I remember the very end of a dream as I woke up this morning: A gleaming steam locomotive, one with lots of pinstripes and shiny brass, easing away from the platform of a passenger station and out into the yards, chuffing away.
As it faded into the distance I was snapped into full wakefulness by My Darling B, who crooned directly into my ear the appropriate sound effect:
Tristan has been posting magical photos like this one of all the places he’s visited as he drives a delivery truck around England, visits the cities of Spain or stops in at a museum in London. Many of his photos are captivating night shots such as these.
Modern diesel locomotives have working brass bells on them, same as steam engines from the old days. Nobody knows why – it’s probably because there’s an ancient federal law on the books that nobody’s bothered to delete, or it could be just because it’s an old railroad tradition. Instead of being mounted on the top of the loco it’s usually hidden away behind a fuel tank or inside a wheel well, but it’s still there and they still use it. You probably heard it the last time you were waiting for a train and you didn’t even realize where that sound was coming from.
Here’s what I wonder: Who makes bells? There are thousands of locomotives running around the countryside, maybe tens of thousands. If every one of them has a bell on it, somebody somewhere is working furiously to cast bells who otherwise would have shut down production decades ago, because who needs bells these days? Just railroads, that’s who.
A dull, dreary day is a perfect day stay in the basement, working on the model railroad layout.
I spent most of the day running a subroadbed through a tight curve that will end up at one of the three terminals on the line, and at the very highest point as well. The way the lines cross over one another, I was having a little trouble getting the subroadbed high enough to pass over the level below it. After readjusting the height of the second level, though, I think I’ve got it licked.
This is the third and last level to be added to the back corner of the layout. The bottom level is the return loop, the second level is the switchback that leads to the passenger station, and the top layer is a short line to a commuter rail stop. If and when I ever get around to adding the scenery, you won’t be able to see the bottom layer, and most of the second layer will be hidden, too.
And so will all of the work I did today. I spent hours chopping up half-inch by half-inch sticks to use as supports for the subroadbed, clamping them to the frame and screwing them in place ever so carefully, checking repeatedly that the subroadbed remained level. It looks busy as hell. “Wow, that’s getting pretty complex,” My Darling B said, when she came down to ask when I wanted to eat supper. But after the scenery’s in place, none of it will be visible. All you’ll see is the track.
Some day. Not today. Not tomorrow, either. Come back in about a year. I might even have trains running by then.
I spent Saturday in East Troy again, putting in a little volunteer time at the East Troy Electric Railway, but with an amazing difference this time: My Darling B went along to play trains, too. Yes! I still don’t know why, but she did.
They needed help on the dinner train and each dining car has a bar serving wine, beer and mixed drinks, so she volunteered to pour and they took her up on it. We left Our Humble O’Bode at around one-thirty and were there a couple hours before the dinner train was scheduled to leave, so we helped set up, or My Darling B did. I started to help out until Bev, the head honcho, asked me if I would like to be the conductor on the trolley that was about to leave the station. Again I had to stop myself from blurting out, “Does anybody ever say no to that?”
It was actually an elevated rail car from the 1920s, and I didn’t have much conducting to do. As we left the station, all I had to do was wander down the aisle punching tickets, and there were maybe a dozen people riding the car, so I was done in less than five minutes. It’s about a twenty-minute ride to the other end of the track, so I spent most of my time in the cab with Andy, the motorman, who obligingly showed me how to make the train go and how to make it stop, two things I want very much to know how to do so that maybe, someday, I’ll be able to drive the train myself.
About an hour later we were back at the station and I was running back up the track to the dinner train to see what still had to be done to get it ready to go. Not much, as it turned out. Everybody else had done all the hard work. All I had to to was move some of the glasses around and then stand by the door and look pretty while the passengers came aboard. We left the station spot on time at five o’clock.
Brett was the bartender in Car 25 and I was his server, gofer and whatever else he needed me to be. Right after the train left the station I went to the far end of the car to take orders for drinks while Brett started at the near end and did the same. When we met somewhere in the middle we headed back to the bar where Brett mixed up the drinks and I passed them out. I think we got that all done in less than fifteen minutes. After that, all we had to do was keep everyone happy by making sure their glasses were never empty very long. Pretty easy job, really. Maybe someday I’ll learn how to mix drinks and then it’ll be even easier, although I’ll never be as good at cracking jokes as Brett is.
