Cousins Writing Challenge – Edition I – November 2016

If your cousin has a kid, what do you call that? Second cousin? First cousin once removed? Grand Cousin? Well whatever. His name is Joshua, he’s in seventh grade, he’s awesome, he likes to write and he’s pretty good at it. So, just to keep our pencils sharp, we decided to pick a scene from the FCFL once a month(ish) and each write 500 words(ish) about it.

Simple enough, right? Here we go:

Edition I – November 2016


Going the Extra Mile

By Joshua

Sue is running around the world, and as she does she comes across a small town. She sees a man. This man’s name is Philip. Sue is running on a road next to the train tracks. Sue sees Philip and Philip sees her. Her heart skips a beat as she runs toward him. He stops and looks at her. She opens her mouth to say something but nothing comes out. This is because under his coat she sees … running clothes.

Sue thinks to herself, oh well, better luck next time. Surprisingly Philip was thinking the exact same thing because he was also planning to say something to Sue.

The next day Philip is getting on the train to go to a far away place. In his wake is Sue hoping to catch him before he gets on the train. Sadly Sue isn’t able to catch him until he gets on the train.

Luckily Philip is in the caboose.

So Sue is running after the caboose and Philip sees her. So he starts going to the back of the caboose. Sue is running and she is running hard. The train is speeding up and as it is getting too fast for her, and she is slowing down.

Philip shouts from the caboose, “I’ll be back in a week.”

As the train disappears she whispers to herself, “I’ll wait for you.”

12-Minute Miles

By John

“I forgot my sunglasses Dad, I’ll catch up.”

Sure, he thinks. She didn’t forget anything and they both know it. But the head start is a kindness to her old man who’s not as prepared for this as he’d hoped.

It’s seven miles round trip to the river and back, along a former logging trail that is hugely popular among “trail runners,” which is what she is now, apparently.

They are on this last family vacation – to celebrate her degree – and she begged him, “Please daddy? I’ve read a ton about it and it’s supposed to be AMAZING. When are we going to be in Salvation Point again?”

He hopes later on today, but these hills look steep.

When she was 8 she ran her first 5K with him and he coasted along with her 12-minute miles (a loafing pace to him then, and to her now). He cherishes the image of her ponytail bobbing as she kept up the pace even when her legs hurt and it was hard to breathe, Mile 1, Mile 2, Mile 3, then “Just a little more now, Lacie! Finish strong!”

Running became their Thing to Do Together and he was grateful for it. Girls don’t necessarily fish or rebuild carburetors much past sixth grade – or at least they don’t want to tell their friends about it – but you can go for a run with your dad at any age as long as his shorts aren’t too short.

Three or four times a week they’d run. It was good for the body and the soul. She’d open up about school (a lot) and boys (a little) and he’d dispense clipped, winded fatherly advice – the best kind, not too wordy.

All these years he’s mostly kept up the exercise but the diet has been on a steady slide. At Christmas he’d allow himself a few extra cookies, keep five or ten extra pounds on for the winter. But he always recovered – the Monday after the Superbowl he’d reign it back in, go for the salad and skip dessert and by the Ides of March he’d reclaim that lost notch on the belt.

Then one year it was the Monday after the Monday after the Superbowl. The next year it was the Monday after that. Then it was after St. Pats, then after Easter, and now it is a perpetual year-long reset – after every bad decision he tells himself next Monday will be the day, and he means it, but …

Now that little girl, the one who still makes his chest swell with pride, has passed him up. A Bachelor’s in a field he doesn’t understand and off to grad school for a Master’s he understands less.

You want your kids to do better than you, but it’s still a shot to his pride.

Will she be as proud of him, puffing out his 12-minute miles in this heat? His gray hair already damp with perspiration and they’ve only gone 30 yards? Downhill?

He thinks not.


Don’t Pop My Christmas – Play Me A Song With Heart

You probably already knew this, but “All I Want for Christmas Is You” (AIWFCIY) has bopped it’s way to the center of the Christmas Music Universe. From mid-November to the 25th of December, if you have a radio in your car, you will hear AIWFCIY 3,530,254 times. Mariah Carey has supplanted Andy Williams and Burle Ives and Kermit the Frog as the de-facto voice of the season.


I don’t object to Mariah – not my style but we all get our choices – it’s just that with approximately 45 days each year when Christmas music is allowable we can’t waste time re-chewing a piece of bubble gum that’s lost its flavor.

Let’s have some Christmas music with heart.

The defining Christmas music experience for me was a brave performance of “What Child is This” by an 11-year old girl at an Advent service some 18 years ago. I was home from college and went with my mom (who’s been gone almost two Christmases now.)

