Rolling Reminders of the Salt of the Earth

We lost my wife’s grandfather earlier this year, in addition to my mom, which leaves some pretty big holes and has us ready to kiss 2013 goodbye. One silver lining, though, is that I had these remarkable people in my life, and they’ve inspired some satisfying modeling projects.

Grandpa Ray was salt-of-the-earth. He was the third generation to live on the family farm, but he supported his ten (yes TEN) children driving a truck. The farming he did gentleman style – a huge garden, some fruit trees, and for several years he even grew our family’s Christmas trees. It wasn’t his job, it was his way of life. He tended that land on Highway 310 for eighty-nine years.

This winter I will add a switching district to the layout, and one of the core industries will be Grandpa Ray’s Produce.

cars

These large boxcars will haul produce and canned goods from Grandpa Ray’s facilities to markets across the nation.

The fictional company borrows a lot from JR Simplot Company, an Idaho-based foodservice giant. The late Mr. Simplot, from what I can gather, would have been a kindred spirit to Grandpa Ray. He was a no-nonsense farmboy who valued hard work and, like Ray, refused to let age slow him down.

I have always been drawn to the Simplot insulated boxcars. These are mammoth pieces of equipment with the name “Simplot” big and red on the side.

(I suspect “Simplot” was sometimes a difficult name to carry around. It’s easy to denegrate, calling to mind “simple,” and the “plot” reminds you he came from the farm – or sounds like “plop.” I can’t imagine elementary school kids of any generation politely letting it go. So when he became successful, I like to think he wanted all those kids to know about it. The marketing people brought him a sketch of the cars and he shook his head. “No. Bigger.”)

I used to see Simplot cars from my office window, but we’ve relocated so I don’t get to look at the trains as much. Fortunately you can see one here.

On to the models.

interior bracing

Styrene strips stabilize and level the carbodies.

Carbodies:

A friend from the railroad club gave me a pair of 65-foot boxcar kits that rival the gigantic Simplot variety. They were old Roundhouse kits, I think.

The molding was a little sloppy, so I did a lot of filing and trimming. There were also a couple spots where bubbles left voids in the casting. I filled these with Squadron White Putty.

The underframes fit poorly, so I installed some strips of styrene at the base of the carbodies to make them ride level and fit securely.

The kits came with stirrup steps of the MicroTrains variety that snap into a goove in the underframe. However, the underframes lacked the appropriate machining to accomodate these. I cut off the steps and glued them to the carbodies directly. They’re good enough, though not perfect.

Finally, the models were molded with a wheel mechanism for securing the doors, but did not come with matching wheels. I remedied that with a set of HO-scale brakewheels that look about perfect.

door detail

HO-scale brakewheels are a fine replacement for the missing door-securing wheels.

Once I had the carbodies to my liking, I cleaned them thoroughly, then sprayed them reefer white. I set them aside to dry for several days.

Decals:

The “Grandpa Ray’s” herald and the other markings were made with Word, including “NEW 10-2013” marks to set the cars, and the layout, in the present day. The bushel of apples is clip art. I made several duplicates of each decal, expecting to ruin some in the application.

I printed the decals using my inkjet printer and let them dry for 24 hours before spraying them with Testor’s decal bonder. I let that dry for another 48 hours.

I applied my homemade decals like I do any others: I soak them in room-temperature water, and while they soak I brush a layer of MicroScale MicroSol Decal Setting Solution onto the model where the decal will go. I then apply the decal, and put another layer of MicroSol over the top.

MicroSol can make larger decals wrinkle up. They almost always dry beautifully flat, conforming to the finest molded details.

The homemade decals wrinkled up quite a bit more than storebought decals. I was able to get them to lay flat with careful strokes from a dry brush. However, in some cases, they folded over too badly to be saved and I had to go to the backups. (Thank goodness for the backups.)

Warning and instruction markings culled from storebought decal sheets rounded out the lettering.

