many mysteries to be solved, such as finding missing parts that may or may not exist, spending hours researching to identify the contents of mislabeled or unlabeled boxes, or simply recognizing that two things in opposite corners of the room actually belong together.

Me and My Dad
Me and My Dad (I’m 2)

I miss my Dad.  It will be almost a year since he’s gone, during which time I’ve driven a steam locomotive, attended model railroad “meets”, talked with modelers, and started a business along with this blog.  Now I understand so much more, yet it’s too late to talk with him about it.

Spending the past year collecting parts of my Dad I never knew, I am piecing him together with my memories. Moments spent with him in the nursing home where he spent his last year; watching him wake up in recovery after his first operation at the age of 91 (“Oh!” he said, “I’m still here!”); kneeling together on the driveway next to my 1971 Dodge Dart to yank out the right rear axle, falling over laughing as tiny metal balls pinged all over the ground from what remained of an inner wheel bearing; trailing behind as he dug furrows in the garden with his Rototiller, and following him while concentrating on placing my size 4-year-old feet in his footprints.

Who was this person I called Dad?  Who am I without him?  I suppose this is one puzzle I’ll never finish.  But he lives on in my memories, in my discoveries, and in the person I’ve become.  I like to think that he lives on in every customer who buys a part of his collection, which is why I always include a handwritten thank you note in every box.  After all, I’m sending each one a present; a part of my father.

Trains: My Touchstones

You can learn a lot about someone by cleaning out their house.  Anyone who has done this knows what I mean.  Of course you have to wade through all the humdrum stuff, like sheets and towels, paint and cleaning supplies, jars of stale spices, dishes, furniture and clothing.  But beneath this layer are windows into the souls of the people who lived there: matchbooks from restaurants visited long ago, tucked inside a vanity drawer; worn baby clothing saved for grandchildren who arrived too late; photos of relatives whose names no one knows; check stubs from jobs held before you were born; toys you played with as an infant.  To the casual observer these are things to discard; to the souls that held on to them, they are touchstones of memory.

To some, my father was disorganized, never finished anything he started, and couldn’t throw anything out.  Much of this is true.  For a good two years our family of seven lived without a clothes dryer because he didn’t get around to fixing it.  Instead he installed yards of clothing line in the basement.  Maybe we didn’t have the money for a new dryer?  Maybe he didn’t know how to fix it?  I’ll never know.  Yet in the early 1970s he bought a cement mixer, and built a steel-reinforced foundation on top of which he laid a concrete patio with redwood inserts that hasn’t cracked yet and likely never will.  He also rebuilt two car engines himself, using the garage beam as a hoist to lift the blocks out.  Granted, it took him two years to complete each engine.  Oh and did I mention one was a Ford Pinto?

Pennsylvania RR K-4 Pacific Locomotive Pennsylvania RR K-4 Pacific Locomotive

Lately, as I’ve combed through my Dad’s train collection for things to list on eBay, I find myself pushing aside certain items for “later”.  I’ve been ignoring this Pennsylvania Railroad K-4 Pacific Locomotive and Tender for a few months.  It’s sitting next to a stack of things “to be photographed” for listing.  There’s something about it that stops me; its flawless detailing and paint job, and how it runs so smoothly and quietly it’s as if it were just out of the box.  This is his work, I know it.

Boston & Maine Snow Plow Boston & Maine Snow Plow

A few weeks ago I found a Boston & Maine Snow Plow Car made from an Ambroid kit. Manufactured in the 1950’s these milled wood kits are today very much in demand.  Tissue paper and soft foam swaddles this car gingerly inside it’s box.  The paint job is immaculate and the details precise.  I knew he’d built it; it’s perfect. That’s just how he did things.  Turning it over, I was not surprised to find his initials scratched into the undercarriage.

My Dad’s trains are my talismans; they keep him alive in my memory and heart, softening my grief.  Working on his railroad reminds me that he and I, all of us really, can be both flawed and perfect.

Casey Jane at the Throttle

I drove a locomotive; a real, live, steam locomotive.  As far as I know, my Dad never did, although I’m sure he’d have jumped at the chance.   He modeled trains mostly in HO Scale, (scale defines a model’s size in comparison to a real train) which is 87 times smaller than the real thing; pretty tiny in comparison.  Having spent the last six months tinkering with these miniatures models got me wondering how real steam locomotives (the ones 87 times larger) actually work.  So I decided I’d either have to make myself smaller or find something bigger, the latter being the only feasible choice.

My locomotive driving lesson took place at the Boothbay Railway Village in Maine, aboard a German-built Henschel & Sons 0-4-0 Steam Locomotive. (Check it out here) Brian Fanslau, Chief Engineer of the Railway, was my instructor.  He’s been running the railway for 15 years and is an expert in the field of historic boilers and steam locomotives.  In terms of supply and demand, Brian is very popular.  Not only in charge of maintaining the railway, he runs the on-premises mechanical shop, and also repairs and builds locomotives for other historic railroads.  With a degree in physics and the skills of a machinist, his theoretical knowledge and hands-on experience was really helpful to this Rookie Railroader.  Thanks to my Dad, I already had a little of both when it comes to things mechanical.  When we were done with my two hour locomotive driving lesson, Brian confessed, “You took me off guard a bit because you knew way more than I expected.”  You cannot imagine how much I loved hearing this.

