Originally published in Raleigh Magazine. All words in italics are my asides and field notes for the Thistle & Sun reader.
Sunshine warms members of the Neuse River Valley Model Railroad Club as they migrate from breakfast to their almost-downtown clubhouse for a couple hours of building. The club is roughly 2,000 square feet, and features a common area, a library with model railroad resources dating to the 1930’s, and work rooms marked by the scale of their railroads. The miniature locomotives provide a quiet, mechanical buzz as a backdrop to their conversations (plans being made, tasks being divvied up, puzzling through technical issues with relish).
Around a circle of chairs, members gather to discuss the history of the club. There is a propensity to lean back, hands folded over stomachs full of a Big Ed’s breakfast (some favor Big Ed’s pancakes, but they say no one has ever walked away from their weekly meal having eaten something unsatisfactory). Club president Clif Kelly says that the members in the circle and beyond come from, “all around the Triangle. North, west, east and south”. A broad swath of experience is also represented, ranging from civil service and time in the Pentagon to handymen, time in the medical field, a Boy Scouts executive, and a stained-glass maker. They are not all grey hair and suspenders - in their roughly forty members, they have some youth members, an under forty crew, and some female members, all brought together by a fascination with trains (model or otherwise). They know which trains run across the state and when, where they used to run, and where to get a good hot dog close to the Burlington station. The curiosity extends to everything train related; if it has wheels and ran on a track, someone has a general knowledge about it.
In new members, all that is required is a discernible pulse and, “an interest in a flanged wheel on steel,” according to the club’s last remaining charter member, George Lasley.
The others have a reverence for Lasley, for his well of knowledge and stories. One of his best train-adjacent stories was about a neighbor who, when she was a young girl, rode the trolly to an amusement park on the outskirts of town. The neighbor and a friend boarded the park’s roller coaster, and (either drunk or negligent) the attendant left for the night. The girls were stuck on the roller coaster loop until park employees came in for work the next day. The club has bestowed upon him the official title of “Grand Poopah” which seems fitting for the mustached man in charge of the club train shows at the fairgrounds (this year, running May 4-5 and November 9-10). After fifty years of helping others with designing their layouts, Lasley is beginning one of his own, all built around a model of the Virginian train EL-2B. All of the members present listen to his plans with curiosity, leaning in to hear the plot of an expert, before dispersing to their own work.
In the biggest room, Vice President Mike Johns is finessing a Digital Command Center on the HO (1:87) scale layout. Coming in at at least 25 feet long, it is filled with neighborhoods you would swear you’ve walked past somewhere. In the library, a member fiddles with the wiring beneath a square of layout, while two others putter in the common room. At the back of the building in the O (1:48) scale room, a fictitious mountain scene is beginning to unfold, complete with scrubby trees, pools of water, and a fossil in the side of the rock. Floating from the corner, a bass voice sings short ditties narrating the work going on in between drilling. Member Shelton Bass is shaping the landscape, and is excited about discovering the perfect pig for the corner farm scene. Although the layout’s location is fictitious, he says he has seen each piece somewhere. He employs whatever manages to make the scene look realistic - sawdust mixed with food coloring, dollar store moss, small branches with sealer, painted styrofoam, Elmer’s glue for water - he has a bag of tried-and-true tricks to pull from.
As members bustle around the club, they are getting to solve problems with work they generally enjoy, with people they generally enjoy. Although every bit of a layout is a labor of love, they each have their preferences and specialties, along with a space to flesh them out.
“As a friend of mine used to say,” George said, “At the end of the day, it’s still playing with toy trains. And there’s nothing wrong with that.” Mike Johns added,
“It’s also there’s a human aspect about us that is really magnificent and wonderful, and that is that we’ve made friends. We can count on each other, we can discuss things; it’s a school here.”
Mr. Mike let me drive one of the locomotives, and I’ve got to admit, it does provide a bit of a rush! That along with the fear at the idea of crashing something I know is so precious to them.