The lights were doused except for the cross above the altar and the candles of the Advent wreath, and from behind us came this small voice – a cappella – that grew more mighty with each line. She sang the right version – the one that goes “nails, spear shall pierce him through, the cross be borne for me for you” – and I still blink back a tear when I think about it. The kid did some heavy lifting that evening.

Of course that’s not what I expect from 97.5 KMYX (“The Christmas Myxx”) on my way home from work. It skews secular for one thing, and that little girl’s courage wouldn’t come through anyway. But we can do better than “all I want for Christmas is you, baaaybay.” (Lather, rinse, repeat.)

Friends and regular readers know I tend toward the melancholy. That’s especially true this time of year. With that in mind, here are my nominees to replace AIWFCIY.

What are yours?

“If We Make it Through December”

Merle Haggard

The Hag wrote the score for the human struggle, and this holiday contribution should get heavy radio rotation. The line “got plans to be in a warmer town come summertime” is so desperate and poignant. The hope is real but I think the plans are a lie:

“Hard Candy Christmas”

Dolly Parton

I grew up with Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton on the record player all December long. This one acknowledges the sadness a lot of us face at Christmas, but Dolly lifts the mood with assurances that we can be stronger than the blues:

“Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”

Judy Garland (original lyrics from “Meet Me in St. Louis” please)

“Someday soon we all will be together, if the fates allow, until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow.” What else is there to say?


The Fettuccini Brothers

IMG_31245:31 p.m. – The pizza is fresh from the oven and The Superintendent (six) and The Conductor (eight) sit facing each other discussing toppings. It’s pepperoni for The Conductor, but The Superintendent doesn’t like tomato sauce or melted cheese so it’s not pizza on his plate but “cheesy bread” with the cheese meticulously removed by his mother.

His palette may be conservative, but The Superintendent is not shy in his entrepreneurship.

“We should open a pizza restaurant,” he tells his brother.

6:03 p.m. – They are huddled with crayons and paper on the living room floor. Large corporations pay boutique agencies millions but don’t get this level of creative branding. “Papa Fettuccini’s” will be family-friendly with quality food at reasonable prices. The logo takes shape in Crayola Mahogany and Electric Lime. The menu is drawn up in magic marker.

The flagship will be the “Texas Pizza,” a large pie with cheese, bacon, pepperoni, hamburger, and a crust stuffed with parmesan cheese and more bacon.

“I’d like one right now,” I say, and I mean it.

“Sorry Dad,” says The Conductor. “You’ll have to wait ‘til I’m out of college.”

6:47 p.m. – The crayons and paper are supplemented by Lincoln Logs, and a mockup of the first store is unveiled. They peer at it while lying on their bellies on the living room floor, propped up on their elbows with their feet in the air.

I see them against a hazy orange sky early in the morning. They are wearing blazers and hard hats, their chinos are breaking over muddy work boots, and tubes of plans are under their arms. The Superintendent’s index finger taps a blueprint unrolled on the hood of a pickup truck while The Conductor gestures toward a crane several stories over their heads. Someone snaps a photograph. Framed prints will sit on each of their desks for the rest of their professional lives.

The Conductor says, “It’s going to be a sit-down place but there will also be a drive through. It’s going to be very fancy.”

7:06 p.m. – A steady stream of Matchbox cars parades in front of the Lincoln Log drive-through window. The grand opening was a smashing success, with free slices of Texas Pizza and garlic bread (no cheese). Now the word is out, and everybody who wants pizza wants Papa Fettuccini’s.

While the Monday Night Football pregame show commences in the background, new locations are announced in rapid succession – Buffalo! Pittsburgh! Denver! Kansas City! Green Bay!

In the movie, here will be the montage with the spinning newspapers and magazine covers with their photos on them, headlines announcing “Fettuccini Bros Serve Up Pizza Perfection.”

There are big houses and Ferraris and a Gulfstream G650 (Papa One) and The Superintendent lands a recurring guest spot on CNBC where he counters the hyper stock analyst with sober insights like, “Don’t get so excited about the dip in oil, Jim, we’ve had three straight quarters of GDP growth.”

7:28 p.m. – What goes up must come down.

“For a limited time only there’s a free chocolate-chip-cookie dessert pizza when you buy a Texas Pizza and garlic bread,” The Superintendent declares.

The Conductor’s head snaps around and he glares at his brother.

“That’s not even on the menu,” he says. “Everybody has a chocolate-chip-cookie dessert pizza. We need something different.”

But The Superintendent loves those chocolate-chip-cookie dessert pizzas, and even though it’s made them both millionaires the Texas Pizza was his brother’s idea and he’s always resented it. Desserts are his, and he won’t cave on this one.

“People like dessert pizzas,” The Superintendent says. “We’d do just fine if that’s all we sold.”

