My First Lame-Ass Attempts At Model Railroading (1973-1999)


Like most scions of the baby boom, model trains have been on my radar pretty much from the moment I started playing with toys. Both my dad and his younger brother had train sets when they were kids (Lionel and American Flyer respectively), and I wound up spending bazillions of hours playing with them during visits to Grandma's house when I was kid in the 60's. Favorite memories- endlessly bashing that American Flyer "cow on the track" accessory and the smell of those wonderful old AF locomotive smoke capsules.

The coolest accessory ever made for model railroading! Oh man, I can smell them now...

By the time I turned 11 (1973) I became interested in building an actual model railroad. I can't really pinpoint now when it was that I was bitten by the model railroading bug, but back in those days model trains were so ubiquitous that it really wasn't that unusual for a youngster to latch onto the hobby. It seems odd today, but back then train sets were a very common Christmas present for kids and virtually every large department store had a model train section in their toy department. Unfortunately, it was still a pretty expensive hobby (at least for our household), so I wound up simply kidnapping my uncle's old American Flyer trainset and using that as the basis for my first railroad. It consisted of some straight and curved track sections, a 4-6-2 steamer (with working headlight and smoke generator), a tank car, a couple of box cars, a cattle car, a caboose (which lit up!), a transformer, an electric uncoupler, a billboard which housed a steam whistle sound effect generator and the aforementioned "cow on the track" accessory.

Pictured to the left is me, nerd boy (complete with broken glasses), and my railroad (and you can stop snickering at any time). My structures consisted of the few HO structures I could actually afford to buy (no, those local department stores didn't have anything in S scale), and a few very silly structures that I tried to scratchbuild (tin can oil storage tanks, shoebox warehouses, balsa wood four wall shacks and whatnot).

To be perfectly honest, the whole thing was kind of a frustrating experience for me. I had very little money to buy anything with, not much in the way of tools or supplies to build anything with, and zero talent in the handicrafting department to make up for either of the previous two deficiencies. What I did have was a lot of enthusiasm though, which led me down to the local library to check out Model Railroader magazines for ideas. Unfortunately, this was really depressing... Somehow my toy train set plunked down on top of a flat sheet of plywood covered with sawdust, dirt, bits of lichen, and the occasional lump of plaster, populated with incorrectly scaled buildings just didn't quite measure up to those magazine layouts...

I laugh now, but back then I just didn't get it. I'd photocopy building plans (as supplied by Model Railroader), hie myself down to the local Gager's (generic hobby shop) for some balsa wood and then start building. This involved tracing the various shapes in the plans onto the balsa wood, cutting them out with a kitchen knife, and then gluing it all together with model airplane glue. And yet somehow I could never quite understand why my buildings didn't look anything like the end-results pictured in the magazines. Look up "clueless" in the dictionary, you'll find my picture.

My other thwarted enthusiasm was the whole concept of "operating" a model railroad. I would breathlessly devour fascinating articles about complex model railroad operations schemes and head home with a full head of steam (or more accurately, a head full of steam) completely intent on implementing them. Unfortunately, brutal reality would rear its ugly head once I actually sat down with a set of crudely crafted notecards indicating timetables, loads and destinations. I mean, come on, I had half a dozen freight cars and a glorified oval of track. My operations consisted of driving my train between a couple of pathetic trackside structures, pausing, and then moving on. Even I, delerious as I was about the imaginary possibilities, eventually realized that this wasn't much fun...

The good news about the whole Model Railroader magazine thing is that I eventually discovered that there were indeed other S Scale guys out there, and I wound up subscribing to something called the "S Gauge Herald" (a somewhat amateurish model railroading "fanzine"). It didn't help me much in terms of actually improving my railroad, but it was fun to read and imagine the possibilities. It also provided a list of hobby shops around the country that had S Scale stuff - and, lo! It turned out that, indeed, there was one not too far from my house! I forget the name of the place, but they had a huge selection of American Flyer stuff. One of my greatest Christmas presents ever (right up there with Ralphie's Red Ryder BB gun) was my Dad buying me a couple of freight cars, and (joy of joys!) a couple of electric turnouts. I still get chills when I think about those turnouts and their controllers with the red and green lights... I mean, man, this was model railroading!

