Category: Railroad Ties

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, 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.

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.

Don’t Touch Dem Trains…

Standing in front of a Union Pacific 4-8-8-4 Big Boy in Scranton, PA
Standing in front of a Union Pacific 4-8-8-4 Big Boy in Scranton, PA

I have somehow always understood that to have a relationship with my father I needed to meet him where he found interests.  Yet, a halt sign warning, “Don’t Touch Dem Trains” barred my four siblings and me from his upstairs workshop, where he’d spent hours alone tinkering with locomotives, boxcars, track and trestles.  Despite this prohibition, I wasn’t the slightest bit interested in trains.  But I did find him in other places.

Dad and I spent every summer of my childhood in his organic garden—a revolutionary approach in the 1960s.  He called me his “shadow,” as I followed him around all day, pushing pole bean seeds into the warm soil with my tiny fingers or squatting down to hold steady his handmade paper rings as he carefully placed frail tomato plant seedlings within each one.  He explained everything he did and answered any question I had in detail, but in a way that I could understand.  Together we crushed Asparagus beetles between our thumbs and forefingers, both of us enjoying the snap and pop of their collapsing shells, the thought of which now makes me cringe.  Today the loamy scent of fresh, warm soil turns over flashes of memory; my sneakers sinking into plush furrows while squinting up at the shadow of my Dad, in his straw hat, framed by the sun.

My Dad and I also shared the “fix it” gene.  In a family with three brothers, I became the motor head.  He taught me how to extend the life of the exhaust system on my vintage Dodge Dart by clamping tennis cans pasted with heat sealant around the exhaust pipe.  When my brake shoes needed changing, he handed me a Dodge Dart repair manual and some tools, and said, “Come get me if you have questions.” By tackling these repairs myself, I learned how to use hand tools and gained confidence in mechanical problem-solving.  All these skills have become very useful on the “railroad”.

While wading through my father’s house in search of his collection, I often found items without any labels or clues as to their origin.  In the nursing home, I’d hand them to him one at a time.  “Well now, this is a Pennsy 4-6-2 Pacific. I made it from a Bowser Kit that I bought in 1981,” he explained.

“Uh…Dad, what’s a 4-6-2?” I asked.

“Good question!” he said.

Ever the teacher, he responded with a question. “How many wheels are on the front of the locomotive?” he asked.

“Four,” I counted.

“Good! Now, how many are in the middle?”


“Yes!” Those are the driving wheels; they are connected to the engine and power the locomotive.  Now how many wheels are in the back?”

“Two. Oh, I get it!  Four-Six-Two!”  I exclaimed.  “But why is it called ‘Pacific?’”

“Because,” said Dad, “it was an improvement on the Atlantic type locomotive.”


And so began my education in all things Model Railroad.  Every week, we would both look forward to solving the bag of mysteries I’d bring.   I learned about the different types of materials used in modeling, such as brass, die cast, plastic and something called zamac, an alloy with a base metal of zinc combined with aluminum, magnesium, and copper.  Lessons followed on a variety of topics such as modeling gauges, (“HO is literally Half-O Gauge”), couplers and rolling stock, such as passenger, freight, and “Maintenance of Way” cars, which are the equipment used to maintain the railway.

I was simply astonished that he’d had all this in the house, right under our noses.  “Dad, you have so much stuff; how did you get it all in the house without Mom or us knowing?” I asked.  His eyes squinted into smiles while he giggled, “I used to sneak them in through the garage.” And then we both burst out laughing.