ModelStory: Set in Stone

IMG_2885The fossilized footprints of a tiny, undiscovered Triassic dinosaur secreted away in Felicia’s enormous backpack will one day leave a permanent impression on her life.

She chipped them from the Chinle Formation – inside Many Lost Ways National Park – so if the small square of stone is found out, it’s a $10,000 fine and three years imprisonment.

But she sees herself as a scientist and isn’t she here doing research for her BS in geology?

She closes her eyes and daydreams with the sun on her face.

Yes, a scientist and one day that stone, carefully polished and mounted, will hang behind her desk and students will marvel at its beauty and the brilliant professor who collected it.

That’s the dream but here’s the problem: Felicia is a struggling student. Geology isn’t her passion.

Cutting and polishing stone is and she’s darn good at it. She has a remarkable eye for the textures and colors, which suits her more to a career in countertops or terrazzo floors – good paths in an age of diminishing craftsmanship – but we’ll get to that.

First she needs to graduate.

(Don’t worry about the Federal Penitentiary. She won’t get caught.)

Felicia is carrying a 2.73 grade point average. It is her final semester. She needs every one of the 20 credits on her schedule to receive her degree.

Fifteen credits are actual classes and she’s pedaling hard for four Bs and a C. The other five credits are the self-study “senior symposium” she sold to the guidance office.

Add Working the System to polishing rocks. She’s good at that, too.

She’s convinced the school that a seven-day backpacking trip with her friend Cameron (an actual geology student) is worth five credits. They’ll co-write a paper, give an oral presentation and voila, she’ll walk the stage with a 3.0.


Then a half-hearted effort at getting into grad school, but she doesn’t really want it and she can’t overcome her transcripts anyway. She will apply to three schools and be accepted by none.


There’s a guy who loves her and they’ll do well. She’ll fall back on her Way with People and sell corrugated packaging, adjust claims and eventually inspect worksites for OSHA. (Good thing that Federal background check came up clean).

Years from now she and hubby will move into a new house. The granite countertop guy will be there when the movers split open a fatigued old box and the fossilized footprints of a tiny, undiscovered Triassic dinosaur will tumble out.

A pot of coffee and a long conversation later, she’ll partner with the countertop guy and the little contractor will do $7 million the next year.

During that year, Professor Cameron will lead her annual “senior symposium” to Many Lost Ways. Secreted in her giant backpack will be the fossilized footprints of a tiny Triassic dinosaur. She’ll have a decision to make: Discovering them would define her career, but she will probably just leave them behind.

(Scratchbuilt Play-Doh backpacks, Preiser figures.)


Good Sense, Even at the Very Noisy Circus

The monster truck show came to town last week, leaving us much to ponder about not-quite-sports and the people who live in the not-quite-mainstream.

???????????????????????????????Nevermind the monster trucks doing their wheeled two-step over the corpses of some late-90s Dodge Neons.

Nevermind the scripted minibike race between the Home Team and a villainous opponent from a neighboring state.

Nevermind the lawnmower races, nevermind the ceaseless sales pitch for monster truck merchandise.

For all that, I could not take my eyes off the MC.

He was an old-school ringmaster straight from the Big Top, updated with crisp white shirt and wireless headset.

A traveling showman bringing us spectacles wondrous and bizarre, he only barely hid his shame at so shamelessly efforting to separate us from our money.

What’s the deal with this guy, do you think? Is that a “real job”? Where does he fit in the hierarchy of teachers, lawyers, truck drivers and bean counters?

I don’t think he cares. Isn’t that the beauty of it?

See, I was raised by prudent, mainstream achievers to achieve mainstream, prudent things. My upbringing tells me look down my nose at him and say something about how he needs to grow up, be “productive.”

But I don’t want him to.

I never wanted to grow up and do anything productive myself. Frankly I’m not sure I have. But life happens and one day you realize you’ve surrendered to good sense and prudence. You’re part of the hive, doing what you’re told. Jobwise at least, careerily speaking, you’re on the path of least resistance.

The straight and narrow.

Turns out it’s … straight and narrow. Passionless, safe, sensible, indoor, daytime work in exchange for just enough to keep you coming back.

I want the monster truck guy to be the antidote to that. I want to believe he’s run away with the circus, told prudence and good sense to pound sand, and hasn’t given it a second thought.

Don’t you wonder?

What did he set out to do for a living, and what crooked path landed him here?

Does he feel like something went wrong or does he feel quite the opposite?

How long does he plan to do this, and what is he shooting for next?

For heaven’s sake, what do his parents think?

We may never know. The media contact at the company that produces the monster truck show (yes, they do circuses, too) did not respond to repeated requests to interview the monster truck MC.