Oh, bestill my heart...

And oh boy, is it sad what I eventually did to all of that old AF stuff. Being 11 (or 12 or whatever it was), I wasn't hip to the whole "these over here are vintage toys suitable for sitting on a collector's shelf, and these over here are models suitable for model railroading" thing. I mean, let's start with weathering. In a misguided attempt to make my layout look like the ones in the magazines, I took buildings, locomotives and rolling stock and absolutely slathered on Testors gloss enamel paint (brown, black, whatever color I happened to have leftover from building model cars and planes and whatnot). Can you imagine? How many collectors of vintage Gilbert trains just keeled over reading this paragraph? I shudder to think. I eventually wound up selling all of those old AF pieces on eBay a few years ago and got over $100 for them. I can only imagine what they might have fetched had I not sacrificed them on the altar of youthful enthusiasm.

Anyway, I forget how long it was that I soldiered on in S scale, but it wasn't too long. I think the final nail in the AF coffin was my (much more affluent) best friend getting this gigantic HO Tyco train set for Christmas, and then his über craftsman dad building him this gorgeous 4' X 8' table top on which to construct his layout. Not surprisingly, it wasn't long before I came to the conclusion that this whole S scale thing just wasn't going to fly anymore. And why not? I mean, HO was the scale at that time (and in many ways, it still is). It's certainly all you saw in the department stores and most of what you saw in the hobby shops.

Well, I must have put out the proper signals because my dad (once again, god bless him) surprised me at Christmas. It was, what, 1974? Thereabouts, anyway. Dad decided to combine my Christmas and birthday presents that year in order spend a ridiculous amount of money ($100!!) to buy a semi-completed HO layout from a friend of his (who, I guess, had gotten into the hobby for a brief period of time and then decided to bail). Sadly I don't have any pictures, but basically it was a sturdily constructed 4' X 8' tabletop layout with an oval, double-track main (interconnected with switches) and a couple of sidings. And, holy crap, it had a dual-throttle power pack and an honest-to-gosh block-control panel with toggle switches!! I mean, I'm over here rubbing two sticks together and my dad, in one swell foop, presents me with a nuclear power plant!

The layout was literally bare bones - track, wiring, the tabletop, and that's about it. It also came with some Athearn locomotives (a couple of F7's and a PA as I recall), along with some rolling stock (a few passenger cars to go with the PA, some boxcars, and probably a caboose or two - again, memory is hazy after all this time). The first thing I did was move all of my old structures from the S scale layout over to the new layout (well hell, they were HO after all) and apply some "scenery" (again with the dirt and sawdust and lichen and whatnot). The next thing I did was completely screw up all of the wiring.

Once again I have to laugh, but back then I had no concept of what block-control wiring even was, let alone grasped how it was supposed to work. I do remember being supremely frustrated by the fact that when I tried to switch a train from one of the main loops to the other it would stop dead in the middle of the turnout. WTF?!? I still don't know if it was ever wired up correctly to begin with, but I do know that I spent months screwing around with that control panel in an effort to get my trains to switch loops correctly. I seem to recall that at one point I did somehow stumble onto a configuration that actually worked, but then quickly re-screwed it up, never to be attained again. Eventually I just resigned myself to the fact that all I would ever be able to do was run two trains simultaneously on the two separate mainlines, never the twain to meet (yeah, crashing trains head-on ala Gomez Adams was definitely still on my list of fun things to do). This probably explains why I found DCC to be such a god-send years later.

Anyway, so it went for a couple of years, but eventually I entered my teenage years and other interests beckoned. Soon it was college and girls and apartments and the single life and starting a career and all that stuff, and model trains were relegated to nothing more than a fond memory of youth (at least for a while).

