Welcome back to the Saturday Special friends. The piece below was written many years ago and it mentions things that you will likely have no interest in. Please glaze past those things as I’m sharing this story with you to tie together some of the past Saturday Specials. My disclaimer on my website where this is posted in full is that it’s like listening to someone talk about people you don’t know. I had planned on sharing this with you last week but we all know what happened then so here it is this week. Hope you enjoy my trip down memory lane.
The history of the Wabash Model RR (WMRR) began in December of 1971 when yours truly asked the fat man from the north pole for a train set, and more specifically, an ELECTRIC train set. Though the saintly giver(s) of gifts didn’t have a lot of financial resources at the time they came through in winning fashion. Gifts appeared under the Christmas tree while we were at grandmothers house on Christmas eve. Upon anxious arrival we opened gifts that night. I had received 2 boxes (probably more but these are the two of interest), 1 heavy and the other light. To a 7 year old, a lightweight shirt box could only mean one thing. Socks and underwear. AUGGH! The heavy box always meant something good. Believing it to be too small to be the electric train I had asked for I opened it with limited anticipation. The box read “MRC 500N Golden Throttle Pack” (or something like that). Santa, with a sly grin, said something to the effect of “see there? If you get a train you can use that to run it!”. So much for the train set I had hoped for. Upon opening the lightweight box, I discovered 5 pieces of something that looked like track. It wasn’t sectional as other track I had seen before, it was flex track. It was also smaller than anything I had seen before. I wouldn’t learn for many years that it was in fact N scale track. Also in the box were several smaller boxes, each individually wrapped. One was heavier than the rest so naturally I opened it first with renewed enthusiasm. It was the, now infamous, Atlas C-Liner painted in Milwaukee Road colors with the Hiawatha emblem on the front. The other small boxes were a box car, a tank car, a stock car, and a caboose. I had gotten my electric train set and I couldn’t have been happier. Of course at the time I had no idea nor could I have cared less about the existance of the Wabash RR. I had my train set. Just one problem. No place to set it up.
As a side note here, I was lucky enough to have parents who, if they said they would do something, they did it. They didn’t make promises that couldn’t be kept nor did they make threats (they just did it). I had to be patient sometimes but whatever the promise was, got done. One of the promises made was that we would soon nail the track to a board so I could play with the train when ever I wanted to. A memory that remains vivid is that this board was supposed to be able to slide under the couch when not in use. Well, Dad never did anything small. Off to the lumber yard we went. A 3/4″ 4×8 sheet of plywood strapped to the top of the car later, we were on our way to the toy store (did I mention that this was my birthday?). We emerged from the store with a bunch more flex track and several switches. For the next week, I watched as my father played with my train track, cutting, nailing, soldering, wiring, and testing my electric train set (ain’t that always the way). Even to this now 8 year old boy, one thing was obvious. There was no way this board was going to fit under the couch.
Construction took place on my grandmothers dining room table (did I mention we lived in the grandparents house at the time?) and that was where the layout would have to be set up in order for me to use it. THAT ruled out the ‘whenever I want’ part. Not because I wasn’t allowed to or because the dining room got used for much, it was because Dad had to set it up. He was an over the road truck driver at the time so three or four days out of the week, he was gone. Mom had also taken a job by now to help finance the next chapter in the saga of the Wabash Model RR. What this meant was that there was no one around willing to help set up the train board. There was a babysitter but IIRC, she was too fat and lazy to get off of the couch, let alone help hoist a 3/4″ sheet of fir plywood onto the dining room table. If I could get her brother to come over (also a train nut) he would set it up but that was rare. None of this is to say I never got to play with the trains. When it WAS set up it stayed up for days at a time until they noticed I wasn’t playing with it. Most of the time though it was hidden behind the china cabinet in the dining room.
