The ugly stain of television on my family spurred me to buy a model train set. My wife, Mary, and I have always had a general sense that sitting in front of the tube was an unhealthy activity, and we could see that the more they watched the less able (or willing) they were to entertain themselves. But most disturbing to us were specific effects the TV had on our kids’ behavior. Evelyn (five), Augustine (four), and Gabriel (two) were hopping out of bed at first light and running downstairs to watch “bideos.” Consequently, they weren’t getting enough sleep. I didn’t figure out how early they were waking up until one day, when the two oldest were acting like they needed their afternoon nap at 10:00 a.m., and Gabriel had already passed out on the family room floor. I asked them what shows they’d watched that morning and, in unison, they listed six half-hour shows. I had stumbled downstairs at 8:30 and turned it off. That meant they sucked the electric boob for three hours, starting at 5:30 in the morning.
And, for some reason, even the PBS shows my children were watching display young characters being unkind to each other and arguing all the time. There’s usually a moral to the story, but the kids never remember the moral, either because that takes more advanced cognitive ability or because a child’s brain just isn’t working fast enough while he sits in front of the flickering box. The arguing and unkind language, on the other hand, do stick. My kids started antagonizing each other and saying things to each other such as, “Leave me alone,” “Get away from me,” and even “I don’t like you.”
So a few weeks ago we got rid of our TV. The immediate post-video days weren’t as bad as we thought they would be. The kids saw that the television wasn’t on the shelf, so they found other things to do. They’ve been painting and drawing, memorizing animal and shape posters that hang on their bedroom walls, and riding their bikes around the yard a lot more. And yesterday, I went out and bought them their first model-train set.
Some of the fondest memories I have of time spent with my father were around a Lionel three-rail train he bought used and brought home in a big cardboard box. The track was hard to fit together. The male ends were often bent and the female ends into which they fit were sometimes crimped, disallowing entry. But there was enough of it for my brothers and me to make a loop 12 feet long and 6 feet wide. The cars, an engine, and five or six passenger coaches were in a bright chrome finish. The wiring was finicky. We joked that it would only work when Dad was in the room. In retrospect, I think he was the only one patient and knowledgeable enough to make sure all the connections were sound. We passed a lot of happy hours with that train until it went up into the cupboard when I was around 13 and never came back down. I wonder if it’s still there.
It was with that old train in mind that I headed east down University Boulevard toward Reed’s Hobby Shop in La Mesa. I had called the Model Railroad museum in Balboa Park — the largest such museum in North America — and they recommended Reed’s. And, for kids my age, they suggested I look at a G-scale train.
Reed’s owner, Bruce Cameron, a medium-sized man around 50 with dark hair and a beard, also asked how old my kids were, and when I told him, he led me to a G-scale display in a back comer of the 7-Eleven-sized shop. “When people come in and say the/re buying for kids, I steer them toward either the O scale, which is the basic size of the old Lionel trains — except it’s much more sophisticated and realistic now—or, I direct them to the G scale. The G stands for garden. It’s large-scale stuff, and almost all of it is designed for outdoor use. If it’s made by LGB or USA, a couple of the better companies that we deal with, they’re designed to actually be left out in the weather. Whether you live in Palm Springs or Norway, the tracks and power packs and the whole thing are all totally weather-proof. We have a large clientele that builds enormous garden railways in their backyards, really sophisticated. But also, it looks really cool around the Christmas tree. The stuff is so sturdy, it’s pretty much bullet proof. The ties are made of UV plastic, which is totally impervious to sunlight or temperature changes, and the rails are solid brass.”
Cameron took a piece of track from the mountain-themed G-scale display, dropped it on the linoleum floor, stomped on it three times as hard as he could, then picked it up and offered it to me for inspection. It was unharmed. “You could drive over this with your truck and not hurt it. So there’s no way the kids are going to hurt it They might break off some detail part of a car. But basically, the thing will run forever.”
Starter sets made by the German company IGB come in European- and American-style freight and passenger designs. “They include a four-foot circle of track,” Cameron explained, “a power pack, and an engine and two cars. That’s the basic configuration. They have lights, and some of them have smoke. These are fully, unconditionally guaranteed for five years. And the LGB service center— I used to work there—for the entire North American continent is right here in San Diego, which is a big plus. If something does go wrong and they need service, you just bring it back here, it goes up there the next day, and it’s back in a few days — as opposed to wrapping it all up and shipping it off somewhere.”
The outdoor aspect of the G-scale LGB trains and their child-resistant durability —the sight of a salesman stomping on his wares is impressive—had me ready to slap down the credit card without seeing anything else. But my first glimpse of the price tags on the starter sets cooled my consumer impulse. They ranged from S249 to S349. Cameron guessed what I was thinking. “There are some cheaper brands out there,” he said, “but these are the most bullet proof.”
I stood silently contemplating the scene of me walking through the front door with the new train, and my wife asking the dreaded two-word question, “How much?” Cameron interrupted my thoughts, tapping me on the shoulder and gesturing to an LGB-replica steam engine on a wall display. “You can do incredible things with sound in this scale,” he said.
With that he twisted a control knob on the side of the display and, as the engine started to inch forward, a loud hissssss — accompanied by crossing bells and train whistles — erupted from somewhere inside the engine. It sounded as if it came from a ten-inch speaker. I could hardly hear Cameron tell me, “Some of these larger LGB engines come with frill digital sound, which is really impressive.” Walking toward the back-middle of the store, he added, “They also hand-make, in brass, a lot of really precise, exact models, this being one of them.”