My Darling B was in Car 24 doing the same thing I was doing. Every so often we met in the middle to check on each other and swap stories. Three weeks ago we were riding this same train as passengers, and if I’d known that they served up a bottle of bubbly and a bouquet of roses to people with wedding anniversaries I’d have made sure they knew we were there for ours, but we didn’t think of it then. Two people in Car 25 were celebrating birthdays, too, and they got cupcakes. I think I’m going to have a birthday soon. Yeah, that’s the ticket.
We stayed behind after the ride was over to help them bag the table cloths, empty the garbage cans and otherwise clean up the cars before they rolled them away to the barn. Then My Darling B and I wandered off toward the station … and came across Andy getting ready to put the open-air street car away. “Want a ride to the platform?” he asked, and that’s how we got out own chartered trolley ride up the tracks to the station, a great ending to a fun night. Funnily enough, B wants to go again next weekend.
I’ve been working on the raaaaaaaail-road, allllllll the live-long day.
Does anybody even learn that song as a kid any more? I sure hope so. It was one of the first songs I can remember my Mom singing to me, besides “You Are My Sunshine.” And by the way, did you know that the part that goes, “You are my sunshine, my only sunshine…” is just the chorus? My mother never taught me any of the actual verses of the song, probably because she was trying to spare me the emotional trauma I might have suffered from exposure to the manic thoughts of a lovesick suitor whose significant other has ditched him and left him to wallow in abject, suicidal depression:
The other night, dear, as I lay sleeping
I dreamed I held you in my arms
When I awoke, dear, I was mistaken
And so I held my head and cried
I’ll always love you and make you happy
If you would only say the same
But if you leave me to love another
You’ll regret it all someday
You told me once, dear, you really loved me
And no one else could come between
But now you’ve left me and love another
You have shattered all my dreams
Jeeze Louise! If I were that guy’s former sweetheart I’d be looking to slap a restraining order on him and spend the rest of my life sleeping with the lights on.
Anyway, I spent almost all day Sunday in East Troy playing with trains. Remember the song about railroads that I started this drivel with? I really was working on the railroad, only it wasn’t all very railroady work. The very first job they gave me was cleaning the spiderwebs and dead flies off the windowsills of a coach that had been in the barn for about a year. I could’ve been doing that in any office building in the state, until the point when I was about halfway down one side of the car and it started moving. That doesn’t happen to the cleaning crews in office buildings downtown.
The coach car I was cleaning was an old interurban, an electric commuter car from the 1920′s that’s about eighty feet long and has probably twenty-four windows, really wide ones with lots of windowsill space that turned out to be slathered with plenty of melted ice cream that had been baked on by the heat of the summer. There’s an ice cream shop right beside the tracks that the museum’s owners not only encourage tourists to stop at but also apparently allow them to bring their tasty treats on board for the ride. Cleaning up bugs and spiderwebs was a cinch compared to the ice cream.
I kept on working as the train came to a stop on a faraway stretch of track and eventually I could hear the tromping of the driver and the rest of the crew as they made their way through the second coach that was coupled to the car I was working in. Both coaches were the kind that could be driven in either direction and when they were coupled together they worked like a single car: You could drive them from the front of one car, stop, swap the trolley poles around so they were pointing in the other direction, then go to the back of the other car and drive them in the other direction, which is what they were doing. I didn’t know why they had to drive the empty cars out onto the track but I didn’t care – I was riding on a choo-choo train!
I finished cleaning up the car by the time we got back to the station so I tagged along with Ryan, one of the guys on the train crew, who was trying to figure out what to do with me. “What is it you were thinking of doing?” he asked me. I told him I’d do just about anything they needed help with. “Including … driving the trains?” he asked, a bit hesitantly, as if he was afraid I might be scared off by the question. “Well, yes,” I answered, then corrected my answer to, “Heck yes!” Do people actually say “No” to that question? I have to remember to ask him that sometime.
We were walking down the track toward a couple interurbans Ryan had to park in the barn, so he said, “I want to put this on track four, so line up the switches and open the barn door,” and he tossed me his key ring and climbed up into the cab.
I looked down the spread of four tracks leading toward the barn. “Okay. Uh. Is track four on the far left, or the far right?”