It’s very Willy-Wonka-esque inside the cab of a locomotive. The firebox door is mounted in the center, surrounded by valves and gauges, tubes and rods, along with a pile of anthracite coal and a set of oddly shaped oil cans.   Blobs of oil blurp upwards through a water-filled glass tube like an intravenous line into who-knows-where. The cab hissed, thumped and cranked as I stood there, sweating from the heat while taking in this mad science scene.  Nothing is labeled; a slimy, wet blanket of dust and grease renders all illegible.  So don’t even think about stealing a steam locomotive.  There are no on-board instructions to follow.  You can’t just hop in and drive it away.  If you could, where would you go with it? Take it for a joy ride around a loop of track and you’ll be found out.  That is, if you’re found.

The most important thing to know about operating a steam locomotive is this:  You can blow yourself up.  Spectacularly.  If maintained poorly or operated wantonly, a locomotive can quickly transform itself from a darling little puff-puff into an angry, hot, tank-load of TNT.  As recently as 1995, the firebox failed on a scenic railroad steam locomotive in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, owing to a low water level inside the boiler.

A steam locomotive is essentially a boiler on wheels.  The heated water inside a boiler remains in a liquid state only because of the pressure it’s built to withstand.  If a boiler ruptures suddenly, the water inside churns instantly and violently into steam, expanding to 1,600 times its volume.  The superheated steam creates a huge pressure wave that explodes the boiler.  I’m not only talking about the boiler on a locomotive; this can also happen to your basement oil furnace or hot water heater.  In such cases, you might hear the “KA”, but you won’t hear the “BOOM”.

Boiler Explosion at Clarks Hill 4, South Cariolina, 1948, Boiler Explosion at Clarks Hill 4, South Cariolina, 1948, C&WC Company Photo

Steam locomotives have redundant systems to prevent your sweet lil’ Thomas the Train from mutating into the Terror Train Express. Disasters can be avoided if the locomotive is properly maintained at all times, and if the engineer ensures that the water level remains high enough to maintain the boiler’s integrity.  If any part of the boiler weakens under pressure, as Brian said, “You’ll never know what happened.”

To avoid being nominated for a Darwin Award, you must keep your eye on the water glass, a vertical gauge that shows the level of water inside the boiler.  The guys operating Gettysburg Locomotive 1278 kept their eyes on it too, which unfortunately for them displayed a false reading throughout their excursion.  To learn about how ignorance and neglect led to this calamity, see the accident report here:  NTSB Report

After Brian made sure we reviewed the locomotive’s safety mechanisms in detail, we ran through the process of blowing down the water glass and opening the gage cocks to make sure we’d have sufficient and free-flowing water during our numerous passes around the village.  Here is a sampling of recommendations from his handout on safety from IDC Online :

  • Never allow sediment to accumulate in gage-glass or water-column connections. A false water level may fool you and make you sorry.
  • Always blow out each gage-glass and water-column connection at least once each day. Forming good habits may mean longer life for you.
  • Never tighten a nut, bolt, or pipe thread under steam or air pressure. Many have died doing this.
  • Never strike any object under steam or air pressure. This is a sure path to the undertaker’s.
  • Never allow major repairs to a boiler without authorization. If you don’t break a law, you may break your neck.  

Operating a steam locomotive requires quite a bit of muscle, so I was forced to deploy the Chris Evert “two-handed” tennis racquet approach to driving.  With only one hand on the brake, I’d have hurtled myself clean out the side door of the cab after releasing it.  Same with the Johnson Bar (nobody seems to know the origin of this name) which controls the timing of steam sent into the locomotive pistons.  Think of it as the locomotive’s transmission. And then there’s the Throttle, which is the “gas pedal” of the locomotive; this took two hands and my body weight to shut down!

The absolute best thing about driving a steam locomotive is the sound. Pushing the throttle forward allows steam into the cylinders, sending the piston inside hurtling forward, expelling a burst of vaporized water…PRUFFT! I love the slow, rhythmic  PRUFFT, PRUFFT, PRUFFT of the engine as it sluggishly climbs a grade; it’s as soothing as the tick-tock of a grandfather clock.  

So, there.  I drove a steam locomotive.  This means I know how to drive one—the Henschel 0-4-0 at the Boothbay Railway Village.  Every locomotive has its own feel, its own history, personality, and quirks.  To be able to safely and competently operate any locomotive means you must spend hours in the cab to become become familiar with its uniqueness.  Just because I took a small steam locomotive around the block doesn’t mean I can operate all of them, or even one of them, safely.

Before my final trip around the village, several museum visitors boarded the train.  Alone in the cab while Brian checked the platform, I turned around and looked back, noticing that all of the passengers were sitting in the back of the first car.  I leaned over the cab rail and yelled, “What’s the matter?  Are you guys afraid of my driving?” They laughed.  But only one person moved up—three rows.