He pulled from a display case near the back-center wall of the store a matte-black locomotive and coal car. “This is a $5000 engine,” he says. “There were only 500 of them made. These little detail parts were all hand-made castings in solid brass. Somebody hand-assembled it There are over 3000 individual pieces in this thing. And in this scale you can have live steam, where the boiler actually works and pushes the pistons and propels the train.”
Five thousand dollars! I paid less for the family mini-van, I thought, as Cameron led me to a layout in the front corner of the store. “Now this is O scale. It’s the only other scale I’d recommend if kids are going to be using it”
“What does O scale mean?”
“I’m not sure what the O stands for.” Cameron stood for a second scratching his beard while he scanned his memory for the meaning of O scale. With a shrug of surrender, he continued, “The scale of O is a quarter inch to the foot—a quarter inch on the model to a foot on the real train. G scale is a half inch to the foot”
“There are two kinds of O scale,” he continued. “Actually, there are three. There’s the AC stuff that was started by Lionel and American Flyer back in the early part of the 20th Century. It had three rails instead of two. That was to simplify the wiring. Unfortunately, that became the standard, and it’s not very realistic. American Flyer back in the 1940s went to two-rail, which was more realistic. That’s what I had. A lot of kids had that. But three rails became kind of the standard for the toy-train market and compromises had to be made. Some things are out of scale, like these couplings, and so are the flanges on these wheels.” He picked up an O-scale engine and touched the part of the wheel that holds the car on the track. “But a lot of people started with this as kids, so that’s what they continue with.”
Walking over to a display on the other side of the store, he said, “Over here, we have an example of a two-rail O scale, which is a real model O scale. It’s the same basic size as what we were just looking at, but this is different. It’s DC, and everything is to exact scale, everything. The height of the rail, the couplings, everything. And you notice the detail is quite a bit more intense. You can’t even buy starter sets in this.”
He walked me back to the three-rail O setup, picked an engine off the track, and handed it to me. It weighed something like ten pounds. “That’s all diecast. This is out of one of the $350 starter sets, which comes with a box car, a tank car, and a caboose, plus the circle of track and the power pack.”
Placing the engine back on the track, he turned the control knob on the side of the table layout, and the heavy engine started chugging around the track, accompanied by a full range of railroad sounds digitally broadcast from within it. They were the same sounds as the G-scale demonstration he gave me earlier, until the voice of a 55- to 60-year-old man with an upper Midwest accent said, “Looks like the freight yard is just ahead.” A second, slightly lower-pitched voice responded, “Do you see the signalman?”
“Yep, I see him,” voice one answered. “Looks like he’s waving us in.”
“These ones have a lot of cab chatter along with the regular train sounds,” Cameron explained.
“If I bought a starter set, would I be able to expand it over time?” I asked.
“Absolutely, there’s no limit,” Cameron answered. “You can buy more and more track. And you can build layouts like this,” he swept his hand over the O-scale layout in front of us. It was built of plywood, complete with trestles, tunnels, and buildings. The carpentry was of a grade that I’m capable of, yet still attractive and imagination-inspiring for the kids, which is the whole point of this train idea. “And there are some great books on doing scenery, on building benchwork, and right now, there’s a whole new system that*s moving away from the carpentry aspect of it and utilizing Styrofoam.”
He began to describe the new Styrofoam system but quickly gave up and led me to a shelf at the back of the store stocked with the product “If you were to buy a big piece of foam,” he said, “and try to shape it into scenery, you’d end up with those little balls of foam all over the place. It’s very messy. But this stuff is not like that”
From the shelf he took a block of Styrofoam, maybe eight inches long, four inches wide, and four inches tall, with grooves cut into the sides. “They’re serrated,” Cameron bent the block into a curve, “which allows them to bend. With these, you start out making your whole layout in 3-D. These are called risers and they’re pregraded. You buy them in one percent two percent, three percent, four percent whatever grade you want. The track sits on top of them. So you design your scene with this, and then you cover it with plaster cast wrap, and it comes out with a very, very hard shell.
“On top of that” he continued, “you can take some plaster, and take some molds — see those molds over there—and make some rock castings with wet plaster, sprinkle some of all these different scenery materials, and then spray them with a very fine scenic cement, and there’s no limit to what you can do.”
Nearly half of Cameron’s shop is devoted to HO scale trains. “HO comes from half of O scale,” Cameron explains. “This scale is more for real modelers. Most of this is in kit form. You can go to the absolute extreme degree in terms of degree of detail. Almost anything that exists in the real world is made in HO scale: toilets, brooms, manhole covers, everything. For little kids, under sue or seven, HO is a little too delicate. The same is true with N scale or Z scale, which are even smaller.”
That brought my choices down to G scale and O scale. The outdoor aspect of G really appealed to me. I could imagine building a little garden scene, with train track weaving in and out of small plants and props. And it would draw the kids outside — another reason to dump the television. Still, O scale was a little easier to handle, had more accessories, and was what I had as a kid. I decided to let price be the decider and asked Cameron which scale would be more economical. “Well,” he answered, “extra cars in G scale, depending on what brand you buy, are probably going to be somewhat more expensive than extra cars in O scale.”
The engine and three cars in the starter set, I figured, would probably be enough for me. My more immediate expansion needs would be in lengthening the track. “The LGB track,” Cameron explained, “which we prefer to sell to people especially for outdoors, that comes out to about $4 a foot Now, the better track for O scale, those are S3.50 for a ten-inch section. So the G scale is a little bit less expensive track-wise, but not a whole hell of a lot.”
I settled on a G-scale starter set, in a Pennsylvania Line steam passenger motif, for $316. The kids and I played with it for five hours that afternoon. Nobody asked, “Can we watch a bideo?”