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 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?”

“Six.”

“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.”

“Oh.”

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.

There’s Nothing “Super” About Super Glue

Although claiming to bond “instantly”, all glues of the “super” variety (Krazy, Gorilla, Loctite, Super, etc.) fail to do so, at least in my experience.  I doubt that use of the word “instant” on packaging is required by law to mean something even vaguely expeditious.  Besides, when combined with the word “glue”, “instant” has about as much clarity of meaning as the packaged food phrase “all natural”.

Today I was preparing shipments for my eBay customers, which is a very time-consuming process, even when nothing goes wrong. First, I run a final test on anything I’ve claimed “runs well” to make sure it does, and then I carefully package each item to ensure it will survive being dropped, stepped on, thrown, beaten, battered, kicked and otherwise abused via the United States Postal Service shipping gauntlet.  After weighing each package, I purchase postage, print labels, and tape up all the boxes.  Finally, I drag the load to my car for the trip to the Post Office.

One item was a set of caboose kits, two of which were partially assembled; meaning somebody (probably my Dad) had started to put the kits together.  Model kits, such as freight and passenger cars, buildings and locomotives, have many parts, made of plastic, wood or die cast metal. Sometimes the kits include wheels or trucks, which are modular subassemblies of wheels and axles that attach to a rail car.  Packing these kits is somewhat labor intensive.  I gather up and seal the small parts in plastic bags, wrap larger parts in tissue paper, and make sure that once the kit box is closed it passes the “shake test” to make sure nothing rattles inside.

Model railroaders hate the sound of a rattling box because it usually means that something inside is broken.  And something always breaks.  While wrapping a nearly- assembled caboose in tissue paper, a plastic step broke clean off the bottom, right into my hand.  No customer appreciates receiving a damaged item if you’ve claimed in your listing that it’s in mint condition.  If you can’t fix what’s broken, you must inform the customer and find out if they want the damaged item or a discount/refund.  Regardless of the outcome, you risk flushing your auction winner’s victory thrills right down the Hopper Toilet (see my previous post).  So I got up and took the mess over to the workbench, grabbed my Super-Amazing-Fantastic Adhesive and got to work.

Round 1: The instructions were pretty clear: apply the glue to one of the two pieces, put them together and hold for 30 seconds, which is exactly what I did.  Upon lifting my finger off the step, it immediately fell to the floor.  After crawling around on my hands and knees for a while I found it on the carpet, under my chair.  I picked it up and looked it over.  The broken step had grown a beard; it was covered with cat hair, dust, and carpet threads.  I found a tweezer and picked off the debris.

You know, there is one circumstance where Super Glue lives up to its claims: if you get it on your skin, you will adhere to anything with amazing speed and incredible persistence. Fortunately I managed to detach the step from my fingers without removing a layer of skin.

Round 2:  Placing the step back onto the caboose, I waited 60 seconds (twice as long) and then lifted the tweezers…along with the step because it was stuck to the tweezers.  Placing the caboose on the table, I grabbed the step with another pair of tweezers, detaching the first pair of tweezers from the step.  The step then fell, landing on lap.  Now I had two pairs of glue-covered tweezers in my hands and a step about to be bonded for eternity to my pants.  With one set of tweezers I picked up the step, and with the other hand I tried wiping the glue off my pants with a paper towel (I know, stupid, but you have to use what’s within arm’s reach in such cases), which clung to the glue on my pants.   I was becoming unglued.

Note: “Super” Glue does not come out in the wash, even with “Amazing” detergent.

Round 3:  I had a clean pair of tweezers (I wiped them off with a cloth).  The glue was dry (Super!) on the caboose parts that remained as yet unglued.  After depositing a drop of glue on the caboose I carefully placed the step onto the glued area with tweezers.  I rested my elbows on the table to steady my hands.  Five minutes later, I lifted the tweezers off.  The step was there, in place…I exhaled.  Then I noticed a step on the other end was bent, sort of hanging there, just waiting to fall off.

If this is model railroading, I don’t think I have the strength…

I’ve been working on Dad’s railroad…

My Dad was a model railroader for over 70 years; he was also a hoarder.  When he died in 2014 at the age of 95 he left me his collection of model trains, track, books, scenery, kits, magazines, locomotives, and parts, all of which I’d unearthed while cleaning out his house. It took me nearly three years of weekends and vacations to complete the excavation, during which time I organized, photographed and packed his collection into FIFTY-FIVE moving boxes. He told me that I should sell everything, but not in lots, as he feared I’d get ripped off by someone who would pay me ten cents on the dollar.

How do you sell stuff you know nothing about, to experts?  This blog is about my experiences as a reluctant model railroader.

So far, I’ve learned the following:

  • Unless you know what you are selling, you cannot describe it well enough to sound credible.  Painstaking research is required.
  • Things will go wrong at the worst possible moment, like when I’m packing something for shipment to a customer and it breaks apart in my hands.
  • Model railroaders are just about the kindest, gentlest people you will ever meet; I’ve befriended model railroaders all over North America (and elsewhere). Their stories about how they got into the hobby are surprisingly sentimental and moving; it’s not all about the trains.
  • As my husband pointed out, Model Railroading isn’t just a hobby; it’s a disease.  God help me.
  • Biggest Lesson of All: Within those 55 boxes, inside hundreds of freight and passenger kits, brass locomotives, switch machines, transformers, couplers, trucks and decals, I’m discovering things about my father that I never knew or understood.