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Thursday, March 13, 2008

All aboard

Story by John Halverson/The Week

If you wanted to invent the ultimate video game it would be a model railroad.

Terry Mayer/The Week
Nicholas White of Elkhorn gets a close look during last weekend's model train show in Delavan.
Terry Mayer/The Week
Kids, adults, the curious and hard-core enthusiasts took in the model train show at the American Legion Hall in Delavan.
It has sounds -- the haunting horn; the click, click, clatter of metal wheels against metal tracks, slowly at first, then a thunder.

It has alternate realities -- children playing, church steeples, corner stores. Smoke stacks belching wanderlust. The romance of dining cars, sleepers and steamy depots.

But unlike video games, model railroads are three-dimensional. They can be shared face-to-face; no need to filter them through cyberspace.

Virtual reality? There's no virtual in the reality of a train show. The one at the American Legion Hall in Delavan last weekend drew more than 1,500 three-dimensional flesh-and-blood people.

A week before the show, organizers Brad and Sara Deschner had the flu and wondered what they'd gotten themselves into. A week after, Sara couldn't contain her excitement about its success.

"Everyone has a memory of a train," Sara said.

Sara and her husband have memories of their son, Kyle, now nearly 8, getting into the hobby--which is how they started.

"We really encouraged a hobby for our son," she said. "We taught him colors by pointing to the colors on trains."

For years, the Delavan show was held at Community Bank, but when train aficionado Jim Saer retired, the venue changed and the Deschners took the wheel.

The Legion hall was full of small gawking faces barely able to peer over the wooden layouts holding trains and the mythical communities surrounding them.

Exhibitors like Chuck and Carolyn Carlson of Delavan added ambiance by wearing bib overalls and railroad caps.

Dave Tanner of Roscoe, Ill., exhibited a train set, called a Helix, where the tracks are stacked in layers. He bought it in a crate for $50, not knowing what it was. It's now worth many times that but, as in the case with other owners, a train value often transcends mere money.

Buck Guthrie, who once worked on real trains, displayed a whimsical universe of trains and train trappings, including a burning building, hockey players and a meat market. To top it off there's a miniature model train running inside a miniature model train store.

Many of his train trappings were made from odds and ends like can openers.

On a video for the weekextra.com, Buck's wife explained that he didn't reveal his hobby until after they were married.

"He brought out this train and said this is my hobby and I said 'yeah, right.' "

They lived in a trailer at the time. Buck cut a hole in a wall and ran his toy train on shelving. Thirty years later, they're still married and run the Toy Train Museum in Argyle.

Buck's friend, Tom Moore, was 3 when an aunt and uncle "who thought every little boy should have a train" bought him his first set. Moore put the hobby on hold as a young adult.

"They were in the attic," he said, "but it was always in the back of my mind to do something with them."

Moore, who also lives in Argyle, now operates Tom's Lionel Train Repair and attends shows like the one in Delavan.

Like many of us, he recalls wistfully the days when hardware and variety stores had trains in their windows at Christmastime.

As Sara Deschner said, "Everyone has a memory of a train."

This reporter has one, too. When he was 6, around the time when such windows were seasonal destinations, his father bought him a train set for Christmas.

His father died a month later and the train set became a hand-me- down with a past.

It sat unattended for most of the next 50 Christmases, until the reporter's son got it running again. The family watched in awe for a few minutes as it circled the Christmas tree. Then the old Lionel stopped. It never huffed and puffed again.

What other hand-me-down could provoke such memory?

Certainly not a video game.



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