Anyway, I doubt the answers would be as liberating as I imagine. If it seems to good to be true, it probably is.

He was probably raised by showfolk and there was no great leap, no wandering in the desert, no breaking of shackles to pursue this dream. He probably grew up in a monster truck world and is doing exactly what’s expected.

And don’t let the big tires and wicked names fool you. Monster truck people are as sensible as they come:

During the “freestyle competition,” each truck is allotted sixty seconds to romp around the arena in search of the most extreme, crowd pleasing stunts. Each time one roared full throttle toward the heap of crumpled Neons, I hoped for it to launch a dozen stories into the air and land with a devastating crash and a great cloud of dirt and parts, maybe fire.

Instead they each braked at the last and rolled over the cars with a banal crunch.

Prudence and good sense, even at the monster truck show.

What a bummer.

ModelStory: Post-Holiday Buzzkill


” Jason drew the short straw and had to pick her up at the train station before sunrise the next morning.”

She comes every quarter from Corporate and spends a week rummaging through everybody’s desk and at the end there’s a department meeting where she lists “goal enhancement opportunities” and somebody usually leaves in tears.

It would be fine if she actually understood what they do, but as the Senior VP of Management-Employee Disconnect – or whatever – her visits are unchecked power trips dripping with nonsense.

This quarter she arrived on January 2 which meant an early end to Christmas vacation for everybody.

They all spent the week making colorful graphs and charts from meaningless spreadsheets – someone figured out a long time ago that content isn’t important to her, but if you know how to click “format data series>fill>gradient fill” she’ll pant like a dog.

On New Year’s Day most of the department stayed at the office until past 10 then went out together and got solidly blitzed. Jason drew the short straw and had to pick her up at the train station before sunrise the next morning.

It became apparent early on that her focus this time was something called an “enterprise-wide desiloization initiative.”

“Process compartmentalization challenges our core imperatives,” she announced. “We’re evolving our platform to facilitate cross-mission force integration.”

(She’s enthusiastic about corporate jargon.)

She was armed with stacks of inaccurate, outdated reports and sat at everyone’s desk and asked how they drove internal-external partner engagement with their centers of influence. Frustrating conversations that only served to reveal her utter lack of operational understanding.

She actually said to Michael:

“I see that for December your ratio of source optimization in the departmental space decreased sharply on the 25th. Explain that to me.”

Of course he couldn’t, so the entire department got the assignment to identify the internal and external partners most impacted by process compartmentalization and develop a plan of action for transitioning the paradigm toward desiloed competency achievement. She wanted a spreadsheet with backup data. And graphs.

“And wouldn’t it be cool if we could track which day of the week we are most likely to properly flow-out unit implemenation?” she added. “Let’s build that into the matrix.”

Sixty hours of horse-apple work, due tomorrow.

No one was willing to remind her that a year ago, she declared cross-mission force integration inefficient and formed a committee to proactively mitigate the trans-pollination outreach realm.

Vivian was on that committee. She pulled up the spreadsheet they built for that project and with some deft “find and replace” work had the new document complete. She’ll hold on to it for a little while, change the colors on the graphs.

Meanwhile, they’ll all update their resumes and come to grips with the unhappy realization:

The Holidays are over.

(Custom-painted Model Power figure, Play-Doh luggage (read more), Walther’s Cornerstone Pella Depot, Kato Superliner.)

ModelStory: Attitude Adjustment

“That was the last day I took pride in my job,” Russ Herefeldt says, setting down his coffee. “After that it was just punching a clock.”

A bold disclosure to make to the guy who runs the railroad, but the burly man with the salt-and-pepper beard sits across from me and folds his arms, unapologetic.

I’ll miss that.

He’s retiring after 43 years, and our little breakfast together is a standard parting gift.

(“Gift heck,” he snorts. “I earned it.”)


Russ started with The Five Lakes Railway in 1970, 23 years old and unsure what to do with his bachelor’s of fine arts. He started washing rolling stock, learned to weld and torch, and worked his way up to retire as foreman of the Milwaukee car shop.

The day he lost pride in his job was in 2001.

See, Russ is an artist by calling and a repairer of railcars by necessity. He’s produced a respectable body of work in oils and plans to split retirement between family and canvas.

Not that he didn’t love his job. Russ is the kind of guy who sees the art in a job well done, and can look at something as utilitarian as a boxcar and appreciate it as a thing of beauty.

So it was a big deal for him when, in 2000, management asked him to sit on a committee designing the look of the 80200 series boxcars.

It merged his work with his passion, and should have defined his career.

He worked with the advertising department, produced sketches and life-sized mockups, and even rode the company jet to a meeting with a consultant in Los Angeles. He felt valued and excited to be part of something visible and important for the company.