Running gear:

The kits did not come with trucks, so I installed MicroTrains 100-ton roller bearing trucks with medium extension couplers. I added Fox Valley Models 36-inch metal wheelsets, which I painted rail brown. These models represent brand new rolling stock, so I did not weather the carbodies or the trucks. I carefully painted the bearing caps light blue to appear factory-fresh.

end detail

Unweathered MicroTrains trucks with the bearing caps painted blue give the models a factory-fresh feel. The bushel of apples is a clip-art image printed on clear decal paper.

Complete Fleet:

I have four other mechanical refrigerator cars that will join the Grandpa Ray’s fleet, carrying RAYX reporting marks and numbered 310 – (1 through 6). One of these wears reefer white and the decaling shown above. The others are patch-outs – Grandpa Ray would rather they get to work than hang around getting dressed up.

patchouts

A trio of second-hand mechanical reefers will simply be stenciled with RAYX reporting marks. Grandpa Ray would rather they get to work than hang around getting dressed up.

Advertisements

Signature

sign closeup

Mom died in May. It was unexpected, a heart attack I guess, and it came on the heels of a couple rough years that included knee and ankle surgeries that left her immobile for many months. But she was getting better, walking without a cane finally and driving herself to the Y and then for coffee and a $1 McDouble with her buddies. She was sixty-seven, and Dad had retired just three weeks earlier – timing that was terrifically cruel to him, in my opinion.

Anyway, Mom knew me better than just about anybody else. We shared our joys and sorrows in a way only a Mom and son can. She understood from her own occasional darkness the melancholy with which I am sometimes tinted, and knew when to offer encouragement and when to shut up and let me be gloomy.

missu

She also embraced silliness. Reveled in it. She loved musicals – especially Fiddler on the Roof – and one night last winter I had “Sunrise, Sunset” in my head but couldn’t remember all the words. My sons and I got Grandma on the speakerphone and we worked through it until all four of us were belting it out in harmony: “I don’t remember growing older, wheeeennnn diiiiiiid theyyyyyyyy?” Then we said, “Love you Grandma” and hung up. She was always up for that kind of goofing off, and I’m smiling now remembering the laughter in her voice that night.

A few weeks before she died, I was out and about for work and had a little time between appointments, not far from her and Dad’s house. Dad was off somewhere so we ate lunch together, watched Days Of Our Lives, laughed. I don’t remember much of what we talked about. It doesn’t matter. We just enjoyed being together, and that turned out to be the last time we had each other to ourselves.

During that visit I told her I was thinking about naming a restaurant in Salvation Point after her. We talked about what it would be called, and what the sign might look like. Before I left that day, I had her write her name and some of the restaurant names we’d played with on a scrap of paper. That scrap sat on my workbench for a few weeks.

note

The night before her funeral, unable to sleep, I went down to the workshop in the wee hours of the morning and got to work.

I took some thin copper wire – 22-gauge maybe? – and “traced” her handwriting by bending the wire with a fine needlenose pliers. Where the letters made angles too sharp to bend, I soldered pieces together (the “n,” the “i,” a few other spots). I also made solder joints where the wire crossed, like in the double Ls, to give the thing some stability. I then bent the whole assembly into a gentle curve and sprayed it turquoise – Mom’s favorite color.

The rest of the sign (“Clean Plate Club”) was just printed from a Word document. The plate was scavenged from a miniature playset of one kind or another that my boys outgrew. (I have a collection of similar tiny plates, spoons, coffee cups, toothbrushes and a very small scissors that I or a modeling friend will someday put to good use.)

The plate and signature I glued to the Design Preservation Models building with CA (super glue).

It’s not a good enough tribute to my Mom, but she would have gotten a kick out of it.

Janibelle Clean Plate Club serves Chicken Paprikash, Chicken Cacciatore, Beef Stroganoff, and darn good chocolate chip cookies – all just like Mom used to make.* It’s the only place I can get the stuff anymore.sign

*In fairness, the secret to Mom’s chocolate chip cookies has been revealed – Dad made them.

