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On Track

Model railroading holds to me in curves, straight stretches, switches, couplers, and re-railers.

I wish I were a better engineer, brakeman, and conductor, but I do the best I can when the whistle blows at crossings.

I prefer HO gauge (1:87 scale) railroads because it suits my temperament, but I have a friend who’s most at home with the larger O gauge. To each his own, I say, and let the caboose take the hindmost.

My fascination with model railroading tracks back to my youthful U.S. Navy days, when I was stationed in the Philippine Islands. Entertainment was monsoons. We gave thanks for not being on death marches, which kept us from complaining. We looked for diversions. Tried to stay sober and behave while taking liberty.

One petty officer wiled away his off-duty time by building a mountain scene on a wobbly card table. He toiled up and down the landscape with a hard-working switch engine pulling coal cars and a bright red caboose. Soon as I saw it, I was railroaded.

I was captivated, seeing the hobby as a life’s journey—days of work, energy reserved and conserved, then expended carefully in order, as they say, to move the freight.

Today, more than 50 years later, my “pike” (railroad) lies in total disarray. Bits and pieces of track—rolling stock with dusty doors, unbuilt stations, and unfired locomotives—lie tangled on a nearly forgotten trail of jungled dreams.

Time to start over again.

My foundation is a four-by-eight plywood rectangle upon which to build a new dream. I see it expanding to an encirclement of otherwise unused attic space, where I can retreat when the real world becomes too tight, too tense.

This spring I’m polishing track and wheels (called trucks) for better electrical connection and smoother operation. I want no dead sections or polar reversals. This summer I might be constructing new scenery, building mountains and tunnels. Lots of trees and a glorious bridge over troubled waters.

In autumn, you might see me “coming ’round the mountain.” And maybe “we will all have chicken and dumplings” too. Next winter, I could be working on more switching opportunities—I’ve always wanted a roundhouse with engines panting to be on the main line.

In the decade ahead, I’ll be thinking and planning for a Union Pacific sweep to California. Let’s see, I’ll go out on the southern route to Los Angeles, dawdle up the coast to San Francisco, return East by way of Pikes Peak. Whenever possible, I’ll be sitting in the observation car, toasting Colorado.

I’ll be needing some more rides on the George Washington from Louisville to Ashland, then on through the mountains to the East Coast, where I’ll step out on the platform at New York Grand Central Station. I’ll hail a cab to CBS News—524 West 57 Street—and report for duty. They’ll think I’m a Rip Van Dickel and send me on my way back to Kentucky where I belong.

I’ll be more than happy to do so, because I have some important work to do on The City of New Orleans—another 500 miles with Arlo and all other restless riders. First stop, Felix’s Oyster Bar on Iberville in the French Quarter.

I’ll light a candle at St. Louis Cathedral, pray for a new century of gandy dancing, and board the Humming Bird for the return to home sweet Kentucky.

Don’t get me wrong. It’ll take years to accomplish all this, because Rome and model railroading are not daily quick fixes. It’s the journey that matters more than the destination. That’s the way it’s always been and always will be.

What to do, what to do?

Well, the Orient Express is a possibility, but not until all bills are paid, all accounts settled, anticipated expenses covered. No credit card balances, no mortgages, no unpaid promissory notes. No Orient Express until all business at hand and home is fair and square.

All abboooarrdd!

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