The late David P. Morgan, former editor of Trains magazine, once likened the Lima Locomotive Works to a Swiss watchmaker.
What an ear tickling analogy from the keyboard of a storytelling master. Few today can weave a compelling narrative tapestry about railroading as he did, and because of that, our craft is poorer.
From April 1954 to November 1958, his prose, coupled with the evocative photography of Dr. Phil Hastings, regularly graced the pages of Trains magazine in the form of a 33 article series that documented the twilight of steam operations in North America. Kalmbach reproduced the series as a hardcover book titled The Mohawk That Refused To Abdicate and other tales in the 1970s and forty years later, these stories still provoke an emotional response in the reader. One can only imagine the impact on the craft of railroad modeling had he turned his powers with the written word in our direction.
Still, there is much to learn from his writing if one is willing to make the effort.
From the chapter titled Lima’s Finest in Twilight, we journey with them to the New River Gorge deep in the mountainous hinterlands of West Virginia in June 1955. Here we learn much about the 1624, a Lima built 2-6-6-6 Allegheny. Recommissioned from retirement, she’s a beast of American craftsmanship, an homage to the Swiss precision and orderliness that D.P.M. found in Lima’s offerings. We also learn a great deal of the C&O and the coal traffic boom that brought the 1624 out of retirement and, equally, much about the author’s unabashed love for steam.
What is the impact of a good story?
A master storyteller takes you on a journey, both within and without to places you may never see first hand, while bringing them to life in your heart and imagination. Furthermore, a good story opens your point of view and challenges your preceptions. It both entertains and teaches.
To accomplish these feats, a writer has numerous tools to choose from as needed. The first and perhaps foremost is a curiosity that won’t settle for surface impressions. To move past the mind and reach the heart, one has to go deeper and our hobby literature falls woefully short in this regard. It’s a simple matter to recite bare facts and dry figures, or even explain abstract concepts but we stumble mightily when it comes to expressions of feeling and emotional depth about what this craft means to us and why. We’re not well versed in these narrative tools or if we are, we seem afraid to use them.
An author understands the power of words and how to use it. A compelling story is an exercise in contrasts, conflict, drama and metaphor, with all moving toward a resolution. David Morgan used all of these elements and more in service to the story. He was a craftsman and lover of words but never let them overshadow the story for his readers.
You and I might simply note that a surge in traffic necessitated resurrecting a handful of retired but serviceable steam engines to handle the increased carloading. But in his hands, the 1624 was a contrast to the dieselized efficiency of the modern era (1955) C&O. Via his storytelling prowess, she became an unlikely protagonist; past her prime and out of place in a world that under normal circumstances, had no use for her services. Yet the circumstances weren’t normal. The drama? Is she still up to the task? How long would her reprieve last?
How might we tell a better story of this craft?
As modelers are we so conditioned to and content with: “I only have a spare bedroom to work with so I plopped in a 4×8 sheet…” or worse, the instruction manual construction feature, where we’re told to cut a piece of 0.010″ x 0.020″ styrene to length, then glue it to…and so on ad nauseum.
In a given context, these conventional forms serve a purpose but, if someone like Morgan can see the literary potential of a surge in coal traffic that happened 60 years ago, couldn’t we also employ a different storytelling paradigm? Are there other forms and examples to learn from? Do the genres of fiction, journalism or biography have anything to teach us? If so, (and I truly believe they do), what are the lessons they might convey for our purposes in sharing the craft?
Know me, know my layout.
I’ve recently finished Walter Isaacson’s biography of the late Steve Jobs. Regardless of what you think about Jobs as a person or businessman, the book admirably covers the sweep of his life and work. To understand Jobs as a person is to understand Apple as a company. This is equally true for us. I’ll better understand your choices in the craft once I understand what influences you as a creative person. If I bring my artistic education to my modeling, I suspect you also bring similar influences to yours. Such themes often run deep through our lives.
Do examples of the type of story I’m suggesting exist? I certainly think so, but they’re rare indeed because we seldom think about the craft in such terms. It would be a mistake to think that this type of storytelling is simple. Nothing could be further from the truth. David P. Morgan brought years of professional writing experience along with a profound love for and knowledge of his subject to these works. But the difficulty of the task won’t stop one who has it in his heart to share with others.
I have given these ideas much thought and discussions with my friend Chris Mears and others has confirmed for me a simple truth: we focus too much on the nuts and bolts. Perhaps the missing ingredient in our narrative is us. Perhaps the time has finally arrived to remedy that by bringing our own stories to the table.