The pinnacle, he says, was the day the committee presented their recommendation to the board. He wore his only suit and sat in the large, cherry-paneled boardroom.

“We brought beautiful mockups of our design,” he recalls as we leave the restaurant and amble across the yard toward the shop. “It was simple and I think elegant, and after all the meeting and consulting and revisions, looked a lot like my initial vision. It was very satisfying.”

The design – his design – started with a color he mixed up called “Inland Sea.” To the left of the door was the railroad name and tagline, and to the right a blue silhouette of the Great Lakes. A patch of Four Corners blue on the end was a nod to the cooperative arrangement the two roads shared at the time.

inland sea2

“…After all the meeting and consulting and revisions, it looked a lot like my initial vision. It was very satisfying.”

Russ even did two paintings to show the board: a portrait of a single unit, and a landscape showing a railyard with rows and rows of Inland Sea equipment.

He says he almost teared up when they approved the project. It meant his color and his design would become the face of the railroad, seen nationwide.

It was a heady day for a kid who started out washing freight cars.

Now Russ stands by one of his boxcars and shakes his woolly head.

“Four,” he says, holding up calloused fingers. “We managed to get four of them through the shop before they pulled the plug.”

In the shaky times after 9/11, the Four Corners and the Five Lakes decided to solidify their cooperative relationship. Russ admits the merger was the right thing – people kept good jobs, the health insurance was cheaper – but his vision of rows and rows of Inland Sea freight cars was not to be.

“After only the fourth car, they told me to just make them legal,” he laments. “Get reporting marks and data on them and move them out. We had a couple dozen cars in primer, waiting for paint and lettering.”

Coupled to the gorgeous Inland Sea car is another from the 80200 series, it’s drab, mud-colored primer decorated only by those reporting marks and data.

But right of the door, dingy from a decade in the sun, is a silhouette of the Great Lakes.

inland sea

“In forty-three years, that was my one act of insubordination.”

“In forty-three years, that was my one act of insubordination,” Russ smirks. “We used up the vinyl graphics we had in the shop. My last thumb in the eye of change.”

There are a half-dozen boxcars still out there with Russ’ unauthorized artwork on them. He hates seeing them – says they remind him of his powerlessness, of being just another cog in the machine.

Russ always wanted to be recognized as an artist, and that recognition may not be far off. He has some leads on galleries willing to show his paintings. There’s talk of some commission work.

But he won’t let himself get excited.

“I’ve heard things like that before,” he says.

Thankful for the Much and the Little

“Welcome to the FC & FL kid.” The veteran with the seniority to get four days off clocks out and slaps the youngster who just clocked in on the back. “Days like this I used call it the FU & F ME.”

It’s late on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, and the gap between the Haves and Have Nots is apparent in the yard office.


“The kids roll up in sorry heaps…”

The old heads trickle out to the lot where they jump in shiny new pickups and head home to turkey and football and family. The kids roll up in sorry heaps or on foot and lean their shoulders into a long weekend working.

The old guys have earned it, the young guys will get there, and I’m not sure which side I’m on.

“Grant me neither poverty nor riches, but only my daily bread.” That’s Proverbs, which goes on to say that having too much makes us forget where good gifts come from. Too little makes us do desperate things and dishonor God.

Ain’t that the truth.

Some of these old guys get a little smug. Sure they’ve put in the time and worked hard, and the good pay and plum shifts are just desserts. But to talk to them you’d think they built the railroad single-handedly, never asked a dumb question, and did the work of ten men every day. They’ve forgotten the little bits of charity we all need to get along.

Some of the young guys get a little too hungry, though. They see the new truck and envy that and the nice house and the four-day weekend. They feel entitled to those things but haven’t earned them yet, and sometimes that leads to a toxic attitude or worse they shirk their duties, cheat and steal. They’ve yet to learn how to be content in their circumstances.

I’m always refreshed by people in the middle – people who have their daily bread without much more or much less. It keeps them connected and charitable to those who need a little, and keeps them willing to put in the time and effort to earn their way.

That’s a good place for all of us to shoot for.

At Thanksgiving we count our blessings and thank God for all we have. This year, I’m thankful for a little leanness, too.

Mouse Call

I’m being pushed around by a mouse, and he’s pushing my buttons. It’s supposed to work the other way, isn’t it?

It all started last week. While operating the layout, I heard the unmistakable sound of a visitor somewhere in the drywall over Herbst Junction.

Scritch scratch. Nibble nibble. Pitter patter.

Mus Musculus. The common house mouse.


