“Hey Dad, Can We Build a New Layout?”

IMG_3065A syrupy Tuesday in July – a blank square on the calendar except for the “Dad Home” jotted in the corner indicating it was my week to stay home with the boys and stay in our pajamas the entire time.

When I was a kid, days like this meant Legos and model trains all day. For the Conductor and the Superintendent, as I have lamented before, it means baseball in different media: Playstation, ESPN, Cards and finally, you know … baseball.

Mid-morning front yard baseball in your pajamas on a weekday is an exquisite privilege. But when it ran its course we lost our momentum and found ourselves face-to-face with a powerful stuff called Boredom.

On days like this 11:15 a.m. can last six hours.

Boredom comes in two forms, and I hate the one and love the other.

There’s the boredom of the cubicle, the assembly line, the math worksheet – a painful boredom without which Work would not be the punishment God intended.

Then there’s idle boredom, when there is really nothing to do.

This is useful stuff and frankly if we had more of it we might not be so far behind the Chinese in math and science. Necessity is the mother of invention but its father is boredom.

It was idle boredom that led the Superintendent to wander aimlessly into my workshop, where he happened upon a box of leftover roadbed and track from the construction of the Flagstaff Subdivision.

“Hey Dad, can we build a new layout?”

Oh heck yeah.

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ModelStory: The Last Time

???????????????????????????????Big Roger thinks about the Last Time a lot since they moved him to the home.

The Last Time he used his table saw.

The Last Time he fired a rifle.

The Last Time he shuffled out to his own mailbox.

The Last Time with Mae.

The Last Time with Mae – gosh, when was that?

He’s not sure when the Last Time was for any of those things, he just knows they don’t happen anymore.

He remembers the Last Time he drove that pickup, though. It was in the ‘70s and his two oldest were canoeing and he set out to pick them up. He was cutting overland along the railroad tracks toward the river (people did that in those days, though the Last Time was awhile ago) and POW! – a ball joint let go and she went down on one knee like a wounded mule.

The truck was surplus by then, a Saturday beater he never much cared for anyway, so other priorities got in the way of retrieving it. The Last Time he seriously considered it was a weekend that same summer, when his brother offered to drive down from Kanab with his wrecker, but then there was a pileup on 89 and oh, brother made a bundle on the cleanup instead.

So the truck is there and he is here and he wonders, “When was the Last Time I could have gone down there and turned it over?”

The Ford wouldn’t have gone anywhere on its crippled suspension anyway. But he’s the same – a good motor in a ruined chassis – so the wondering is good for his mind:

When was the moment? The Last Time the bearings and gaskets and plugs were all still just good enough, it would’ve cranked and maybe sputtered but the old straight six would have caught, and then the next moment – just a moment’s more corrosion on the points maybe – it wouldn’t have?

That’s the funny thing about the Last Time, he thinks. You hardly ever know it.

When does a disabled truck become a derelict?

When does bread become toast?

When does a man become an old man and then become – well, what sort is he now?

Big Roger remembers when they were young Mae would run her fingers through his hair when she rode with him in that pickup. He loved that, but parenthood doesn’t leave much room for scooting over on the bench seat, so there was a Last Time for that, too, but he’s not sure when it was.

He thinks about a routine he had with the kids at bedtime. Sometimes he would carry them by the ankles and swing them upside down before sliding them under the covers and then one day – who knows when? – the littlest got too big. A giggling child curled up liking how Daddy did that, but it was the Last Time and no one knew it.

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(Modified and weathered Classic Metal Works 1954 Ford F-350, JTT trees, Woodland Scenics field grass.)

ModelStory: A River Deep and Wide

At first the thing that bothered him most about the whole idea was that they might fall.

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“At first the thing that bothered him most about the whole idea was that they might fall.”

As a dad, falls are a major concern. Traffic and roadway hazards are a close second, followed by choking and other ingestion-related dangers. Dads tend to worry about the things that cause immediate trauma.

Moms fret over the hazards of repeated exposure like dressing properly for the weather and adequate nutrition.

Dads worry about falls.