ModelStory: Maybe We Should All Shut Down

The teenaged girl – thirteen, fourteen maybe – is good to her little brother. He’s about four and has been sitting on the train for too many hours and all he wants to do is run. She thumbs the screen of her phone with her left hand, squinting to see the display against the sunshine. Her right hand is extended casually to her right side, where the brother grabs the pinky with his fist and runs across in front of her. He lets go when he gets to her left hip and while he runs behind her she absently extends the hand to her right again, where he grabs it and the cycle repeats.

A small kindness, playing this game with him while she texts or posts or tweets. Dad is looking after the bags while Mom is tying the shoe of another brother, six or seven, and Baby is starting to squirm in the holder on Mom’s chest.

IMG_3044The platform at the Salvation Point depot is my favorite place to eat a cheese Danish and watch the people. There’s trouble today, though – the Federal Government is shut down and with it Many Lost Ways National Park.

Eighteen hours on the train and I bet Mom made Dad promise:

“No electronics,” she said. “We are on this trip to be together and I don’t want you looking at your phone every three minutes.”

He nodded, looked up from his iPad, and sheepishly shut it off.

“Work will be there when you get back you don’t need to check your e-mail during our family vacation you know what the doctor said about your stress level.” She said it all in one unpunctuated burst.

So he promised, and enjoyed the train ride – they got the sleeping car with the nice accommodations – and now they are here and he doesn’t know yet about the shutdown.

The daughter, she knows, there was something Aunt Kate posted on Facebook about liberals or GOPs or something but at thirteen you don’t connect that to your family vacation.

And here Dad comes with the bags, grim-faced. He murmurs something to Mom and her shoulders sink, arms go up in surrender.

Salvation Point is a town that supports The Park. It fills little holes of time – a movie theater for when it rains, shops and some nice restaurants, a pool at the hotel – but if The Park is closed indefinitely and you have a large number of what look like demanding children? I’m with you lady. Surrender now.

I don’t have a point to make about The Affordable Care Act or right or left wings or whether the Federal Government should shut down or if it’s such a bad thing if it does. “A pox on all their houses” as my Dad would say.

I look at this family and I consider everything they had to do to get here – spring the kids from school, use up a good chunk of Mom and Dad’s PTO, plan and save and pack – and my heart breaks for them. I can tell by looking that they are Involved. Sports, music, dance, scouts, work, work, work. Not necessarily bad stuff, but these people clearly have forgotten how to take it easy. A week without the Things the Brochures Told Them To Do could kill them. They will have to talk to each other and ad lib and sit on the floor and play matchbox cars and maybe put a couple puzzles together.

Come to think of it, this could be the best trip of their lives. I hope they figure it out.

Welcome Back, Wherever You’ve Been

“First time in Salvation Point, stranger?” the shuttle driver asks, taking my bag from my hand. I wince a little inside, because now I owe the man a couple of bucks, which I’m happy to pay, but I never carry cash.

“Nope, just been gone a while,” I answer, taking the seat opposite the luggage rack so I can get up and grab my bag before he does, avoiding the awkward moment when he hands it to me and I hand him nothing in return.

“What’s kept you away?” he asks, eyeing me in the rearview mirror and wheeling the bus out of the depot lot.

I chuckle, but don’t answer. I let my head fall back against the rattling window and close my eyes.

What’s kept me away? What’s kept me from writing about an imaginary town on a model railroad in my basement?

Same thing that keeps me from remembering cash to tip shuttle bus drivers – an occasionally chaotic mind and a short attention span.