On Saturday I tore out several square feet of wallboard and pulled out even more insulation, and with it gallons of maple seeds and other souvenirs the little so-and-so had brought in.

mouse mess

“… I tore out several square feet of wallboard and pulled out even more insulation, and with it gallons of maple seeds …”

After several hours of awkward bending I had sealed up all the spaces I could reach without ripping out the top foot of the entire wall, though I know that will have to be done eventually.

The layout fared OK. One worker from Red Earth Co-Op got sucked into the Shop-Vac, but he always looked kind of surly to me so I don’t think he’ll be missed.

Once I had everything cleaned up I set out some traps to check my work, hoping they’d sit undisturbed. Overnight one of them was tripped, licked clean of peanut butter, and left empty.

The game of Me and Mouse was afoot.

It pays to know your enemy, so I was glad he called:

“I’m beginning to feel unwelcome,” said the mouse. “Last month you clean the garage and move the bird seed into a Rubbermaid bin, and now you try to kick me out of the house. What gives?”

He sounded manly for a mouse.

“What gives?” I said. “I can’t have mice in my house. It’s untidy. It makes my wife edgy. It’s got me re-evaluating my worth as a man and my ability to provide a suitable home for my family. I am now of the class of people who have mice. You’ve touched off a real existential crisis, not to mention making me waste the better part of a Saturday.”

I could hear him nibbling, his whiskers brushing against the receiver.

“If my presence makes you uncomfortable, that’s your problem,” he said. “I’m just looking for a warm place to lay my head. But I don’t think it’s my untidiness that bothers you.”

“Oh no? What bothers me?”

“You’re jealous,” he said. “I take care of myself doing logical, no-nonsense things all day. No boss, no status reports, no ‘re-evaluating my worth.’ Just the real work of finding food and shelter. My life makes perfect sense. You’re jealous.”

In the information war, this mouse had me beat. I barely knew how he got in the house, he understood what makes me tick.

“You might be on to something,” I admitted. “But at least I’m not a parasite. The boss and status reports allow me to provide that warmth you’re after. And I worked hard finishing that basement. I was pretty proud of how it turned out.”

He inhaled deeply, let it out slow.

“It’s a crumbling world,” he sighed. “The work of your hands is not immune.”

A philosophical mouse with an apocalyptic worldview. What other kind would I get?

“So you pride yourself on contributing to the decay?” I asked.

“I’m a mouse. It’s why we’re here.”

I pictured him shrugging, if mice shrug.

“And that’s why you’re not getting in my house,” I said.

It was an empty threat. I have hours of work to do to properly rodent-proof the basement. But I can’t get to it this week.

Status reports are due.

“We’ll see.” he chuckled. “Do me a favor – next time use chunky peanut butter. I prefer chunky.”

The Useful Art of Colorful Names

Today I’m wearing a T-shirt from our local short track where The Conductor and I like to watch the Sunday night races in the summer. It’s bright orange, and my wife reluctantly acknowledges I look good in it.


Bright Orange doesn’t effectively describe the color, and that has me thinking about the paint scheme on the FCFL. The power is orange and blue with silver, maroon, green and yellow accents. The maker of the paints we use calls them “competition orange” and … wait for it … “blue.”

That won’t cut it. Union Pacific locos are yellow and gray but the company calls them “Armour Yellow” and – I love this – “Harbor Mist.” Or how about the Great Northern? You can’t help but dream of Montana and crossing the Cascades when you see rolling stock sporting “Glacier Green” and “Big Sky Blue.”

So I’m calling the FCFL’s colors “Desert Lightning Blue” and “Lakeshore Sunrise,” and the turquoise rolling stock “Inland Sea.”

But why stop there?


FCFL 5630, wearing “Desert Lightning” and “Lakeshore Sunrise” paint spots a covered hopper decked out in “Inland Sea.”

The world is what we make it, folks, and there’s much to be said for good branding.

The winner of the office chili cook-off was a so-so recipe with ground turkey, but the guy took home the trophy because he called it “Turkey Two-Bean Tango.”

Half a can of soda in a plastic cup is “Complimentary In-Flight Beverage Service.”

I’m usually pretty intolerant of such baloney. The best things in life outshine their names: Quarter-Pounder with Cheese. Monday Night Football.

But on this autumn Monday with the gray (or is it Harbor Mist?) of winter marching steadily toward us, couldn’t we all use a little creative packaging?

At the very least, it’s a fun excercise:

Sweeping away the cobwebs around the house? You are an “Arachnid Domicile Relocation Engineer.”

Staff meeting at 10? Call it a “Gathering of Serfs for the Pleasure of the Lord of the Manor.” Bonus points for telling your boss.

Branding our model railroads adds a layer of depth and realism. Rebranding the dreary helps us laugh it away.