Tim Woodward: Train show melts away the years

Model railroads keep alive memories of a vanished era of America.

SPECIAL TO THE IDAHO STATESMANJuly 7, 2013 

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John Eichmann, coordinator of the Rocky Mountain Hi-Railers model railroad club, explains the workings of "Lookout Junction" to 6-year-old Chloe Wolfe of Boise.

PROVIDED BY ANDIE WOODWARD

I took advantage of a rare opportunity last weekend by dragging my grandkids to the Treasure Valley Train Show. Kids today grow up with only a vague idea of what trains are, let alone experience the romance of railroading, and I wanted to give them a shot at it.

It was a rare opportunity because the show, at the Boise Hotel and Conference Center, was the first here in seven years. The good news, according to railroad buff Phil Ulmen, is that it and other shows are proving popular enough that there's talk of making it an annual event.

For the uninitiated, which includes most people under the age of, say, 50, a train show is an out-sized display of model railroads - miniature trains chugging through miniature re-creations of everyday life - towns, farms, hills and valleys, roads, bridges, airports. …

There was a time when an event like that would have been swarming with kids, mainly boys of elementary-school age. Now its mainly old guys - and a few old gals - playing with toy trains.

That's not meant to disparage them. They work hard at what they do, putting on impressive shows throughout the West and charging very modest entry fees for them. Their group, the Rocky Mountain Hi-Railers, is based in Boise. They do the shows to share their enjoyment of model railroading and to teach others, especially children, about trains. (Interested in learning more? Go to www.rockymountainhirailers.com and click on "contact.")

The Hi-Railers are helping to preserve memories of a bygone era - when America ran on rails and trains did much of what cars and airplanes do today.

How much have the times changed since then? When John Eichmann, the group's coordinator, showed a young boy a speeding train spitting out a mail bag and snatching another from a hook beside a track, the response was, "What's mail?"

That's exactly the sort of thing that made me want my grandkids to see the show. I didn't want them to be wholly ignorant of the transportation system that helped build America - let alone the concept of mail - and I wanted them to experience a tiny fraction of the fascination kids used to have with trains.

Ulmen spent years working on a model railroad with his father. He attributes that to father-son camaraderie (the Hi-Railers also welcome mother-daughter teams) and to "humans' natural fascination with big machines."

When Eichmann was a boy, he could set his watch by the whistle of the train that passed through Boise every night at 10 o'clock. He remembers trains wending their way through Downtown, a locomotive roundhouse (turnaround) at 16th and River streets, a furniture store with a curved wall built to conform to the curve of the tracks.

When I was that age, none of the neighborhood boys dreamed of getting a Red Ryder BB gun for Christmas. We all wanted parts for our train sets. We'd spend hours perusing catalogs for cars, switches, lights, scenic accessories, transformers and, best of all, locomotives.

There were two camps - steam and diesel locomotives. My choice was steam. There was something about those big, black engines thundering over the tracks, lights flashing, smoke pouring from their stacks, that was just short of mesmerizing.

One boy in our neighborhood was lucky enough to have both steam and diesel trains. His dad was rumored to make $1,000 a month - big money in Boise in those days - so they could afford it. The trains were set up on a huge table in their basement. The best time to watch them was at night with the lights off. You could see the headlights casting eerie beams in the dark, the glow of the illuminated dial on the transformer, the signal lights switching from red to green and back again in the rich kid's basement. The rest of us hated him.

The most elaborate setup in town was that of a professional model railroader we knew only as the Lionel Man. That was because he sold, among others, Lionel brand trains. (Guitarist Neil Young is a Lionel consultant.) The Lionel Man had staggering displays of them in his home, which seemed to be mostly devoted to trains. We spent hours "oohing" and "aahing" as we compiled our wish lists there.

My own train set was far more modest. It easily fit on a ping pong table in my folks' basement. They didn't have a lot of money, so it was a big deal when they offered to buy me a set of switches and it wasn't even my birthday.

Actually, it was a bribe. The catch was that I'd have to find a new home for Champ, a puppy I'd adopted and to which I was severely allergic. It was a case of giving up the puppy and having train switches or keeping the puppy and having asthma. Seduced by the switches, I succumbed.

I missed Champ a lot. But the train switches were almost as much fun, and I didn't have to get shots to play with them.

The Hi-Railers' $10,000 display has 45 switches. Its name is "Lookout Junction."

"Four trains can come to it simultaneously," Eichmann explained. "We were always yelling, 'Look out!' so that's what we decided to name it. We had eight crashes there yesterday."

Crashes are fine for thrills, but the display has far more than the potential for mayhem - from an airport with a radio-controlled helicopter to old-fashioned towns with stores, banks, churches. My personal favorite: a re-creation of the house and motel from Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho," with a "Bates Motel" sign advertising "showers available."

"There's a saying among model railroaders," Eichmann said. "Growing older is mandatory. Growing up is optional."

Kids, he added, "are one of the main reasons we do this. There's nothing like seeing a little kid who's just tall enough that his eyes reach the table, and he's smiling and his eyes are popping out. That's the payoff."

I was curious about how my high-tech grandkids would react to the Hi-Railers' lovingly assembled, $10,000 setup. It didn't take long to find out.

The oldest took a quick look and retired to a corner to text her friends. A typical teenager.

The middle kid, the only boy, stuck around longer and politely asked questions. Hopeful signs.

The youngest, who is 6, seemed interested for almost an hour. A chip off the old block, perhaps?

No such luck. When I asked her afterwards what she thought of the show, she said she liked pushing the button that made the whistle blow.

"That's all?"

"Well, I liked the train with the smoke. The rest of it was kind of boring."

I should have known. Kids today will probably never be bewitched by trains. But perhaps in decades to come, they'll find similar pleasure in resurrecting and entertaining themselves with the long-antiquated digital devices that are so much a part of life today.

Watching the Hi-Railers at play, it was hard not to hope so. The youngest member of their group is 59, the oldest in his 70s. The most striking thing about them was how happy they all looked. They smiled almost nonstop. For a few hours during the show they work so hard to put on, the aches and pains and worries of age fell away. They didn't even look like old men. They looked like happy boys, who just happened to have gray hair.

Tim Woodward's column appears in the Life section every other Sunday and is posted on www.woodwardblog.com the following Mondays. Contact him at woodwardcolumn@hotmail.com.

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