Category: Railroad Ties

Help Me; Help Me Not

I’ve always had a strong intuitive side, my inner antennae compulsively tuned to pick up others’ subtle signals.  When friends and family, or even strangers, are smiling yet underneath they’re tense or sad, I just feel it.   “I’m fine” is almost always a white lie.  Dining with a couple recently, despite the smiles and jokes, I felt certain that one spouse would happily smother the other with a pillow given the chance.

When others need help, even if they don’t realize it themselves, it’s usually not the kind I can give or even what’s wanted; this for me is a lifelong lesson.  My father’s years of hoarding confounded me; his desperate need to cling unsafely to an independent life is a common challenge for the adult children of elderly parents.  Driving over the speed limit at 90 years old while listening to Big Band music playing at maximum volume, Dad scared me to death; I worried about him and the people he might harm.  I knew his reflexes had slowed considerably, something I suspect he recognized but denied.  Instead of calling an exterminator to deal with the massive colony of yellow jackets he found in his living room ceiling, he hauled in a ladder from the garage, climbed up and shot an entire can of Raid into the hole in the ceiling.   “You could have gotten killed!” I yelled.  “I’m very careful,” he replied.  A 91 year old climbing a ladder—alone—is reckless; he could have fallen, broken a hip, and (since he refused an emergency call service) nobody would have known for days.  Despite these risks, he carried on.


People don’t want to be helped, at least not in the way you want to help them.  This for me is a hard lesson.  As Norman MacLean said in A River Runs Through It, “So it is that we can seldom help anybody. Either we don’t know what part to give or maybe we don’t like to give any part of ourselves. Then, more often than not, the part that is needed is not wanted. And even more often, we do not have the part that is needed.”  With deep love and compassion for family and friends, I want to prevent their suffering, which in the end may bring us both more distress.

It was only when I stopped trying so hard to help my Father that he needed me.  We still battled, especially when I had to say or do things that reduced his independence, like taking away the car keys and convincing him to move out of his five bedroom two story house when he could no longer climb the stairs.  I stood at his bedside and held his hand while witnessing his abject terror during his admission to a nursing home; I was there for every doctor’s appointment, regardless of the time of day, to ensure that the doctor’s orders where translated accurately to the nursing home staff.  I think my father finally accepted my help because he recognized it for what it was: love.

Truly helping someone you love hardly ever makes you feel good about yourself, especially if it upsets them.  Telling a loved one a truth they need to hear is often much harder than remaining silent. While both of you can remain in a bubble of denial, neither of you will benefit; you are simply delaying the inevitable.  Love requires compassion and kindness but also courage and risk.   Taking a leap of faith and love, we give of ourselves because it’s the right thing to do; not because it’s easy.



Just Figure It Out

When I was small enough to have to raise my arm to hold my father’s hand, we would walk around the block in the evenings while he smoked a cigar.  Half way round, he’d stop, take the cigar out of his mouth, slide off the ring and hand it to me.  I’d slip it carefully…

The Underground

Every now and then I hear it; a low, muted whistle; faint from under the floor boards.  Then, the sound of the hard working shifter, pushing and pulling rolling stock into place behind the locomotive, pulsing impatient steam as it waits to release the brake and hurl itself into the sunrise.  I open the door…

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…

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 75 year 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, quit my full-time corporate job and started this blog.  Now I understand so much more, and it’s too late to talk with him about it.

I’ve spent the last year collecting parts of my Dad I never knew, 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 Dodge Dart to yank out the right rear axle and 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, 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, used 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, wrapped carefully in tissue paper and stored in shoe boxes.  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 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 70s 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 pile 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 swaddled this car gingerly inside it’s box.  The paint job was 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.