Friday, June 16, 2006

Playing With Trains by Sam Posey

I'm not a model railroader, although I've peered into that world with curiosity on occasion. When I picked up this book, my thought was actually about whether a friend had seen it. Then the author's name caught my attention. Yes, it's that Sam Posey, former race car driver and sportscaster. If you ever wondered what Posey did in the winter when there weren't any races, here is the answer: he was becoming a fanatical model railroader. I put the book down, but minutes later I found myself with only two books picked out for Borders' "3 for the price of 2" sale. Since that made Playing With Trains ostensibly free, I decided to check it out.

This book was more interesting than I expected, particularly as a non-railroader. The first part of the book is largely autobiographical. Posey tells about his first trains (and his mom's wiring ability), then skips ahead to his son's birth. Having a son meant he had someone to build a layout with, and Posey describes how the basement transformed into the HO-scale Colorado Midland railroad over the years. Since I just returned from a vacation through the Midland's region (in fact, I hiked part of its former right-of-way overlooking Buena Vista), this was especially exciting for me.

There were some amusing passages in this book. While Posey tried to authentically recreate the scenery of the Midland's prime years, he added one distinctly out-of-place building: a Newman's Own bottling plant. He knew Paul Newman through racing, and his wife, an artist, was designing Newman's labels at the time. Since Newman's Own seemed so very good (i.e., donating their profits to charity), Posey decided to make the company bad in his layout. He had them polluting a stream while workers lay passed out among empty beer bottles. Product testers occupied graves behind the plant, and an HO-scale Newman lookalike played ping pong, oblivious to his company's misdeeds.

After his own layout is finished, Posey writes about aspects of the hobby. In Milwaukee, he visits Walthers, the biggest wholesale model railroading supplier in the country (their catalog contains 80,000 items). In nearby Waukesha, he goes to the offices of Model Railroader magazine. Then he meets prominent hobbyists throughout the country. It is fascinating to read about their eccentric personalities and differing approaches to the hobby. Some are obsessed with operations -- they run their model like a real railroad on a strict timetable. Should a train fall behind, it gets shunted to a siding to allow on-time trains to pass first. Other railroaders care little about operations and focus on scenery instead. As artists, they strive to create or recreate a perfect environment. They obsess about details like adding rust to steel structures and black soot to tunnel ceilings.

Next Posey looks at the future of the hobby and voices concern about the ever-advancing average age of model railroaders. Around 33 years old in 1970, the average modeler is in his 50s now. The last few chapters include several train-related stories tied together, including a ride on Amtrak's Silver Meteor (much like the Silver Star that I rode to Savannah to begin my cross-country bike tour). He is disappointed that the passenger train has lost the magic it had in his youth. Then he describes a dream assignment from Road & Track: he got to "test drive" a steam locomotive for the magazine's April Fools issue.

Thanks to Posey's engaging style and enthusiasm, Playing With Trains is a quick read that offers great insight into the hobby. As I was reading this book, my wife kept saying it was okay if I wanted to build a layout in our basement. My interest isn't strong enough for that, plus I lack the manual dexterity and patience to fashion a miniature world out of diminutive building materials. Just the same, I recommend Playing With Trains to experienced model railroaders and the HO-curious alike.

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