Mom always said I was creative, a dreamer, seeing in me things only a mother can. (She died in May and I know that kept me away a little bit.) What she saw as dreaming, I experience as mental static. Background popping and buzzing that sometimes distills itself into useful thoughts, but most often distracts me from paying the gas bill on time. I used to blame elementary school, where the torment from a couple of mean kids drove me into a survival mode where I didn’t care about getting things done, just getting through – but now that sounds too victim-y for my taste. Lately I’ve been working on a theory that centers on a bike crash when I was in third or fourth grade. I was alone and skidded on loose gravel and fell, and I know I hit my head and I’m quite sure I lost consciousness, for how long who knows. I imagine there is a lesion somewhere deep in my brain that short-circuits every once in a while, sending an electrical storm through the whole works and instead of clicking “pay gas bill” – a simple task – I zone out and Google pictures of interiors of luxury jets. Fascinating, this notion that you can have this wonderfully appointed space – bedrooms, big TVs, bars, staircases – staircases! – 50,000 feet above our heads moving close to the speed of sound. But there I go again.

Whatever the reason, here I am – loose on the planet without the benefit of a well-ordered mind.

To some people that’s a liability. One guy looks down his nose and wonders why some other guy hasn’t done more – if only he would work harder, damn it. Well it’s not so simple. Some of us get to be astronauts, some of us cast about inside our chaotic minds. “All men are created equal” is a dangerous lie. Engineers and surgeons do critical work and I envy them – I can’t keep my head in the game long enough to accomplish anything so important. I’m not sure that’s for a lack of effort. Maybe it is.

Anyway, so what? I do pretty good despite my infirmity. I support a really amazing family. I’ve held down continuous employment since the age of 16. I own a home, have an excellent credit rating, and generally get along with people pretty well. Except shuttle bus drivers.

So let’s hear it for the dreamers, the short-attention-spanners. I work with people who sit in cubicles all day and seem perfectly content to do so. The world spins on around them – leaves fall, grass grows, birds chirp, dump trucks rumble and people create and build and make – and they’re missing it! I’m thankful to have work that lets me out a lot. I get to see it, absorb it, and in that freedom I find a very productive place.

So I’ve been away from Salvation Point a while. I’ve missed it. I like it here. But I can’t say for certain how long I’ll stay.

For My Dad and Dads-In-Law: Have fun, fellas.

Southbound to Salvation Point, if you make it past Milepost 138 without being put in the hole, it means you sleep in your own bed tonight. How many afternoons – early mornings, black midnights – did he roll down this hill toward that sign, fingers crossed, wondering what she’d have on the stove, what homework he’d help with, what might need fixing before he set off again?

Today, no matter what the dispatcher says, he’s going home.

Retirement.

People don’t hold the same job – hell, people don’t work in the same industry their whole career anymore. He started as a conductor on this section in 1969. He got up in the morning, or whenever they called, did what they asked him to do.

Still does.

He remembers all the wonders he wondered, all the worries he worried, rolling past MP 138. There have been answers, but he still has questions.

She married him, thank God, and stuck around.

The railroad taught him to be an engineer.

He rolled past MP 138.

They bought a house, had a couple kids.

He rolled past MP 138.

The kids got older. Her dad died.

The railroad got new equipment. New rules.

He rolled past MP 138.

The kids started driving. Her hair showed a little gray. So did his.

The railroad started using e-mail, onboard computers.

He rolled past MP 138.

The kids moved out, went to college. He paid for it and was thankful he could.

The railroad became FCFL Transportation. Suits from out east started showing up.

He rolled past MP 138.

She got cancer.

She got better.

He rolled past MP 138.

Four grandkids. All boys.

He had a TIA – a “ministroke.” They said he was OK but it scared him.

He rolled past MP 138.

A full life, lived between shifts and during a few weeks of vacation, financed by work he liked and got to do alongside good people. Faces and names he’d learned over four decades. Some of them still around, some gone from the railroad now. Some of them just gone.

“It’s just a job,” he tells his kids. “Do it the best you can but don’t worry too much about it.”

After today, he won’t worry about it at all. Maybe not as sweet as it sounds, but maybe not so bad either. He’s not sure.

The signal’s green.

He rolled past MP 138.