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Guest column: At 85, ‘heavenly bliss’ with toy trains

By Don Haskell

For The Daily Astorian

Published on December 15, 2017 10:36AM

Don Haskell makes an adjustment to the engine of one of his model trains in the den of his Astoria home.

Colin Murphey/The Daily Astorian

Don Haskell makes an adjustment to the engine of one of his model trains in the den of his Astoria home.

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Don Haskell

Don Haskell

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My children think I’m nuts. My grandchildren think I’m eccentric. But my great-grandchildren giggle in wide-eyed wonder whenever they see my new hobby.

When I was 10, I wanted an electric train for Christmas so bad I could taste it. But with World War II raging and money short, I got clothes instead. Now 75 years later, I ended up with my brother-in-law’s model trains after he passed away last spring. And when I started playing with his trains, I realized model trains were something I’d always hungered for.

A busy Chicago lawyer playing with trains, however, was never in the cards. Even now, a retired 85-year-old guy playing with trains is thought to be strange by folks not in the know about how fun such things can be. And they also don’t know how challenging operating electric model trains can be to an aging brain.

The wiring of all the switches for turnouts and sidings, and lights for sidings and freight yards, seems to me more complicated than simple house-wiring. Frustratingly complicated at times. And you have to keep on your toes not to mix up DC power with AC power. Otherwise, you’ll fry your locomotives.

On the other hand, wiring switches and lights is a breeze when trying to figure out how to wire tracks and turnout switches to run two or three trains automatically at the same time — while avoiding train wrecks. And avoiding train wrecks isn’t easy for an aged novice with lousy eyesight.

When I master how to do all the wiring, I’m considering advancing into wireless operation. That’ll make old-fashioned model train operation a lot easier. Also much more up to date with this century’s technology. My long-suffering wife, Carol, however, both smiles and cringes whenever I mention I might do that.

One trouble with having a hobby like model electric trains is eBay’s auctions. They’re far too tempting. It’s surprising so much electric model train stuff is available worldwide. There must be many millions of model train aficionados around the world.

I started out with my late brother-in-law’s two locomotives, or “locos” as the model train aficionados call them. Now thanks to eBay’s allure, I have four different ones. All of the locos are the largest G scale, and of the early steam-driven, coal-fired variety. The locos are anywhere from 24 inches to 36 inches long with their tender (coal car) attached. And their tender cars are loaded with “coal” to generate “steam.” They even have realistic-looking “fire” in the loco’s fireboxes.

All are built to scale — 1/24th in size to the original locomotive. They can be run outside in the garden or inside where it’s dry. I have them inside in my office at home where it’s warm and dry. To put all the track together to run them, I moved most of my office furniture to one side, which I admit does look a bit odd to some folks.

The locos all have lights and realistic sounds of hissing of steam, smoke, choo-choo, bells and of course, the moody wails of train whistles. One even has screeching brakes and water pump sounds. And I’m not the least bit embarrassed to say all those unfamiliar noises in today’s modern world bring smiles to onlookers on a rainy day in Astoria.

My favorite model loco is the LGB Mikado, probably the most successful steam locomotive ever built. With its tender (coal car) attached, its model is 3 feet long and 6 inches high. The authentic replica comes with an onboard decoder for both analog and digital operation. Although the Mikado is ready for modern operation with up-to-date technology, I’m still enjoying the old-fashioned way of running the trains with electric wires and push buttons.

The Mikado operated all over the world from the late 1890s until the early 1960s, when diesel engines came into vogue. The wailing whistle of the Mikado reminds me of my daily commute in the late 1950s to downtown Chicago from the suburbs on the Northwestern commuter train. In those days I had to wear black coats so the soot from the coal-fired locomotive wouldn’t soil my suit.

The large G-scale model trains were first made in Germany in the early 1900s by Marklin & Co., and refined after World War II by another German manufacturer popularly known as LGB. By the mid 1980s, the large G-scale model train was firmly established and several more manufacturers began offering a wide range of locomotives, cars and accessories. Now there are hundreds of websites devoted to nothing but selling model trains and their parts and accessories. In fact, if you Google “model trains,” you get 33,500,000 results! And there’s even a model railroading club in Hammond.

But if you’re interested in the real thing, you can visit our local, and fascinating, total restoration of the 1925 Baldwin steam locomotive #21. Believe it or not, those devoted guys have been at the restoration down at the Port of Astoria, a block from Marine Drive, for over 15 years!

It’s clear to me that younger generations have moved on to high-tech stuff that offers much more action, with all the bloody gore and violence that model railroading doesn’t offer. The decline in popularity of model railroading coincides with the development of the internet, laptops and iPhones, which undoubtedly have different kinds of fascination. But to me, fulfilling a disappointed Christmas wish of a 10-year-old at 85 is heavenly bliss.

Astoria resident Don Haskell served on the Clatsop County Board of Commissioners following a successful career practicing law in Chicago.



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