Chapter two begins with the announcement from my father to my mother that ‘We’re gonna build a house’. Dad was sick and tired of living in his inlaws’ house and when they announced their impending retirement from the railroad, it was time to move on. Remember, in chapter one, I said that dad never did anything small. The dining room table now became the planning table. Drafting board, papers, rulers, pencils, pens, and a big load of balsa wood. To keep this in the thread of the WMRR, two promises were made to me. First was my own bedroom and the second, a Train Room. After three or four months of planning and building scale models of the dream house (and selling everything they owned to pay for it), a plot of earth was purchased that came to be known as ‘the lot’. I grew to hate the lot, however, something happened that insured I would never again need help moving a sheet of plywood. The final design for the house was a 45’x55′ split level. The foundation was cinder block, WET cinder block. Guess who got to carry a large portion of them. You’ve got it, Yours truly. Well this 8 year old kid cried, whined, and moaned about hauling this seemingly endless pile of cinder block. That didn’t stop dad from calling for them though. Now that I think of it, he was a hell of a man to put up with it to begin with. Truth be told, dad carried most of them but I do have sweat equity in the house that now occupies the lot. There are a lot of side stories that could be told here but in the interest of getting on with it…. Christmas of 1972 I received my first power tool. A dremel moto-tool set, model 260. Boy did I have fun with that. For my birthday that followed shortly after, my own tool box complete with hammer, saw, wrenches, square, pliers, and screwdrivers. Everything I needed to build my train table in the promised train room.
In January 1973 Grandpa retired from the RR on his 65th birthday. They moved back to Michigan from St. Louis shortly after that. By Easter weekend, mom and dad had decided they had enough and we completed the move into the new house with great haste. The basement and family room floors were still dirt with the exception of a space about the size of a 1/2 car garage. That’s where the boiler sat and also where the washer and dryer were. One bedroom of the 4 had finished walls and something resembling carpet on the floor. All of our boxed up toys occupied the master bedroom. The room that would become my room hadn’t been quite finished yet so my sister and I slept in the living room on the couches (this only lasted a week or so). Upon completion of the second room, both my sister and I were moved out of the living room. Living conditions would remain this way for a few months. By the summer the family room floor had been poured so now there was a place to put all the stuff stored in the master bedroom. We could finally unpack our toys. YIPEEE!!!! The now somewhat battered train board could be set up on some sawhorses AND LEFT THERE!. After some dusting and general cleaning, the power pack and trains were dug out. MUCH to my dismay, the Atlas C-liner had suffered the problem that most others did. The brushes on the motor had burned out. It probably didn’t help matters much that in my curiosity of how it worked, I had dismantled it several times. That was basically the end of my N scale endeavors. The battered train board sat behind a shelving unit for the next couple years until dad decided nothing was going to happen with it. He instructed me to dismantle it so with wire cutters in hand, I began pulling nails, cutting wires, and taking the track off of the board. That did not squelch my interest in trains however, just put it on hold. Other things were happening anyway that insured I had no time for trains. I still have the trains, the track, some of the switches, and the power pack. The board itself was ripped in half and currently is fastened to the basement wall where it supports storage cabinets.
It’s Glenn Millers fault
Fast forward to 1977. The basement floor had been in for quite awhile and my parents home improvement business was beginning to take shape. Christmas time 1977, watching the idiot box, I hear the Glenn Miller song, Chattanooga Choo Choo (CCC). A TV ad for the original Tyco Chattanooga train set. Mezmorized, I told the folks that’s what I wanted for Christmas. Once again, I had trains on the brain. Mom, being practical, asked if it would work with my other stuff. I don’t remember my answer, all I knew for sure was that I wanted THAT train set. Christmas Eve, the usual visit to Grandmas house, return and sure enough the gifts were there. By now of course, my sister and I had figured out there was no Santa, not one that flew around in a sleigh anyway. The living room full of torn wrapping paper revealed that I had not received my train set. Instead, an AFX slot car set. Not the train set I wanted but still a pretty cool gift. The race track was set up (and could stay set up) on the pool table in the family room for the time being. On the birthday that followed that Christmas dad restarted a birthday tradition. We went to the hobby shop. With the apparent knowledge of what was coming that night he steered me towards picking out track and switches, 20 pcs of flex track, 3 left switches and 3 right switches. I did have to help pay for some of it with paper route money I had earned. He informed me that the promise of a train table was FINALLY going to be delivered upon. That night after opening the usual gifts, blowing out the candles, etc Mom produced the one and only Chattanooga Choo Choo train set (they probably spent their last spare penny to buy it). To a 13 year old boy with trains on the brain, Nothing could have made for a better birthday. That is except for a 13 year old girl. Incidentally, the next trip to that train store (next birthday) started me on the road that would become the downfall to all future earnings. Two Athearn flat cars and an Athearn box car.
