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Sand County Model Railroading

Aldo Leopold, in his essay, “A Man’s Leisure Time,” often printed with his A Sand County Almanac (1949), suggested that “a satisfactory hobby must be in large degree useless, inefficient, laborious, or irrelevant.”  He declared that a hobby is “a defiance of the contemporary,” and that “no hobby should either seek or need rational justification.”  Further, he concluded that a hobby “is an assertion of those permanent values which the momentary eddies of social evolution have contravened or overlooked.”

Oftentimes, a hobby means collecting.  Whether it be coins or stamps or books, fossils or baseball cards or Heisey glass, hobbyists are like the intrepid Mike Wolfe and Frank Fritz on the History Channel’s American Pickers, on a quest for their own private Holy Grail.  Like a gambler, though, it is always the next one; rather than being the next horse or the next hand or the next turn of the wheel, for the hobbyist, it is the next shilling or first edition or piece of glassware that will be what one needs.

For a model railroader, it is the next tree, the next building, the next piece of rolling stock.  When it comes down to it, a model railroader is a collector.  He (most being men) is a collector of an aesthetic.  His endless quest is really for just the right look.

In his column in the November, 2017, Model Railroader, Tony Koester wrote about what Clark Propst calls one’s “layout standard.”  Propst is a model railroader from Iowa, and by “layout standard” he means the level of detail and verisimilitude a model railroader finds acceptable for his Tolkienian sub-creation.  As with any hobby, layout standards are matters of personal temperament and taste.

Some model railroaders can become competitive, seeking to outdo one another in elaborate and intricate layouts that could rival dioramas at the Smithsonian.  Unfortunately, some model railroaders can also become snobs, looking down on their fellow hobbyists who fail to measure up to an artistic, or even an obsessive-compulsive, standard.

While it is true that a Bachmann or Lionel train set under the Christmas tree is not the same as a layout, whether, like Buster Keaton, one prefers an American Standard train set and some ready-made Plasticville buildings, or whether one fills a basement with a handcrafted re-creation of the Horseshoe Curve, in the end, as James Wright said in one of his YouTube videos in 2012, “We should be happy for each other, we should be happy for each other’s accomplishments.”

As a collector of an aesthetic, a model railroader has a sense for the past.  As with many hobbies, model railroading requires research, so that hours spent at a desk poring over books, magazines, and blogs inform the hours spent at a worktable with paint pens, tweezers, and glue.  Other times, research means visiting railroad museums or riding on tourist trains or simply walking around a small town and observing what survives from the era one is modeling.

A lesson that historical observation teaches is that real life is eclectic.  Styles vary from one generation to the next, yet they survive alongside one another.  When modeling a small town in south-central Pennsylvania in the days of President William McKinley, it bears remembering that a then new brownstone or Queen Anne house could well stand on the same block as an older brick house in a Georgian or Federal style.

As James W. P. Campbell has pointed out in his indispensable Brick:  A World History (2003), railroads and innovations in brick construction went together.  He noted that by the end of the nineteenth century “brick could be transported by rail, allowing brick of any colour to be used in any district,” so that “houses no longer necessarily matched other buildings in the local area.”

When a model railroader sets about making a miniature town, it can become something along the lines of Greenfield Village, Michigan, where Henry Ford assembled an open-air museum of buildings from across America.  As Louis Auchincloss asked in his novel from 1962, Portrait in Brownstone, “that quiet brownstone past, . . . how was it possible to bring that back?”

Charles Lockwood, in his definitive architectural study, Bricks and Brownstone (1972), wrote of “the shadowy and impressive brownstone front for dwelling houses.”  He admired their “patrician dignity, rich ornament, and dappled patterns of light and shade,” characteristics rounding out a model railroader’s steam-era layout.

In order to make model buildings that represent another era, a model railroader’s sense for weathered common brick balances with capturing the look of an elegant brownstone façade on a nineteenth-century townhouse.  Creating an illusion of brownstone and brick calls for experimentation, layering shades of brown from Prismacolor markers onto those from Liquitex paint pens.

In that spirit of Henry Ford’s Greenfield Village, with some artistic license, an HO scale townhouse kit from Woodland Scenics lends itself to being fitted out as a tribute to Nero Wolfe’s three-storey brownstone on West Thirty-fifth Street in New York City.  Purists in the Wolfe Pack fan club will notice where the kit diverges from the various descriptions of the house in Rex Stout’s novels and short stories.  Moreover, some fans would disapprove of the influence of the 1981 William Conrad NBC series, with Noch greenhouses added to the roof, rather than the skylighted plant rooms of the 2001 A & E series.  After all, moving Wolfe’s Manhattan townhouse to small-town Pennsylvania implies a less than precise re-creation of the most famous fictional detective’s residence since Sherlock Holmes’ 221 B Baker Street, London.

In Auchincloss’ Portrait in Brownstone, one of the characters said she was prepared for “whatever stern lesson might have been turned up in the bricks of that ancient past,” but here portraying bricks and brownstone from more than a century ago teaches us something about the carefully proportioned world of our ancestors as we lose ourselves for a few hours each week in blissfully contemplative tedium.

All the same, a model railroader’s layout standard depicting “permanent values” is all in good fun, and as Aldo Leopold has said, “to find reasons why it is useful or beneficial converts it at once from an avocation into an industry.”  A model railroad that is set in the past may become a teaching aid, showing what life was like back then, but it starts out simply as an amusing pastime for the hobbyist.

It’s What You Give Up

A very long time ago when I was a grad student, the chair of our department was a man I much admired, not so much for his scholarly achievements as for himself. English Departments, at least back in those days, were full of crazy people. I was told by more than one faculty member that the reason Dr. Grove was made Chair was simply that he was unflappable. His serenity might have been the consequence of being the father of eight. I don’t know. I just know that whenever I had a serious question, he would give me a direct serious answer, without elaboration, amplification, or any sort of posturing or pontificating.

So one day when I was pondering (a lifelong habit, intensified in grad school), I asked him: What is freedom? He answered: It’s what you give up.

Boom. There it was. And there ended my existential angst.

I’ve never forgotten it. In one form or another, it has answered many questions I’ve asked about matters both great and small in all the years since that day. How many times, in the throes of agonizing decisions, has that single brief answer returned to me. I don’t want to do X, and I have the freedom to not do X. But I do X because I give up that freedom. Maybe I should be more specific: There’s a pint of Haagen Daz butter pecan in the freezer, and I am free to eat it. Or, I want to see him. He’s married. I have the freedom to keep seeing him. It’s what you give up. The peculiar thing about giving it up is that it always comes back to you, so each time you decide to give it up, it returns.

This happened almost ten years before I became a Christian. (But truth is like that. It’s recognizable by everybody who has ears to hear. That’s why there is art.) Ultimately, on a summer day in New Orleans in 1984, I gave it up for good. I became a Christian.

Since then, I’ve heard, read, a good deal of talk about “free will”, but that’s a phantasm. We have only one real freedom, and that is the freedom to bring our will into submission to His. Nothing else works—nothing.

The smiling little man who always looked like a happy chipmunk made one short statement in 1978, and then probably forgot about it. He couldn’t know it would change a life for all eternity.