So the notion that his daughter and her cousin would embark – unchaperoned – on a three-hour river raft trip caused him some heartburn.

(It had to be a three-hour tour? The universal code for nautical tragedy?)

“They’re fourteen years old, Ted,” said Marcia. “As long as you’re there to pick them up on time, how much trouble can they get into? Frankly I was looking forward to some time alone during this vacation. Just me and the Discover Card and those cute shops in Salvation Point.”

That didn’t make him feel any better, but he realized he was licked and agreed to drop them at the dock.

And now he stands here all alone experiencing one of those unforgettable moments of immense transition:

She WON’T fall.

She’s fourteen and a pretty good swimmer and smart enough to stay seated.

She’s not the little girl who couldn’t help but skip everywhere she went, the one who fell out of bed and fell off the jungle gym and fell off her bike and needed him to fix her up and remind her to pay attention.

She hasn’t needed any of that in a long time. She’s done some growing up, and he wishes he’d been paying closer attention.

Because there’s this boy, sitting right across from her, and they’re not fifty feet from the dock and already talking to each other.

She’s going to have different kinds of falls now, harder ones to recover from.

He’s not sure he’s ready.

*   *   *

At first the thing that bothered her most about the whole idea was that she might fall.

As a kid, falls were a major concern. Falls out of bed and falls off the jungle gym and falls off her bike – and Dad was always there to fix her up and remind her to pay attention.

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“At first the thing that bothered her most about the whole idea was that she might fall.”

So the notion that she would embark with her cousin on a three-hour river raft trip without him had her freaking out a little.

(Dad kept singing some stupid song about a three-hour-tour, a THREE-HOUR TOUR, like that meant something.)

“We’re fourteen years old,” said Brittney. “As long as he’s there to pick us up on time, how much trouble can we get into? Besides, it’s better than hanging out with your mom in town.”

She didn’t entirely agree with that, but she realized she was licked and agreed to be dropped at the dock.

And now she sits here experiencing one of those unforgettable moments of immense transition:

She WON’T fall.

She’s fourteen and a pretty good swimmer and smart enough to stay seated.

She hasn’t needed to worry about falling or choking or getting hit by a car in a long time. She wishes she’d paid more attention to the growing up she was doing.

Because instead of Dad – well, hello cute boy across from me!

The falls are about to get harder.

She’s not sure she’s ready.

(Scratchbuilt river raft, factory-painted Preiser and custom-painted Model Power figures, EnviroTex Lite water with clear silicone caulk effects.)

ModelStory: Lucky 13

There’s a long wait for a table at Janibelle’s tonight but the older couple sitting outside doesn’t seem to mind. The word is out it’s their 55th wedding anniversary, and they’re passing the time taking congratulations.

IMG_2610My wife and I offered our wishes and were thanked with kind smiles and a hearty handshake – a firm grip for a man in his eighties – but there was no effort on their part to rise. No pretense of it, either, to which we would have said, “Oh, don’t get up.”

They sat, comfortably past the point in their lives where they need to worry about such decorum.

In the time it takes to drain an Old Fashioned, we heard their story:

He was forty-something years in whatever industry. The work came and went so there were lean years and lots of uncertainty. She had a career, too, but it was in segments – when she wasn’t working, she was working as a stay-at-home parent.

They raised five kids, and lost one to a war – a pain I cannot imagine. Some of them did well and some of them struggled. They’re all settled now but you never stop worrying about your children.

There was the time she found the lump, his heart attack, their first grandchild born to their daughter who was not yet out of high school.

Great, crashing waves, all now far astern.

They are veterans.

My own marriage turned thirteen this week, a pleasing accomplishment that doesn’t happen on its own. It takes patience and hard work and an awful lot of forgiveness, and that’s just her part.

After thirteen years, we feel like veterans, too.

She gets this way sometimes, or maybe it’s me, but I don’t panic anymore. I just listen if she wants to talk but I don’t make her. Be patient. Maybe get some flowers – a good move for rookies and veterans the same.

Mothers are beautiful and children are beautiful but childbirth is a medical procedure and there are parts of it that can’t be unseen. When we were younger the mark of an established relationship was the ability to fart in front of each other without it being a big deal. Now we’ve given birth together – twice – and still want to hang out.

