I just couldn’t help myself today. I had taken my 2 1/2 year old grandson to “the train store” (although his pronunciation of that phrase sounds a bit different from what you just sounded out in your head), and while he was busy playing with the wooden Thomas train sets, I happened upon a couple of things to interest me, too.
You see, I have always loved trains.
When I was a boy my father pulled down an old electric train that had been stored in a box up high in the garage. I think it had belonged to his nephew, Edward (he was named after Dad). It was fantastic! A solid black locomotive engine in what must have been O scale. It was powered by an electric transformer that gave off an oily-electric odor; turning a plastic knob would increase or decrease its speed. We would set up the track, making it wind under and around the furniture, couple up the cars (there were several, as I recall, boxcars, oil tankers, caboose, etc.), then we would turn out the lights and start it up. It had a headlight on the engine, and we would watch it wind its way around the track in the dark, watching as the beam of light scanned each piece of new terrain. It was enchanting.
I have often wondered what happened to that old train.
My father told us that he was interested in the smaller H0 scale trains (named this because they are 1:87, roughly half the size of the O scale trains), and that he had wanted to have one for himself. It intrigued me (and pleased me immensely) that even as a man he still had an interest in something that was so important to me as a child. I loved that about him. The boy. In the man.
Many years later, as a married man with children, I purchased a starter H0 scale train set for Dad. I don’t know if it thrilled him or not, but to me, it was the perfect gift for him. I mean, what would YOU rather have? A tie? A pair of socks? Or . . . a life like H0 scale diesel engine?
The H0 scale trains originated in Germany in the early 1920s, evidently, and by the 1950s they were gaining in popularity in the United States. I remember my cousin, John, had an electric train that must have been O scale. The H0 set Dad brought down for us to play with from time to time (it didn’t get to stay in the house year round) might have been a postwar Lionel although I don’t ever recall seeing the brand name; the engine was made of a heavy metal, and the body of each of the other cars was probably plastic.
And so . . . as I entered the train store today . . . I came with a history, you see. A love story, so to speak. With trains.
I found a small treasure in a cardboard box, a pile of old pre-owned things, discounted in the extreme, most likely unusable in a working electric train set up. But . . . quite the prize to place in a model train yard, mothballed (so to speak), for visual pleasure only. And I bought it. It was a black locomotive with a coal car that says CHATTANOOGA on its side.
Chattanooga was where my father used to work for Southern Railway; he was a steward for a short time on the railroad.
The mystique that surrounds trains, both model and real-to-life trains, enthralls me. I will forever be captivated by the sound of train whistles, the beckoning of train tunnels, the allure of train tracks that wander into the distance, and the distinct smell of the train yard. These call out to me the instant I hear or see them.
Models. Miniatures. What is it in diminutive things that is so appealing to us?
As the scale of model trains decreased greater attention was given to detail. Depicting the real on a smaller scale. We love that, don’t we? Such is the intent in the phrase, “cute as a bug’s ear.”
I could stand in the train store’s showroom and watch the four or five electric trains they have set up there run for a very long time. There are mountain scenes with tunnels, farm scenes with animals, city scenes with cars, buses, children playing, men and women working . . . life being lived out.
And here I stand, presiding above it all. Like some kind of god.
In the 1985, the Julie Gold song, From A Distance (first recorded by Nanci Griffith in 1987) offered a commentary on perspective with the words “from a distance there is harmony.” From a distance “we all have enough” and we march “in a common band.” Julie’s intent was to say that God is beneficent and kind, and that He sees us without all the detail of our imperfections, just as if he were a man looking on from a great distance.
Whether or not the theological statement is true, what strikes a chord with me today is the parallel I find when I try to mine my fascination with models. Especially diminutive ones. I am fascinated with the visible details, to whatever extent they are possible in an object that has been reduced 87 times (as is the case with HO scale).
But I am more enthralled with the scope of what I am able to see all at once; that is, the ability to see the entirety of an object that in the real world is exceedingly large. I am not dwarfed by a locomotive that could measure 65 to 85 feet in length in the real world. I tower over it in the diminutive world, and can observe its entire circuitous route across the floor, foreseeing obstacles soon to be in its path, and anticipating the timing of its arrival at various junctures.
I am the god of the model train universe, taking satisfaction in the minute details visible to me, and overseeing the passing of events as they transpire in the tiny world that lies in my purview.
It may be that I have over-philosophized this trait or tendency in human beings. But I think not.
I think there is, in each of us, a desire to live life in HO scale; that is, a world of beauty and attractive detail where we are in charge. Where tragedies do indeed occur, but they are limited to derailments that can be easily remedied, or the occasional collapse of a miniature tree (usually caused by the finger of a god who is not being careful).
We long for order, beauty, intricate detail, and realistic scenes both pastoral and urban.
We are obsessed with the depiction of life: in movies, in literature, in art, music, and dance. We want to convey how it really is.
But then, too, we long for the idyllic.
When I look at the tiny HO locomotive engine and coal car I bought today, with the word CHATTANOOGA written across the side of the coal car, and observe the workings of the Walschaerts valve gear and connecting rods, I marvel at the intricacy of this 1970s Tyco Chattanooga Choo Choo.
And I love what I see.
Because from a distance . . . or up close and personal . . . it harks back to a depiction of a world that touched my family in many ways. It was the world of my father and mother. It was, and is, my world. And, no doubt, it will be like the world of my grandson who is enamored with trains, too.
I am in a love story. With trains. Toy trains.
But . . . it’s not trains exactly. It’s about the things we love – together. Or loved together. It’s about our lives.
We revel in the depiction of our lives.