Choo Choo

The Christmas tree this year is a small living one. But, unfortunately, Max, our new dog, decided that the usual train tracks around the base of the tree were ideal for scattering all over the room. So the regular little train chugging around the tree was out.
Last year a friend had had one of these little toy train sets as a centerpiece on his table. So I picked one up last January for possible use at our house.

It has saved our “trains at Christmas tradition” in a tinker toy way. It’s not too ornamental and prompted a discussion about the Carreras family choo-choo train tradition. Unfortunately, it’s also not so quiet, and at the Christmas Eve buffet, we had to turn it off so the gathering could hear themselves think.

Since my sons and I are railroad buffs, it gave birth to a discussion on the prototype. Model railroaders come up with incredible mashups and strange things on their miniature layouts. The odd thing, however, is how often the real railroads wound up with some similarly bizarre piece of equipment or circumstance. So our conversation automatically turned to what the prototype for this train might have been.

We might have had too much of the rum-soaked fruitcakes. Gotta put a limit on how many slices you’re allowed before you’re shut off.


Mine has a harbor scene of a fictional coastal city in Maine. I know people with elaborate desserts and mountain scenery and one who used to have a science fiction-themed one. These are model railroads.

They are not your children’s model railroads that run in a ring around the Christmas tree, although that is where the fascination often starts. Instead, a flat surface will not encompass the almost man-height gulch traversed by a gigantic hand-built wooden trestle.

The model railroaders are as diverse a group as you’ll find. There are those still operating the Lionel trains they received at age nine and those who run elaborately designed layouts that fill an entire large basement. There are “rivet counters” who insist on perfect adherence to prototypes and those who just want to run trains. When visiting a model railroader, it’s wise to be impartial. There are boat builders, bankers, janitors, surgeons, and anthropologists, and they all run trains.

My layout is fictional, and the format is cat-friendly because there are always cats in our homes. For example, my gray cat Clancy, the Gray Menace, slept inside a tunnel on an early layout. He considered it his domain and would watch the trains run from a high shelf, his tail lashing. Before running the trains, there was a particular detail to clean cat fur from the rails. The alternative was to exclude him from the room, which was also my office.
When kept out, he would lurk by the door and sneak in while you were not looking. When ejected, he would howl at the door and attack you when you came out. After that, it was easier to let him sit on his shelf or sleep in his tunnel.

Among the things common to modeling railroads, regardless of era modeled or size, is the concept that it is never finished. There is something that is always lacking completion. On the layout I’ve been talking about, I once decided to build a lake surrounded by mountains. After carefully constructing the lake, I was ready to begin the mountain scenery, only to find the Gray Menace using the pond as a bed. He was an obstinate creature and refused to move. Finally, I threw a cloth over him and started building the scenery for the mountain. He woke later that evening surrounded by a plaster mountainscape. And that’s how Big Cat Lake came to be.

My current cat, Xenia, loves to stalk the small city’s streets on the layout, playing “Catzilla,” I tolerate this because she limits her destructive talents to one area, and little people and cars are easy to put back in place. The photo below is of her”assisting with layout construction several years ago

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