July 22, 2011

Cornucopia / Cynthia Dewes

Embracing something different as an expression of love

Cynthia DewesYou’ve heard of trophy wives, corporate wives or even golf “widows” whose husbands are never home, and if they are their minds are elsewhere. Well, here’s one I’ll bet you’ve never heard of—the wives of model railroaders.

Now, you might think what’s the big deal? Model railroaders are just guys with a specific hobby, like stamp collectors or woodworkers. But, in a word, no.

Model railroaders are ordinary guys—often real nerds—with monumental ambitions, as in planning rail systems for entire cites. They may look like a mild-mannered fellow, but in reality they love power, big machinery and complexity.

Model railroaders’ wives learn more than they ever wanted to know or thought possible about trains. They learn about track widths, roadbeds, switches, sidings and hopper cars. They know that cabooses, cute as they are, are now as obsolete as steam engines.

When I was young, steam was still in use and a train running on it was truly something to see. This huge looming machine would come hurtling down the track belching smoke and making a terrifically loud noise. When it passed, you had to jump back to avoid cinders or hot steam. Diesel engines pale by comparison. Literally.

Model railroaders may be that way because of genetics or maybe by nurture, scientists are not sure which. In my husband’s case, it may have been both.

His grandpa used to take him to the St. Louis train yards when he was about 4. They’d prowl around the tracks, and he was allowed to climb all over the big engines. No government-mandated safety restrictions in those days.

However, charming as steam engines were, his first love was always diesels. Go figure. I think it’s because they are clever machines, of which he is inordinately fond, being a mechanical engineer. At any rate, he began modeling when he was about 8, and the rest is history.

My rail enthusiast has had some kind of model train layout in every place that he has ever lived. When we married, we had a one-bedroom apartment which included a tiny “utility” room with a heating unit and a water heater. Somehow, he mounted a ledge in there, containing tracks and a few railcars to operate.

In later homes, he graduated to bigger tables, one of which dropped down from the family room wall. And when the kids left home, he devoted the biggest empty bedroom to his train layout.

Today, his railroad takes up our entire basement. If he’s working behind it in a corner somewhere, it takes him 10 minutes to get to the phone. And he has a computer down there devoted to records of his equipment, rail schedules and other minutiae.

It’s a marvel.

Going to national model railroader conventions is another feature of this hobby. Since my husband’s favored railroad is the Great Northern, all the conventions that we have attended were held in neat places along that line—Montana, North Dakota, Minnesota. They are fun, even for the wives, especially when they take a train ride somewhere on a nifty old passenger car. Thus, the adventurous nature of these often nerdy-looking guys is revealed once more.

That’s the charm of a relationship that embraces all interests. After all, my husband gets dragged to everything Ernest Hemingway for me, so I guess I can tolerate trains for him.

Besides, now I can talk about railroads and sound like I actually know what I’m talking about.

(Cynthia Dewes, a member of St. Paul the Apostle Parish in Greencastle, is a regular columnist for The Criterion.)

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