Going through old photos, I found this ancient Polaroid snapshot. It’s a mundane scene. No heart pounding railroad drama, no dramatic lighting and no Photoshop manipulation except for some cropping of the foreground. It’s just two boxcars being loaded at the elevator in Centerville.
Looking at the photo today, I feel warm memories of those times when I could just walk down the block and capture images like this. There was no other reason beyond documenting something I deeply enjoyed. No other purpose beyond preserving a memory. In some way I think that’s what we attempt to do with model building, however as a model builder, what do you do when you don’t have such experiences to draw from?
It’s harder for people today. The railroad has disappeared from the life of many communities and lots of people now will never see a train on a daily basis. Where the railroad still has a presence, even public access is much harder to come by. Where does one go for inspiration and understanding?
Do We Need This Connection?
As a creative person, certain subjects inspire my work regardless of the medium. The subject and the work inform and strengthen each other in ways I’m hard pressed to explain, and in that process, each one teaches me what I need to know about the other. I can’t imagine it being otherwise, but people have different temperaments and approach things in their own ways. Speaking of this subject in one of our many email exchanges, my friend Chris Mears shared the following:
“My first trains were a present from my parents as a layout on a proper table already. A few years would travel by since that first set and small extra bits were added to that train set as birthday or Christmas presents or when I’d saved up enough pocket money. It was my Mum who helped me make my first model buildings. It’s a mark of the time, but Dad worked in what we now call IT and he would bring home dead punch cards from the office computer rooms and we’d transform those cards into small buildings.
These are all memories from very early years in my life so they’re as clear as they could ever hope to be. I guess I could say that I’ve always done this and really these early days in the hobby are how I still practice it today. I don’t think that my parents ever set out to make a model railroader out of me but our shared involvement in the hobby is something that connects me to them and it’s that relationship I think that continues to draw me to the hobby more than any interest in trains ever will.”
The Role Of A Mentor
Mentorship is not a common practice in our circles, given the limited time many have to pursue their hobby. Even with round robin work sessions among several friends’ layouts, in the United States we mostly embrace the idea of working independently. Beginners tend to gravitate toward the magazines or Internet forums for information and answers to their questions. The problem they face is sifting through the overabundance of conflicting ideas and opinions where everything is supposedly of equal value.
We can argue all day about what the role of a mentor should be or even the practicality of such relationships in our do-your-own-thing culture. Yet gurus of every stripe abound. Everyone wants the shortcut to happiness but that’s not what a mentor provides. Once again, Chris shares his relationship with his dad and the hobby.
“My Dad has never once evangelized a choice of scale or keeping the layout small. I just watched and believed his success is all the evidence I need that one could be happy with something like what he built.
I believe he is the singular reason why I am a model railroader – a lifelong one at that. Dad was already active in the hobby and had a nicely advanced layout in our home though he himself wasn’t a lifetime modeler and had only been active in the hobby for a few years when I was born. He worked in N scale and with so little equipment available at the time, and even less that suited the Canadian market, Dad was already learning the skills to modify equipment to provide variety and further extend his vision of his railway. He was custom painting and kitbashing. More than just running the trains round-and-round he was developing operating schemes for the railway too.
Being so young, I’m not sure that I can distinguish if I would be interested in trains if it weren’t for Dad’s influence. During our years in Ottawa, trains weren’t a big part of daily life so I don’t have that familial relationship with railroading. I think it’s a reasonable assumption to confess that if it weren’t for Dad’s influence I wouldn’t have developed an interest in trains at all. I can’t think of any other way, in my life, that I would have developed that connection.
The more I think about Dad’s influence the more I see my own growth in the hobby as an evolution of his interests. I think, to a certain degree, that we are now at a point where we’re feeding off each other.”
In my view, Chris is blessed by this shared relationship in the craft with his dad. His final point is the most telling and important. As modelers they have become peers, each, as Chris puts it, “feeding off each other” from the unique perspective they both bring to the work. The mentor starts as a guide and often becomes the student as well.
I also had a mentor in the person of my junior high school guidance counselor. Mr. Winters (he will always be Mr. Winters) and I became and remained friends long after my junior high years, sharing our mutual love of the craft. He gave me my first lessons in how to hand lay track and turnouts and was the leader of a short-lived model railroad club in school. Like Chris’s dad, he never pushed me in one direction or another. Whatever interest I showed, he simply encouraged. Our relationship grew and matured until his untimely death in a car accident. He helped shape my early views of the hobby.
Having a mentor is just one way to learn and grow in this craft. Suppose you’re interested in a line that doesn’t exist anymore?
Researching the past has come into its own with the advent of online databases and archives. A friend recently shared how he looks at old newspaper archives to gain a sense of what life was like in the era he’s interested in. This goes beyond the typical facts and figures info about track arrangements and industries served that most focus on. He shared how gaining a broader sense of the past provided a greater connection to the era, even through second hand contacts like news stories and other public records.
I know from the experience of researching my hometown how interesting and enjoyable such work can be.
Do we need the connection to real trains? I believe we do without a doubt. Without inspiration from full-size railroading, I’m not certain what this work would become other than a flight of fancy. I believe a connection with your subject is vital but in the absence of first hand experience, friends and mentors can help us understand our strengths and help us explore the form our interests might take. Historical research can provide a strong sense of a different era. That said however, you still have to do the introspection required and make your own choices.
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