Eventually I transitioned to thirty-somethingdom and fully embraced the whole bourgeous suburban middle-America thing. Y'know, met a girl, got married, bought a house, settled down and began planning a family, all that stuff. Around that time I got hooked up with some younger "Gen-X" guys (via BBS chat rooms and discussion groups) who, as it happens, were into model railroading. And when they started talking about how there were all of these interesting new gizmos out there that allowed for some pretty sophisticated computerized control of model trains, my slumbering interest in the hobby suddenly rekindled. And hell, I had a house with an unfinished basement just waiting for me to do something with it. So full steam ahead, I decided to reenter the hobby.

Unfortunately, all I had to go on were my experiences as a kid way back in the 70's - y'know, build a table top and put some track on it. And that's pretty much where I headed. I went down to one of the local model train stores, bought a bunch of HO Atlas sectional track, a locomotive, a transformer, a couple of freight cars and set about building a table top on which to place it all. The good news was that this time around, not only did I have the enthusiasm, but I also I had a lot more money at my disposal. And what I really wanted to build was something that at least approximated those great old magazine layouts that I remembered from my youth. Unfortunately, this involved multiple levels (as opposed to a flat table top), and I just didn't know how to proceed. There was no way in hell I was going to construct one of those classic open framework layouts where you plot the whole thing out in advance and then construct this ungodly spiderweb of precisely cut wood, filled in with chicken wire, window screen, cardboard strips and all that jazz.

Not going to happen...

So, not sure how to proceed, I just proceeded. Eventually what I built was a flat tabletop, and then set about trying to wrangle a jigsaw to cut plywood inclines and supports and whatnot to raise at least some of the track off of the Dakota-like tabletop. This got me nowhere. Sticking a 1/4" piece of plywood down on a table top and hoping to use it as an incline just doesn't work. I eventually had to face the facts, I simply wasn't crafty enough to wrangle all of this wood! Unable to proceed, I eventually just lost interest, tore the whole thing down, tossed all of the track and everything else into a box and forgot about it... for a while.

A couple of years later my son was born and it was time to look for a new (bigger) house. As luck would have it, my parents had just retired and were looking to sell the family home. Well, not one to look a gift horse in the mouth, I pounced on their offer and implored them to not allow the door to hit them on their collective asses as they departed for Florida. Now, the old house had improved by leaps and bounds since I was a kid, and among other things, was now sporting a fully finished basement that was just begging for a model railroad. And having just quit smoking cigarettes after many decades, I was looking for something with which to keep myself busy and take my mind off nicotine, so I decided to take my basement up on its offer and give model railroading another try.

True to form, I pulled the old HO stuff out of storage, bought myself some plywood and got busy building myself a tabletop roundy-rounder. At this point I really didn't give a crap how goofy the end result turned out, I was just trying to keep busy. And once again I did the old song and dance with the plywood, trying to build risers and whatnot and getting noplace. Well, no matter, I didn't really have any specific ambitions - not at first, anyway. Eventually I started making regular trips down to the local train store (blessedly located within a half a mile of my house), and started sinking some pretty serious money into locomotives and whatnot. And let me tell you, watching a $100+ steam locomotive ply its way around a circle of track on its flat piece of bare plywood (fully equipped with ugly and nigh-unusable plywood risers) finally got me motivated to get more serious about this whole thing.

The day that changed my model railroading life was the day I went down to the local train store and discovered...

The whole concept of building a foam layout just blew me away. Instead of building a wooden framework with your track-bed suspended up in nebulous space, and then filling in the blanks with screen, you could build a foam world and then drill things down or raise things up by simply cutting through or piling on cheapass styrofoam. And when I got a load of their bendable styrofoam inclines for transitioning between different levels, and their plaster cloth for filling in all of the landscaping blanks, I got religion! I immediately tossed all of my HO stuff into a box and set out to build myself a big layout (this time in N scale) using Home Depot styrofoam as the base and Woodland Scenics everything else for everything else. The rest, as they say, is history (and documented in excruciating detail elsewhere on this website).




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