I stumble through the crowd, wide-eyed, clutching my coffee in both hands like a shield.
To my left: A grown man wearing a train conductor's hat. He is not a train conductor.
To my right: Grown men gawking at televisions. They are not gawking at a football game.
They are gawking at silent video of trains chugging out of stations, and trains chugging back into stations.
All around me, there are great throngs of humanity — most of it retirement-age male — operating and ogling tiny model train sets located in the hallways and sprawling throughout the cavernous main arena of the Mid-America Center.
These aren't just ordinary model train sets, either. These tiny trains haul tiny lumber and tiny livestock through mountains and past deserts and over roaring rivers. They roll past tiny farms and villages and entire cities.
Thousands of people are here, and they are staring at these tiny train worlds, and they are mesmerized.
I am attending The Great Train Expo, the largest traveling model train show in the world, at its winter stop in Council Bluffs. I have paid $9 on a Saturday morning to be a stranger in this strange land.
I feel very confused. I feel very alone.
“Hey,” Jerry Valasek says. “I've been looking all over for you!”
Jerry, you see, is supposed to be my tour guide through the slightly frightening and slightly fascinating subculture of the Omaha model train enthusiast. He's a retired Union Pacific locomotive engineer — a real-life train conductor until he recently retired after a 41-year career.
In the basement of his home near 144th and Maple, he has a 1,000-odd-square-foot room completely filled by a model train set featuring a dozen locomotives, more than 100 freight cars and four separate model train towns.
I tell Jerry that I have already made one confusing pass around the train show. Let's try it again, says Jerry. I'll explain things along the way.
We start to walk and come upon an old Burlington passenger train chugging around an oval track bigger than my living room. Every few feet, the terrain changes abruptly — horses and cattle graze, and then a mountain rises strangely from the meadow, and then six feet later there is only green fabric tacked to plywood.
Every section of this track is built by a different person, in a modular style popular at train shows, Jerry says. The point isn't to make the scenery match perfectly. The point is that maybe two dozen men — and yes, they are all men — have built their own sections in their own garages. Some have worked for a year. Today they connected the sections for the first time.
“It's a social thing, a way to be part of a group,” Jerry says.
I nod. That makes sense.
Jerry winds his way through the hallway and into the main arena. He explains the differences between train sizes and enthuses about new technology that allows one person to independently control several trains at once.
He points out a Lionel train — the first popular model train, introduced in 1901 and inducted into the Toy Hall of Fame alongside the Easy Bake Oven.
We meet a man and fall into a conversation about a recent “operating session.”
One day in January, a group of Omahans gathered. They studied the train schedule at San Bernadino's Train Yard. In four sessions, they recreated the movement of trains into and out of their model station exactly like it was on one day at San Bernadino.
It's a system, the man says. Precise. Logical.
I nod. That sort of makes sense.
We walk past a second-grader who is staring wide-eyed at a gargantuan model train run by the Great River Valley System, a Minneapolis model railroading club.
“Hey, do you like trains?” asks the man holding the controls. The second-grader nods. “Wanna run one?”
The second-grader turns the knob carefully, accelerates the train and follows it around. He is gripping the controls tightly. He is concentrating like he's a real conductor. He will be talking for days about the time he got to drive this train. This makes perfect sense.
Maybe he will go home and forget all about this by next Saturday, Jerry thinks. And maybe, sometime in the distant future, he will find his old train set in his basement and make it a lifelong hobby.
|Columnists Michael Kelly, Erin Grace and Matthew Hansen write about people, places and events around Omaha. Read more of their work here.|
Maybe he will become Henry Nipper, a Creighton University pathology professor and director of the medical school's toxicology department.
We bump into Dr. Nipper near the end of our two-hour tour and begin to talk about the real world vs. this one.
In the real world, trains are an afterthought, a nuisance, even. In the model train world, they are what they once were. They are the reason for the little buildings and little people that cluster around the stations. They are the centerpiece, just like they used to be when they chugged into Nipper's small hometown in the South after World War II.
Nipper, like so many men here, got interested in model trains in childhood. Then he put them away. And then, when his son got old enough, he got his trains back out.
His son quickly lost interest. Nipper didn't. He's been an adult model railroading enthusiast for decades now.
But why, I ask. This is what I'm still having a hard time grasping. What makes you want to do this instead of bridge or gardening or scrapbooking?
Nipper's answer: The whistle.
“I would hear it, and it represented the ability to travel somewhere where you weren't. Even if you didn't get on.”
Freedom, Henry Nipper means. The train represents freedom, even when it's hauling tiny lumber over tiny trestle bridges and through tiny mountain tunnels.
I nod and close up my notebook. I am no longer confused, no longer just another sneering 30-something. I close up my notebook and drive home, watching for trains the whole way.
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