I didn’t have to wait long for the train table. I think dad was just as anxious as I was to get it set up. Into the basement we went and for the next several hours the train table was built. It was an 8×10 foot U shaped table with the main part being 4×8. A couple days later with dad cutting, nailing, soldering, wiring, he had exhausted the supply of track. A main loop following the outline of the table with a small branch loop within. Put the CCC on the track, turn up the throttle and away she goes. Bellowing smoke from the stack, headlight glowing brightly, and full steam ahead. I finally had my train table! The only thing missing was the Glenn Miller song but I was able to use my imagination for that. Some time prior to this I had discovered the Mantua GP20 train set that the folks had purchased and put up around the tree. They must have only done it once because for the life of me, I couldn’t (and still can’t) remember ever seeing it before then. Being allowed to set that train on the track meant that I now had 2 trains chasing each other around the layout. Later that spring, while reading the want ads in the local paper, dad saw someone wanting to sell an HO trainset. We went and looked at it and a day later went and picked it up. NOW, I had 3 engines, several switches and at least 20 cars. A lot of new experiences were gained on that train table. Late summer, dad needs the space for his workshop so he instructs me to dismantle the train table and pack everything safely away in a trunk. Strange, he built them but always made me tear them down… go figure. Anyway, the train table was once again on hold.
It is now 1981, senior year in high school. I had, for a few years now, the freedom of a car and drivers license. That meant I didn’t have to wait for my birthday to go to the hobby shop. Unfortunately, it was also a time of great financial distress for everyone in the area. Auto plant layoffs and closures meant people were making due with their homes as is. THAT meant, anyone in the construction business was hurting in a very big way. Jobs that had been started had to be stopped because there was no money to pay for completion. Thousands of people (not us) packed up and moved to Texas chasing the promise of better times. There was some work here but it was mighty slim picken’s. The few $$ I did manage to earn all went into the trains. Whenever I had a spare $5 or $10, off to the hobby shop. In 1982 (spring break) dad went to California looking for work with his brother who had assured him that work could be found. I went with him, both to help drive and for the trip. We packed up all of the tools we could get into the bed of that F100 and headed for Californ-eye-aye. Easter sunday, at Ft Courage (F-Troop) Az, Blowout. Rear passenger side tire. Truck full of tools, there was no way in hell that shitty ford jack was going to lift it. After a couple hours, someone finally stopped to help and we got the spare tire put on. Just one problem, the spare wasn’t much good either and wasn’t going to last long. Not with that load on top of it. We carefully limped off down some wash road in hopes of making it to the service station we had seen a few miles back. As luck would have it, and at a cost of $100, a new tire and we were on our way. We arrived in LA the following morning after spending the night in Barstow. Dad and I did a few tourist things for the remaining few days I would be there and then it was on a plane out of LAX for me. We paid for the ticket with the sale of the pool table. Dad stayed out there to seek and hopefully find work.