7:32 p.m. – The Conductor has retreated to the couch to watch football, while The Superintendent starts over with the paper and crayons though his heart is not in it.

Here’s another montage with spinning newspapers, only this time the headlines end in question marks:

“Can The Superintendent Have His Cookie and Eat It To?”

“Courts to Decide Pieces of Texas-Sized Pie?”

“Who Wins in Fettuccini Bros Split?”

In the end, nobody wins.

People like dessert pizzas – that’s true – but a dessert-only pizza place doesn’t support a Gulfstream lifestyle. The Superintendent turns more and more to his media appearances and before long he’s just another talking head, one of five or six on the screen, his face boxed in the upper right with the words “Los Angeles” under his chin while the others shout over him.

The Conductor, distracted and no longer balanced by his brother’s sober insights, clings to “we need something different” and leads Papa Fettuccini’s through a disastrous rebranding campaign. The Texas Pizza becomes “artisan” with a red-wine and balsamic glaze that turns the crust purple. Without a strong dessert lineup for support, sales tumble.

7:41 p.m. – The original store is bulldozed. Mom wants to run the vacuum but the football game is on so a deal is struck to get it done during a commercial. Somberly the Fettuccini Bros pile the Lincoln Logs into the tin, wordlessly acknowledging the end of an empire.

High in his office on the West Coast, The Superintendent wipes a tear from his eye and with a trembling finger touches the photo on his desk, the one of him and his brother at the construction site.

In Manhattan, The Conductor is doing the same. His reverie is broken when his telephone rings.

“Hey,” says The Superintendent.

“Hey,” replies The Conductor.

“You wanna go run trains?”

Five Hundred Twenty Five Thousand Six Hundred Minutes

I can take or leave “RENT,” but those cats know how to measure a year.

Five hundred twenty five thousand six hundred minutes, or fifty two blog posts.

One year ago I decided to blog faithfully – once a week in perpetuity – but that’s hard work. Some weeks I struggled to get anything up, other weeks the ideas came in bunches and I’d find myself a month ahead. As of last week, it all washed out and I’d managed to post every week for a full year.

Now it’s time to regroup.

During my short tenure in small-town newspaper journalism, my managing editor told me, “there’s a novel inside every journalist – the smart ones will keep it there.”

(He also once asked me if I had a drinking problem, and when I said I did not, he replied, “I suggest you get one.”)

While I’d love to be the next Stephen King or JK Rowling and set the literary world on fire while lining my pockets, my writing anymore is just to amuse myself. Is it any good? You tell me. I like a lot of it. My favorites are the ModelStories, in particular Idaho, The Last Time, Rock ‘n Rye and The Cell. The first three are micro-fiction and I suppose at just 3,000 words The Cell is, too, but it’s about six times as long as the others.

Reading blogs, I’ve found that if the word count is more than 500 words, I’m unlikely to click on it, so I’ve tried to limit posts to that threshold.

But I want to focus on longer pieces, including, perhaps, that novel. I think there’s a good novel or even a series hiding in Salvation Point and Many Lost Ways and I’d like to see if I can find it, though I might find out I’m not the guy to write it.

Anyway all this is to say I am relieving myself of the burden of posting every week.

But I’m not going away. Tully Luiskama, the FCFL conductor/folk historian who told us about The Cell, might have something up his sleeve again for Halloween. If it’s any good, I’ll put it here 500 words at a time.

???????????????????????????????Some notes and acknowledgements:

My year of steady blogging has garnered 5,676 page views, 209 likes and 92 comments.

Twitter followers number 19, and 131 people like FCFL Railway on Facebook.

Half of my 67 WordPress followers blog about how to make money blogging while living in Costa Rica/Belize/Peru so it’s probably more like 35 actual followers.

To all of you, Dear Readers, thank you. I write to amuse myself, but it’s nice to know someone else might accidentally be amused along the way.

Special thanks:

To The Train Man’s Wife for her candid critiques, constant inspiration and delightful companionship.

To my good friend Aaron at Assured Services LLC for getting me started.

To Jonathan Caswell of By The Mighty Mumford for the frequent reblogs and kind words.

ModelStory: Cup of Joe

There’s a tiny coffee counter in a corner of the Salvation Point depot where, my wife says, they make the best skinny vanilla latte west of the Rockies, though I wouldn’t know, I never touch the stuff. I can’t tell the difference between “good coffee” and “crap.” It’s all crap to me but 50 million Elvis fan’s can’t be wrong.

Anyway, sitting on the platform at the depot this morning, sipping our drinks (mine’s a hot chocolate with caramel – room for whipped cream? Oh yes!) we overheard some drama brewing in small-town coffee.

joeHis name’s Daniel (NOT Dan – Daniel) and he just signed on with National Roast as a junior regional rep. Today he’s shadowing Joe (yup), who’s been schlepping beans throughout the Four Corners for thirty-three years. A good mentor to a kid new to the coffee game?