“Good question. It’s on the right.”
The points on two of the switches ahead of him had to be realigned so he could get to track four, and aligning them turned out to be simple to do. It was actually very much like switching tracks on a model railroad. All I had to do was unlock the catch that held down a heavy swing arm, flip it over, check the alignment to make sure I’d done it right, and move on. And the barn doors unlocked like the back doors of a delivery truck, so before he even got there I had all the switches lined up and the doors wide open for him to slip the cars into their spot in the back of the barn. Once the cars were parked, he showed me how to switch off all the electrical systems inside each car, set the brakes and pull the trolley poles down off the wire, then took me around the side for the last little bit of housekeeping, bleeding the air out of the tanks under the car. “I’ll let you do this ’cause you’re going to get dirty,” he said – I was in grubby cleaning clothes, and he was wearing a white button-down shirt. There was a stopcock on the end of each tank and all I had to do was crawl under the car, squeeze the trigger and twist it. The opening of the valve was pointed down at the track and started to hiss as twisted it. I figured it should be wide open – why wouldn’t I? – so I cranked it hard all the way around and was hit in the face by a cloud of gravel blown up by a terrific blast of air. For the rest of the day, I was picking gravel out of my hair and finding rocks in my pockets. To let the air out of the other tanks, I cracked the valve just a bit, then walked away and let it bleed off.
Back at the clubhouse, Ryan took care of some administrative paperwork to get me signed up in the club, then asked me if I wanted to flag the dinner train. “Sure,” I said. “You’re gonna tell me what that means in a minute, right?” Not only did he tell me, he drew me a map. I had to race ahead of the dinner train to stop traffic at the places where it would cross the road, which seemed like a simple job when I was watching other guys do it as we rolled along on the dinner train two weeks ago. Then, the train was barely creeping along at five or ten miles an hour. I don’t know how fast it was going while I was flagging it, but it wasn’t creeping. Each time I raced ahead of it, I got to the next crossing with just a few minutes to spare. At the last crossing, I was supposed to unlock the derail, align the points so the train would turn down a siding and energize the line before blocking traffic. When I got there, the dinner train was waiting just down the track for me, so I hustled to set the points, threw the switch that would energize the line, then ran out into the road to stop traffic. The train didn’t move. I didn’t know how to signal them, so I just stood there in traffic, waiting, until I could see Bob, the driver, coming down the track. He stopped and bent down to fiddle with something, and that’s when I remembered the derail. Facepalm!
A derail is a wedge of iron that gets put over the track to keep runaway cars from going where they’re not supposed to by making them crash. Well, not actually crash – it forces the wheels to jump off the track, bringing the car to a stop. That’s why it’s called a derail. Bob wouldn’t be able to drive the dinner train over the crossing until somebody – Bob, in this case – flipped it off the track. I ran over to let the traffic pass and to apologize to Bob for missing the derail, but he told me not to worry about it, they were stopped back there to give the catering staff time to serve the food. But he checked to make sure I remembered the siding and the electric switch.
I chased the dinner train all the way back without forgetting anything else, then spent the rest of the afternoon helping Ryan clean it and get it ready for the next trip out. One of the steps to cleaning it out was dumping the toilets, which was just a matter of connecting a hose to a spout on the bottom of the car, pulling a release valve – staying well away from any danger of backblast this time! – then rinsing it out with a garden hose. The extension hose that connected to the spout on the coach came out of a drain set into the ground beside the tracks. “You just have to grab it and pull it out,” Ryan assured me, but the thing seemed to be wedged in there pretty tight, and it was hard to get a grip on because it was only a little smaller than the drain pipe. I could just barely get my hands down in there. “You might have to wiggle it a bit,” he prompted. I tried, but couldn’t wiggle it. It was wedged in there too tight. I paused a moment and looked back at Ryan. “This is the joke you play on newbies, isn’t it?” It wasn’t, but he thought that was a pretty funny idea, so my ears are probably going to be burning for years as future newbies try to get that damned thing out of the ground.
After we got the dinner train cleaned up, Ryan and Al went over to Lauter’s ice cream shop for a malted milk, and I had a cherry phosphate and a big chocolate chip cookie, Ryan’s treat for helping him out.