The week I had awaited for 12+ years had finally arrived. Graduation day. No more school. HOOORAY! Or at least so I thought. Mom, though her network of past employers and friends, got hooked up into the career that she still pursues today. Dad was still out in CA trying to hack out some sort of living in order to send money back home. He wasn’t expected to make the graduation but he must have wanted to be there because he made the trip, driving, alone, from LA to Detroit in just over 2 days. With the knowledge that I would soon receive my high school diploma I spent the 2 months prior to graduation seeking a job of my own. No luck. At the time I had no intention of attending college. SO, Back out to California after graduation. Dad and uncle had set up a shop, using dad’s tools, and had gone into the sign business. I was promised the opportunity (not by dad) of working at Hughs Aircraft. That turned out to be, fill out the application, don’t call us, we’ll call you. Through a connection at the Orange County Sheriff’s office we secured work finishing the inside of a commercial space in a strip mall. This was supposed to be a record store and had several partners. Dad and uncle cut a deal with these people and when it came time to do the work, uncle was NO where to be found.. What a cockroach.. always was, was then, still is, and will always be. That left dad and I to do the work. From July through September, in the hottest and most humid summer in recent history, dad and I shared the cramped quarters of a camper. It was strapped to the bed of that F100 parked in the parking lot in front of that strip mall. No working facilities or running water. The last open place with a rest room closed at 11:00pm and didn’t reopen until 11:00am. Once the police knew why we were there, they didn’t bother us.
We stayed and worked there for a few months and got the space near completion. When we decided it was time to go, I made 3 promises to myself. One, I was going to get a career where I didn’t have to break my back. Two, I would never again put myself in the position of having to rely on someone else for the modern, creature comfort, conveniences (electricity, running water, and a toilet at the very minimum). Three, I would never set foot in the state of California again. So far, I’ve kept all three. I got an Electrical Engineering degree, I own my home, and since I’m 2500+ miles away, the third promise is pretty easy to keep. I do have other family there but if they want to see me, they’ll have to come here or meet me some place else. What does this all have to do with the WMRR? Very little but that summer, more than any other time, altered the direction my life would take.
We arrived back in Michigan at the beginning of October 1982. By now, mom’s new career was producing enough work to keep dad and I busy and some cash began to roll in again. My haven, the train room was a welcome site. Everything was right where I left it. The work coming in though meant, the folks needed more space in the basement for the work shop. The train room had to go. Dad had said if I could show him how, in that basement with a train room, he could rip a 4×8 sheet of plywood on the table saw without hitting any obstructions, we could build a new train room. HERE is my chance, I thought to myself to build that dream layout, the Big Panhandle. After measuring, figuring, drawing, and planning I managed to secure myself an L shaped room. The main part being 10×9 and the a second part filling the remainder of the 22′ at 5′ wide. Naturally, I had to tear down the layout, the walls that made up my old haven, and clear the entire basement of all the junk that had collected over the last several years (seems like I’ve been here before). 1983, the room gets built. Empty space to do with as I please. This time the bench-work was mine to build as well. That room saw 3 different layouts over the next 7 years. Also in Winter/spring 1983 I began classes at the community college in pursuit of my Associates degree in electronics. Getting that degree, working with dad, and playing with the trains pretty much consumed the next 2+ years of my life.
With my Associates degree in hand, I set out to find a job. Unfortunately, once again, the job market had puked. At least for entry level jobs anyway. Jobs that seemed to have promise never came through and many of the rest were floor sweeper jobs at best. THIS job hunt went on for a few years (admittedly, at best a half harted effort near the end of that time). Dad, probably mom too, had noticed this as well as the fact that any money I made got dumped into the trains. My hobby had consumed my life so to speak.
Dad came down to the train room one night and uttered the sentence that would once again, change my life. He said (among other things), “Go to school, Get a job, or Get out”. The next day, I was on my way to the local Universities to get applications. Both schools had engineering programs where I could apply the Associates degree credits towards an engineering degree. The basic difference between the 2 was that one was a science degree and the other was a liberal arts degree. On that bit of info alone, I made my choice and submitted my application. In the fall of 1986 I began attending college. During that fall I pledged the Engineering fraternity on campus and did pretty well in school.
