Tag: Model Railroading

Nostalgia: A Blessing or Curse?

Nearly all the model railroaders I know fell into the hobby through nostalgia’s portal; a boy, waiting for his father on a station platform each evening, searching for the familiar, weary face among a crowd of identical commuter overcoats and fedoras; a five-year old sits proudly at the controls of a Lionel train layout, her father gently guiding her as she runs a locomotive across the tracks.  For these hobbyists,  model railroading is the touchstone for poignant childhood memories.

Although the term “nostalgia” today implies the recall of happy memories and simpler times, it was first used in 1770 by the Swiss scholar Johannes Hofer, who defined it as “severe homesickness considered as a disease.” https://www.etymonline.com/word/nostalgia.

Nostalgia Origins

Hindsight isn’t always 20/20; our childhood memories are often hazy, clouded by our natal drive for security and love.  My parents were neither saints nor sinners; while I have many fond memories of time spent with my father, I now recognize that his inability to provide me with a sense of safety and protection coated my childhood with anxiety and gravity.  Despite this burden, I grew to love him unconditionally, my glassful of memories neither half-empty nor half-full.

Our parents’ nostalgia for the past renders us one generation further removed from historical clarity. Marrying later than most (Mom at 33; Dad at 39) they still had five children; my friends’ parents were a generation younger than mine. A decade after their fathers returned from the First World War, the Great Depression cast a shadow of worry and hardship over my parents’ childhoods. Yet, whenever they spoke of this time, my parents shared mostly stories of thrift, hard work and a sense of community; their survival blurring the accuracy of their memories, along with my ability to truly understand and appreciate the impact of their experiences.

The chronic tension between past realities and nostalgia’s distortions drew me to the study of history, a discipline of assessing facts and evidence to explore and resolve conflicting interpretations of “what really happened and why.” Examining one’s personal history by reconciling childhood memories and biases with the facts and evidence of our parents’ unique circumstances, particularly the challenges they faced and burdens they carried at the time, can grant us understanding and peace of mind as adults. Sadly, nostalgia often clouds our perspectives with wishes or myths, undermining our ability to clearly discern the facts and evidence.  We protect ourselves (and perhaps, our parents) with distorted memories, choosing to evade or ignore the unvarnished truth of what really happened, and why.

Politicians often harken back to “simpler times,” claiming that today is so much worse than the past, with prior leaders, outsiders, or foreign entanglements taking the blame.  Historians know that there was never a time in human history when things were great—at least not for the vast majority of people.  Historical accounts of the rise and fall of civilizations long gone reveal more complex causes; yet a consistent theme in these narratives is the comfort humans find in simple explanations that point fingers at both external and internal enemies, all under the nostalgic appeal of returning to “the good old days.” History is filled with tales of how such tactics lead us down the path to calamity.

After a tragedy, people say, “we will never forget.”  Yet who can remember what they did not themselves experience?  As the years, decades, and centuries pass, the veil of nostalgia becomes increasingly opaque, obscuring the facts, rendering our minds increasingly malleable to misinterpretation and myth, and to versions of events twisted by the greed and power.  When we lose touch with our own history—when we refuse to question; to ask for and examine the evidence to determine for ourselves what actually happened at the time, we willingly surrender our ability—our right—to discern truth from lies, right from wrong, left from right, and up from down, allowing others to tell us what think and what to believe.  Perhaps Johannes Hofer was right after all. Nostalgia may be a disease; perhaps a fatal one.

What Color is Your Ballast?

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 I found myself at a three-day regional conference of the National Model Railroader’s Association.  A conference includes tours of local member layouts (you get a map, drive to somebody’s home and spend an hour in their basement) and operating sessions, where you do the same as above but participate in running someone’s home layout as if it were a real railroad.  During “Ops Sessions” a dispatcher hands you instructions to “form” a train, car by car, and take it from “A” to “B” by a certain time.  There are also scratch-built (hand-made) best-in-show modeling contests along with raffles and auctions—so you can take home more of the same stuff I’m trying to get rid of.

A local modelers layout. EVERYTHING is scratch-built, including the overhead wire system, called catenary. Part of a local modelers home layout. The overhead wire system, called catenary, is scratch-built.

But oh, the clinics!  These are hour-long seminars on topics of interest to modelers.  For the rest of us, the clinic titles and descriptions are about as riveting as a three-page long physics equation.  Here’s a sampling:

  • Modeling Oversized Loads
  • Tack Boards, Route Boards and Placards
  • Concrete Viaducts of the Delaware, Lackawanna & Western Railroad (Note: Modelers argue about the color of concrete.)
  • The Case for Car Float Staging

During one session I attended, the presenter asked, “What color is your ballast?”  Ballast is the gravel layer that forms the track bed for the ties and rails.  His point?  Layout ballast shouldn’t all be the same color because it isn’t in real life. The next time you’re on a train, you’ll look on the ground and realize—he’s right. Like the presenter, some modelers are on an endless mission to create prototype layouts that are exactingly realistic. 

I’m a dabbler; not a diver.  I have many interests, to the point where I often find myself struggling to decide which ones to pursue. That’s why I know I won’t become a model railroader, although I have ample supplies on hand should I change my mind. But I get it.  If you’ve got a passion for model railroading, it will be a source of endless fascination.  The hobby is interesting, engaging and multi-faceted; it activates the creative mind, requires the continuous acquisition of new knowledge and skills and provides a social circle of comrades who love wearing striped railroad engineer caps adorned with buttons and patches.  To those who love them: Be thankful they’re not into anything worse.

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”.