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Every year my father participated in his model railroad club’s “Open House,” an all-day event where anyone can stop in to see the club’s working layout. Occasionally, we went as a family. I hated it. There’s just only so much “don’t touch” train-watching a kid can take. Beware the sentence, “I’ll never, ever….” A few weeks ago…
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…
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.
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.
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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?
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.
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.
I drove a locomotive. Not as in “I drove the Buick,” a euphemism for the gastric violence visited upon those who’ve imbibed to excess. No, I mean I actually operated a 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 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 must be 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; an Umpa-Lumpa would need a step-stool to see out the forward cab window. 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; the 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”.
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 (like I said earlier, he’s in demand), 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 (that no one could provide a reason for this moniker says a lot), 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. 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. When you push the throttle forward, allowing steam into the cylinder, the steam pushes the piston inside to the valve end, where it expels…PRUFFT!
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, I turned around and looked back, noticing that all of them were sitting in the back of the first passenger 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.
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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 packing up my Dad’s 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 aluminium, 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.