We’ll see.

(Yes, there are regional coffee reps. The family diners, the donut shops, the counter in the depot – they all buy their coffee from big conglomerates, and there has to be someone to sell it to them.)

Joe is two cups – black – from the Oster drip maker with the newspaper in the morning. Daniel is a half-caf-soy-macchiatto-165-degrees-no-whip while his free hand skates across his tablet on the train.

Daniel doesn’t see Joe as having much of a shadow and he plans to grow out of it swiftly.

Joe’s comfortable book of business is mostly sleepy lunch counters with three kinds of pie and one kind of customer: hardworking southwest folks with enormous bellies over enormous belt buckles. The proprietors count on Joe for caf and decaf, and to make sure it’s good, abundant, and the coffeemaker’s working.

To ease the new kid into the routine, Joe has planned visits today to his gentlest accounts.

But then Daniel unlocks his tablet and reads from his notes: “Do you track unused seasonal blends and what do those returns tell you about market opportunities?”

Joe blinks. “Track?”

“Something we should really be doing,” Daniel says authoritatively.

“You know, our customers aren’t usually that sophisticated,” Joe says, bemused. “Tracking their unused grounds goes like this: ‘Don’t give me that pumpkin spice crap again.'”

Daniel (NOT Dan – Daniel) nods patronizingly.

“Well that’s because they don’t know what they want,” Daniel says, thumbing the tablet again. “Here’s a study showing preferred hot beverages by region and demographic, relying on a survey of forty-six-hundred baristas. Your customers could optimize profits by focusing on drinks with a steamed-milk base.”

There’s a long pause.

“Steamed-milk base,” Joe repeats slowly, ignoring the glowing graphs on the tablet.

He imagines visiting Clark Vasallis at the Stop Here up on 191, where truckers can get chicken-fried steak, a shower, replacement taillights and black coffee twenty-four seven. He imagines discussing Daniel’s study over Clark’s cluttered desk, imagines Clark repeating “steamed-milk base,” then imagines ducking as Clark hurls a Peterbilt mug at Daniel (NOT Dan)’s forehead.

Joe smiles.

“Change of plans, Dan. There’s someone I want you to meet.”

(Preiser figures, Walther’s Pella Depot.)

ModelStory: Grade Separation

IMG_3040“You are shtopping? No no no, why are you shtopping?”

“I like ze view here, and I am carrying ze pack so I am a little tired.”

“But I said we are going to ze top! I want to get to ze top!”

“Why ze top? Here you see ze railway, ze river, it’s shady and cooler…”

“But ze top is ze best. From ze top we look down on ze railway, ze river, this, this shady schpott. Ze top. Ze top is always ze best.”

“Why look down on this shady shpott? I am comfortable in my shady schpott. No need to look down.”

“Well I always go to ze top. It is ze best.”

“Well I like it here and maybe I stay where I am.”

“Well maybe I go to ze top on my own.”





“So maybe we are not talking just about ze hiking.”

(Carved foam insulation and joint compound, hand-painted Model Power figures, Midwest Products Scale Lumber, natural sand from Horseshoe Bend, Page, AZ.)

N-Scale Statuary Helps Tell a Layout’s History

A few weeks ago I wrote about Lts. Benjamin and Henry who discovered Many Lost Ways and founded Salvation Point, the fictional National Park and town upon which the freelanced FCFL is based.

The story inspired a little urban revitalization project near the Salvation Point depot, including a monument to the explorers.

IMG_3124I started with a pair of figures from a set of Woodland Scenics HO scale people. I cut a small oval of thin styrene sheet, beveled the edges with a sanding block, and mounted the figures to it with plasic cement. I sprayed the statue with a bronze “hammered metal finish” spray paint and set it aside to dry.

I made the rest of the monument from a thicker square of styrene and again beveled the edges with a sanding block. I drilled a pair of 1/16 holes in two corners. For the plaque, I cut the top from one of the surplus old-timey gas pumps from the Walther’s “Al’s Victory Service” kit I recently completed and glued it centered between the holes. I painted this assembly with Pollyscale Aged Concrete, and filled in the plaque with Pollyscale Rail Brown.

When the pedestal was dry, I glued the statue to it with plastic cement. I gave the entire piece a wash of India ink diluted in rubbing alcohol. Finally, I “planted” Woodland Scenics field grass in the two holes and mounted the entire piece on the layout.

I’m not breaking new ground with statuary from figures of a different scale. Model railroaders have been doing that for years. But I think the little monument is a unique lineside structure and helps tell the story of the FCFL.

Plus, it’s the only way I can get those two to stand still.