On Sunday morning we went back to the train museum so I could poke around just a little bit more before we left town. I persuaded B to go with me by promising to buy her an ice cream at the old-timey soda fountain next door, which didn’t pan out so well because it turned out the ice cream shop wasn’t going to open for about two hours. She let me look around the museum anyway.
It was pretty quiet at that early hour, very few people around, but I found a couple of volunteers and asked them how the railroad was run. The conductor on the dinner train, Brett, said that everything was maintained entirely by volunteers and I wanted to know how they did that. I figured that maybe they meant that volunteers ran the dinner train and sold tickets and that they hired professionals to do things like lay track and weld train cars together. No, it turned out they meant just what they said: Volunteers did the whole thing, including laying track. Wow. Just Wow.
“Why don’t we go talk to Bev at the house?” Sue, one of the volunteers, suggested, so that I could find out more about the railroad, and I followed her around the back of the museum to what looked like an ordinary house next door. It turned out to be more of an office / clubhouse / railroad headquarters, and Bev was the woman who ran it all. She was busy with something else when we got there so Sue introduced me to Steve, another volunteer, who was on his way over to the car barn and asked me if I wanted to have a look around the barn with him. The eight-year-old part of me that loves choo-choo trains was jumping up and down at that point squealing “OMYGOD!OMYGOD!OMYGOD!” but the boring, fifty-year-old that walks around in the real world as me just smiled and said, “Sure, that would be great!”
Steve led the way down the tracks toward town, chatting away about trains and such, with B gamely following along. It turned out that Steve was going to spend the day in the barn anyway, so he was happy to spend thirty or forty minutes leading us on a semi-guided tour exploring the streetcars and big interurbans that were sheltered there. It was like finding a big box in the attic filled with the coolest Lionel train set you’ve ever seen. Bliss!
We went back to the clubhouse after we left the barn and I was introduced to Bev, who asked me what I’d like to do. I said I’d like to do just about anything they had for me, said something lame like, “I could sweep floors or whatever,” because I figured a newbie shouldn’t shoot for the moon on the first day.
“Would you like to operate the trains?” she asked.
“Operate?” Did she mean “drive the train?” OMYGOD!OMYGOD!OHMYGOD!
“Well, heck yes!”
She said I’d have to ride along as a conductor a couple times to get the idea how they operated, because on busy days one car went out while the another was heading back and they’d worked out a way to keep them from smacking into each other that I’d have to learn. Andy, another one of the volunteers who lays track in his spare time (I’ve seen an example of his work and I am in awe) ran upstairs to get me a white shirt with the railroad’s logo embroidered over the pocket, and that’s how I officially became a big old train nerd. All I need is the hat, now.
Oh, I almost forgot: We were poking around in the car barn and talking with Bev long enough that I could take My Darling B to the old-timey soda fountain for a hot fudge sundae! What’s that called when everything works out for everybody? “Awesome” is pretty close but not the exact word I’m looking for.
A couple weeks ago, My Darling B sat down at the dinner table, flipped a brochure at me and asked, “Did you still want to go on this?” I picked up the brochure at the last model train show I went to. It advertised a dinner train out of East Troy on an electric rail car. I thought maybe I could talk B in to going along, but then I could never figure out how to broach the subject. She mostly just yawns when I talk about trains around her, so I try not to talk about them, and the reflex carried over to this. Then I lost the brochure, and then I forgot about it until I found the brochure again while I was cleaning up the bedroom, but I still couldn’t figure out how to ask her, so I just threw it in the recycling pile. She must have dug it out of there.
“Do you want to go?” I asked her. Nothing like a direct question to get the point across.
She said something like, “Sure, sounds like fun,” proving once again that I married the right girl, not that there was a doubt in my mind.
I made the reservations for the train, she made reservations for the overnight accommodations, and we went yesterday.
The dinner train we went on is run by the East Troy Electric Railroad, a volunteer group out of East Troy, not far from Milwaukee, that restores and runs electric street cars, interurban cars and steeplecab motors. Interurban cars took commuters between towns to the big cities of the Midwest in a network that spiderwebbed up the east coast of Wisconsin. Steeplecab motors were electric locomotives that pulled freight cars. You know what street cars are.