The following semester, there must have been a major brain fart because, I stopped going to classes on a regular basis. Perhaps once a week to see when the tests were. Instead I was being the social fraternity animal I had never been before. This same behavior followed through the entire next year. I was there on financial aid and the office informed me that due to my lack of performance, they would no longer issue grant money. My parents put up the money for the following semester (spring 1988) on the condition that I got my shit together. Spring 1988, I had moved into the fraternity house. For the first time out from under the parents roof. I announced I was moving out expecting some expression of dismay from my parents and all they could say is Good bye, keep in touch (with a grin). Anyway, I remained at the fraternity house for the remainder of my college career (May 1990) so the train room pretty much sat idle. Money was damn tight and (although I was only 15 miles from home), there were a few nights with just 25 cent per box macaroni and cheese (no milk or butter) was all there was to eat. Even at this point I was still keeping all 3 promises I had made to myself. The train room however, sat idle. I did manage to go work on it once in awhile but it wasn’t real high on the priority list. By fall 1988, I had a full time girlfreind, a full time job, and a full time class load. Graduation in May of 1990, I moved back home shortly after. I still had the job however which kept me going to the university for the next 2 years, while I searched for a new job to start making the BIG bucks. Once again, we’ll hire if you have 5 years of experience, blah blah blah….. One bitch even wrote back stating ” we have many qualified applicants. You however, are not one of them”. No entry level jobs available. It wasn’t until spring 1992 that through a contact of my own I got the job I would have for the next several years. That’s a side note. Shortly after moving back home, Dad decided he needed the entire basement for his cabinet shop. Time to tear the layout down again only this time there was no promise of a rebuild. That was it. No more train room at mom and dads house.
Forward to Fall 1994, a huge shopping spree later (many brass locos and every train car I could carry), I decide I want a dog to keep me company. Summer of 1994 also saw the purchase of my other long lusted after toy, the 1969 Corvette. The dog that found me was Charlie, affectionately known as the beast. With these purchases and acquisitions behind me, it was time to get my own house. My own place to do with as I please. Three criteria were set in the hunt. Although it mattered, price was secondary. Find the house I wanted and then worry about how to pay for it. First, basement with room for the trains. Second, fenced yard to let the dog run around in. Third, a garage large enough to work on the vette. In December 1994 I found my house, Closed on the mortgage January 1995 and moved in March 31, 1995. It was a fixer-upper.
I’m going to leave this story here for now. The time from then until now has seen many changes in my life, many of which I’ve shared with you here, including the passing of my parents (notice in my story, they are still alive). After dad passed away I took a very large interest in photography and to an extent, the model train interest has staggered through the years. That is in part due to the loss of my once high paying job at Christmas 2001 (thank you Ford) and also the renewed interest in photography. The above story is shared on my website and it does include past pictures. If you’re interested, you can check it out by clicking here. It is an unfinished piece and was written around 1997 or so.
The photography interest revolved around the trains for a number of years and last summer I put together a video of some of the images I’ve made. You can also view the stills by clicking here. Some of these have descriptions with them describing what they are. It should be obvious which are models and which are not. If you would prefer to view the model trains in slideshow form, you can do so here.
Nice story MTH, thanks for sharing. What is this obsession with trains? Cute that your parents allowed you to have trains in the dining room. My mom would say, “better to spend your money on trains than something really bad like alocohol, drugs, gambling or bad women.”
By the way, that chat room is out of control! 🙂
I really couldn’t tell you where the obsession began. True though that it likely kept me out of a lot of trouble because I was capable of being a hell raiser as a kid, just didn’t do it though, most of the time 😉
Love the story Mel! BTW, my grandfather was a conductor on the Wabash Cannonball!!
Really? I wouldn’t know by name but maybe they knew each other at some point. My grandfather worked between Detoit and Montpelier Oh. Thanks for reading and commenting Stacey.
Grandpa was between St. Louis and Detroit so if they were the same generation they probably did know each other!
I guess a conductor may have rode the entire trip. Cool. Maybe they’re (assuming yours is gone too) talking old shop in the afterlife 🙂