We’ve figured a few things out about each other, ridden our little boat over our own formidable waves, so we feel like veterans.

Only we’re not really veterans. Not yet. There’s still a long row to hoe.

“The length of our days is seventy years – or eighty if we have the strength; yet their span is but trouble and sorrow,” says the Psalmist. “They quickly pass, and we fly away.”

But if you’re lucky – and I am – the Lord places in your life a remarkable partner.

Mine is faithful and ferociously loyal. She works tirelessly keeping our little family moving forward. Her blue eyes and beguiling smile still brighten the room. She reads interesting books and thinks interesting thoughts and though I’ve known her more than half my life, she still surprises me. She supports me in my darkest moments. She makes me laugh. She is my best friend.

It doesn’t matter if the road before us is long and steep. Together we are equal to it.

The Flagstaff Sub Hits a Home Run

photoTrains are cool until they’re not, and when you’re six or eight years old the start of spring training seems to be the tipping point.

My help is gone, so the work of bringing the Flagstaff Subdivision to life has been solitary. Sure, The Conductor and The Superintendent swoop in between innings to make sure Dad is on task, but when they see wire and plywood instead of trees and locomotives, they’re off again.

No matter. It’s a little project in a little hallway and we’d be crawling over each other anyway. I’m content that The Conductor stuck with me long enough to learn some soldering, and The Superintendent tried his hand at the power drill.

Model railroaders aren’t built in a day.

Neither is an 11-foot-by-six-inch switching district, especially when your priority is to be Dad, and Dad is needed to Pitch.

Flagstaff is taking shape in fits of 30 or 40 minutes: the track plan in paper and pencil, the benchwork, the sub-roadbed, the frustrating search for Code 55 track. Then suddenly, last Saturday, a train rolled into town.

IMG_2663[1]I called upstairs that I had an important moment to share with the family and would they please join me by the layout.

“After this at-bat,” they said.

The first train to arrive on the Flagstaff Sub was a short maintenance-of-way consist. To my delight it was greeted with applause (The Train Man’s Wife is a generous booster) and before it got underway The Conductor wanted to make sure it included a piece of rolling stock from his collection. A nice touch that assured me he still regards the FCFL with some admiration.

Nobody seemed to notice that, in order to give the long, skinny track plan some interest I built in grade separation between the mainline and the passing siding. (The main drops about 5/16-inch between the turnouts, while the siding is level.)

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Nobody seemed to notice that to give the shallow scene some depth, I curved the mainline and angled most of the industrial spurs so there would be minimal track parallel to the fascia.IMG_2640

Nobody seemed to notice the powered turnout frogs, the hidden feeder wires every three feet, the Z-scale roadbed under the spurs to drop their grade a tiny bit and allow the ties to hang over the edges so when the track is ballasted it looks washed out and in need of maintenance.

Nobody noticed any of that, but it’s okay. They were there, and I think it was a hit.

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ModelStory: Darn Good Soup (inspired by actual events)

It’s soup season in Many Lost Ways National Park. The nights are cold and the days are gray, and the hearty winter campers are fortified by gallons of sturdy soup – freeze-dried chicken and rice, canned vegetable beef, and one very special batch of frozen, homemade split pea with ham.

It was brought by a young couple who, in a stroke of efficient genius, decided to use it rather than ice to keep their cooler cool. I watched them board the steam train at Salvation Point for a long Valentine’s weekend in the park: Two large backpacks, one tightly rolled tent, one sleeping bag, one large cooler on wheels.

They hefted it all up into the baggage car together, high-fived, stole a kiss.

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“They hefted it all up into the baggage car together, high-fived, stole a kiss.”
(Woodland Scenics figures with aftermarket winter clothing added, custom-painted Micro-Trains 40-foot steel boxcar, Play-Doh luggage, scratchbuilt styrene coolers.)

They don’t know it yet but this trip will be their last as a young, carefree couple. Not long after they get home, she’ll find out, then tell him:

“I’m pregnant.”

There will be excitement and fear unlike anything they’ve known before.