The dinner train used to be an interurban car that the East Troy Electric Railroad volunteers turned into a diner. Fifty passengers sit down to a catered dinner while the car makes it way slowly from East Troy to Mukwonago and back. The trip takes about an hour and a half, so it arrives in East Troy with plenty of time to drive home, but we planned this trip to be our anniversary getaway, so B booked a room in a local bed & breakfast so we could have a nice, relaxing evening without having to think about making the hour-long drive home in the dark.
The dinner train leaves town from a brick building that used to be an electric power station and looks as though it must be at least a hundred years old. The inside has been cleared of just about all the old machinery to make room for a ticket office, a refreshment stand, lots of shelves displaying souvenirs like books, shirts and toy trains, and a model train layout that will come to life with the push of a button. We didn’t poke around in there too much on Saturday night, but came back Sunday morning to have a good look around and talk to some of the volunteers.
The dinner train was fifteen minutes late leaving East Troy because of a broken belt on the air conditioner. One of the volunteers got off the train with an unhappy look on his face, crawled under the car and didn’t emerge for almost ten minutes, trying to wipe thick, black grease off his hands. He still didn’t look too happy but the air conditioning started running when they turned the power back on, and everyone in the dining car gave him a round of applause as he walked the length of the aisle to his table at the end of the car.
The meal wasn’t served until we traveled down the tracks a ways. Until then, we snacked on cheese and crackers and sipped wine. They have very cleverly installed a cash bar at one end of the car that I couldn’t help but notice was bringing in plenty of additional revenue. I had two glasses of a pretty tasty Merlot, as did My Darling B, but they charged us for just one each because of the late departure. I made sure they got a hefty tip and I think most of the other passengers showed their appreciation, too.
The train stopped just long enough for the caterers to serve dinner, and as soon as everyone had a plate we started off again. Dinner was a generous slice of breaded steak and a chicken breast with mashed potatoes and assorted veggies. Frankly, it was more than generous. It was way more than I could comfortably eat, and had to leave some on my plate no matter how valiantly I tried to finish. I have to admit that I didn’t expect much better than airplane food so I was very pleasantly surprised by how good the meal was. The food was all catered (I wish I could remember the name to give them the credit they deserve) and the staff did a great job of taking care of us.
The end of the line is a public park in Mukwonago where we were encouraged to stretch our legs during the fifteen-minute layover. On the trip back they went a little faster, maybe a whole ten miles an hour, instead of moseying along the way they did while we were eating. We still got back before dark, strolled through town and retired to our room at the B&B with a bottle of white wine we found at a store on the town square.
Cleats! Millions of ’em! I’ve been gluing these little bastards to the benchwork all week long, five at a time, because I have ten two-inch C-clamps and that’s all. I could go buy more, but I’m such a cheapskate that I haven’t been able to bring myself to bust open my wallet and spend a few bucks on this when I could just settle for the slow and steady approach. So I settled. If this approach has anything to recommend it, I’ve become expert at tightening a C-clamp one-handed.
The one pair of four-inch C-clamps I have in my toolbox come in handy for when I have to glue cleats on the double-up boards. They’re awfully big and clunky, though, and so heavy that they hurt a lot when I unscrew them and the loose heavy part bashes across the points of my knuckles, so I mostly stick with the smaller ones, because, ouch.
And why exactly am I gluing all these damned cleats to the frame of the bench? Well, of course it’s so I can glue three-inch-wide strips of plywood between the cleats. Why else?
You can’t imagine how many times I’ve asked myself exactly that question during the past two weeks. Weirdly, an answer didn’t pop into my head until this morning as I was pulling out one of a half-dozen splinters I’ve gotten stuck in the ends of my fingers. I’m pretty sure it’s because I’ve always wanted a train layout like this one. Well, probably not literally always. Probably since my best friend showed me the awesome layout his dad built for him in their basement and he let me take the throttle. I was about ten years old. That’s close enough to always as to make no difference, isn’t it?
And it’s starting to look like an attainable goal. The basic benchwork is nearly complete. I’ll add shelves underneath some day in the future because I need the storage space, but my most immediate concern is laying track and getting trains running. I plan to lay the track on a roadbed cut from Masonite which I salvaged when I demolished the benchwork of the old layout earlier in the year, and the Masonite, in turn, will have to be supported by something, hence the plywood stringers. I’ve never been sure why they’re called “stringers,” unless it’s because they’re strung across the gap between the frames. Let’s go with that.