Flagstaff Field Work (With a Six-Year-Old)

The Superintendent and I were on location last week in preparation for the scenery phase of the Flagstaff Subdivision.

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I’m a freelance modeler, so all I really want to do is make the Flagstaff portion of the layout kinda feel like the real thing. I’m not worried about duplicating trackwork or buildings down to the finest detail.

Which is good, because when you’re traveling with a six-year-old there’s little exploring and no measuring going on. I got about 45 minutes to take pictures and scoop up some dirt before I was reminded that the real reason we were there was to go to Bearizona just up the road.

But I figured this much out:

Depot

I want to model the depot.

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It’s an attractive building that will look good with the Many Lost Ways steam shuttle docked out front. I hope I can find a kit to approximate it. Otherwise I’ll build a placeholder while I scratchbuild one, which I will get around to never.

Giant Mass of Road Signs

About a block away from the depot was this giant collage of road signs. I don’t have much room on the Flagstaff Sub for roads, but this thing is situated on the opposite side of the sidewalk from the road.

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I think I’ll model the sidewalk and curb against the edge of the layout and put the signs between that and the track. That will clearly convey the intended geography to viewers.

Color and Foliage

As I noted above, the Superintendent and I collected about three quarts of dirt in various colors from several locations near the BNSF mainline that runs through Flagstaff. I’ll sift it on the layout for ground cover and secure it with diluted white glue. That, along with referencing pictures of the topography and foliage, should help me give the scene a realistic “Flagstaff feel.”

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Okay? Now let’s go look at some bear cubs before you pee your pants.

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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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Steam Service to Many Lost Ways

Several years ago I had the privilege of taking the Agawa Canyon Tours/Algoma Central “Tour of the Line” from Sault Ste Marie to Hearst, Ontario and back. Riding this amazing little train was one of my all-time favorite railroading experiences.

Here’s how I try to capture it on the FCFL:

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As the Agawa Canyon Tours website says, their “Tour of the Line” train is:

“…a unique service that picks up and drops off passengers at any point along the line. Sometimes called the milk run, you could stop for any number of reasons on your journey. From people heading to their private camps, a wilderness lodge getaway, fishermen, canoeists, kayakers, ATV’ers or snowmobilers, our passenger service provides an ideal way for people to access the recreational wilderness of Northern Ontario.”

The heart-stopping scenery aside, the train was great fun for the hodgepodge of people hopping on and off at unmarked stops in the middle of the wilderness, loading and unloading the most absurd northwoods supplies.

The little consist I rode was headed by an EMD F7 pulling a baggage car and two coaches of similar vintage. One of the coaches had a small lunch counter with cold sandwiches and snacks, but if you knew the right people the train crew appeared to be willing to let you heat your pasties over their charcoal grill up in the baggage car. It was that kind of operation.

My version of the wilderness milk run takes passengers deep into the backcountry of Many Lost Ways National Park. The journey starts at Flagstaff, AZ with scheduled stops at Herbst Junction and Salvation Point before terminating at Durango, CO.

Power

I wanted to include steam in my fleet, and this seemed like the perfect place. The wilderness shuttle is powered by a Kato USRA Light Mikado. This was Kato’s 20th anniversary version numbered 1986.

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Four Corners 1986 waits its turn for sand and water at Salvation Point.

I converted the locomotive to DCC with a Digitrax DN163 mounted in the boiler – a rookie move. The boiler-mounted decoder replaces crucial weight, and significantly reduces traction – someday I’d like to upgrade to a tender-mounted sound decoder.

I disassembled the loco and tender and painted over the Kato markings, then applied “Four Corners” decals and some weathering powders.

The Four Corners was one of the “fallen flags” that merged to form the FCFL, and having this “heritage” piece on the layout helps bring that history to life.

I imagine the locomotive is owned and maintained by a volunteer group that receives significant corporate support from FCFL. I plan to include a facility for them when I build the Flagstaff addition to the layout.

Baggage

The kind of stuff I saw loaded on the Agawa Canyon trip hardly qualified as baggage. There were ATVs and small boats and even some lumber on board. I felt like an old boxcar was more up to the task than a baggage car.

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I disassembled a MicroTrains 40-foot steel boxcar and painted it primer gray, then coated the sills, doors and car ends Inland Sea. The roof I painted silver. I then lettered it with homemade decals representing the Five Lakes Railway, the other fallen flag that makes up the FCFL. (For more on homemade decals, read this.)

The baggage people bring on this kind of train is a huge part of the story, so I wanted to include the freight in the model.

I made a couple of coolers from scraps of styrene, painted them, and glued them to the floor of the car just inside the door. On top of the coolers I piled several pieces of luggage I sculpted from bits of Play-Doh (read more on Play-Doh luggage here). Deeper in the car I glued a Plastruct boat and a couple of Gold Medal Models photo-etched metal bicycles.

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Backcountry baggage includes coolers, backpacks, tents, bicycles and an old rowboat.

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Next Week – Turning Model Power heavyweight passenger cars into backcountry palaces on wheels!

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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.”)

Indeed.

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.

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“…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.

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“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.

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“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.

Drat.

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.

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“… 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.”

Signature

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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.

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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.

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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.