They’ll bump along through the not-easy process of growing a family, and they’ll know the immeasurable joy that comes with all that pain.

They’ll never have the time for each other that they do now.

They’ll think back on the life they have now – the seemingly grown-up-enough work of paying the bills and looking after each other – and wonder how they filled the hours.

They’ll have thousands of sunny days. Take dozens of family trips more fun than this one. Eat lots of extraordinarily good soup.

But they’ll never again taste anything like the split pea with ham they brought on that last trip when it was Just The Two Of Them.

4 cups chicken broth

4 cups water

16-oz dried split peas

1 large ham steak, cubed

1 large onion, chopped

6 or 7 carrots, thickly sliced

1 tablespoon minced garlic

1/2 teaspoon nutmeg

2 cinnamon sticks

12 whole cloves

Salt and fresh-cracked black pepper to taste

Combine ingredients in a large pot over high heat until boiling. Reduce heat and simmer on low for 2-3 hours, stirring regularly.

(Love ya, Nik.)

Lessons in Forced Perspective

Most model railroaders are familiar with the idea of “forced perspective” – selectively resizing scenery elements to create the illusion of greater distance. I recently modeled a new road, using forced perspective to make it look a little longer than it really is.

My partner in the project, The Superintendent, forced my perspective a little, too. He had some firm ideas about the scene and we disagreed a bit, but seeing it from his perspective made this project special.

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Last fall at a model railroad show, The Superintendent spotted a grade crossing with working lights and gates on an HO-scale module. He insisted on one of our own. I couldn’t shoehorn in the mechanism necessary to actuate the gates, so we compromised on a new stretch of road with a grade crossing and working lights.

Here’s how we did it:

Shrinking Roads

The FCFL is a narrow layout – just 10 inches wide for this scene – so creating convincing roads is a challenge.

Just east of Salvation Point, there was an existing rural road with an underpass beneath the mainline. Our new road is a spur from that road.

The Superintendent dubbed it Arizona Highway V. Arizona state highways are numbered, not lettered, but what’s that to a six-year-old?

“I want it to be Highway V just because I do,” he explained.

We made Highway V by carving a right-of-way into the scenery, sanding it smooth, and paving it with lightweight spackling compound. We paved right over the mainline tracks, then immediately cleaned out the flangeways with a toothpick. Once the spackling dried, We sanded it and finished the road with another coat, again clearing the flangeways immediately.

I wanted to model precast concrete panels across the tracks, but The Superintendent insisted on asphalt all around, with no roadway markings of any kind.

“It looks cooler that way and more real,” he said. “I want it to look like the street we live on.”

Fair enough. Unmarked asphalt it is.

Both the old road and the new road are a scale 28 feet (about 2-1/8 inches) at the front of the layout, and taper to about 1-1/4 inches at the backdrop. This helps fool the eye into thinking the road is longer than it is.

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Shrinking Signage

We installed two signs along the roadway. They are a nice detail to the scene, help place the layout geographically, and further aid the forced perspective.

The nearest sign is an Arizona highway sign copied from the Internet and modified to show “V”. The highway sign is .2 inches wide – a scale 32 inches.

The second is a speed limit sign, which we made .15 inches wide. The speed limit sign  is mounted on a shorter post that is half the width of the nearer one.

Looking down the road at the two signs enhances the illusion of depth:

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The speed limit sign shows 55 mph. To me this looks like a 35 mph zone.

“I like going 55,” says The Superintendent. “And that’s the speed limit on country roads.”

Tough to argue with that.

Shrinking Vehicles

Finally, all the way against the backdrop, is a Z-scale logging truck that I kitbashed from a cast metal container truck.

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The viewer compares the N-scale SUV up front to the Z-scale truck in back, and the road appears longer again.

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The Superintendent wants a long line of N-scale vehicles waiting for the train, which would ruin the whole illusion. We’re still sorting that one out.

This was a fun project. I think we successfully stretched the road using forced perspective, and it was good to stretch my imagination to see things my son’s way, too.

Next week – a guest blog from the FCFL’s signals chief (my Dad) about how we make the lights go blinkety-blink.