Tag Archives: history

Running in the Family

When I was a child, I would occasionally spend the night with my Grandmother in Cabot, Arkansas and just after bed time, a large train would come rumbling by her house, as she lived less than 100 yards from a main line, and I would jump out of bed to watch the train go by. The night air was cool and the grass and pavement were lit by the moon and starlight and the one or two street lamps that ran along the road between the house and the train track. The lonesome whistle of the engine and the clickity clack of the train wheels on the steel tracks were the only sounds I heard as I watched the trains roll along. I wouldn’t budge from my perch until I saw the caboose roll along into the darkness. Some nights, I went to bed disappointed once the railroad companies stopped using cabooses.

Figure 1 My Granddad Standing next to a retired steam locomotive circa 1970.

My mother tells me that both of my Grandfathers worked for the Missouri Pacific railroad back in the forties, fifties and sixties; mom’s dad was an engineer and dad’s dad was a conductor, and both worked for the railroad until their respective deaths. Their company was eventually bought out by Union Pacific.

My father has always had an interest in model trains as long as I can remember. His preference was the large modern diesels that pulled America’s freight ( I surmise this was because of his career in transportation logistics) while I preferred the old steam locomotives of the 1800s.

My parents bought me a train when I was a child, one of those carpet trains with the oval shaped track that could be set up and taken down quickly. Of course, the problem with those train sets was that in designing them that way, the manufacturers guaranteed themselves repeat business as pieces would invariable get broken or lost in the process. Another problem with those sets was that running the train in a perpetual circle or oval got boring pretty quickly. The only way to alleviate that boredom was to actually build a model railroad with buildings and tunnels and bridges.

My father had a grand plan to set up a full scale model railroad on a large piece of plywood with miniature buildings, cars and trees; a small scale duplicate of a slice of America that we could control. Sadly, this model never reached fruition as we didn’t have room for it in the house and when we started it in the garage, it got pushed aside to make room for more practical matters. I hear from mom that he did eventually set it up after I moved out on my own.

Sometime around 1997 or 1998, my dad and I went to the Arkansas railroad museum in Pine Bluff. While we were there, I bought a small N-scale steam locomotive and a few cars and some track; enough pieces to build a small working electric train setup. I had no aspirations of building a large model train set, but I always like the wood-burning steam engine with its large bell-shaped smoke stack, and I wanted to have one that would run on my desk while I did my homework, since was attending college at UALR. I don’t remember ever getting it running, though, and that engine sat on a piece of track on my desk until I moved away. Then it sat in the hutch on my desk for another 16 years, doing nothing more than gathering dust.

In December, 2016, I took an assignment to write an article about a display at the Houston Museum of Natural Science called Trains over Texas. The museum had a large O-Scale model railroad built featuring natural and man-made landmarks of Texas. While researching the story, I watched the model trains run and talked to several museum docents, who were avid train modelers. This reignited my interest in model trains and I became interested in whether my old train would still run after all these years. Of course, this meant I would need track and transformer, which I did not have.

In trying to find one, I determined it would be cheaper to just buy a boxed railroad train set from Amazon, rather than piece the track together.

I got the train set, put it together and ran the n-scale coal-burning steam locomotive that came with the kit. It worked fine. I then put my old train on it. It sputtered and spun its tires and did its best to run, but it needed some TLC and maintenance before it was going to work. I knew nothing about maintaining a locomotive. I had to learn quick.

I quickly found out that model railroading is not a mainstream hobby, and the big box hobby stores are woefully inadequate to supply the model railroad hobbyist. Michael’s has absolutely nothing for trains and Hobby Lobby only stocks two or three boxed train sets, but no individual pieces or models. As a matter of fact, a Google search turned up only two hobby stores in the entire Houston metroplex that serves the train community.

G&G hobbies is a general purpose hobby shop in Rice Village that does have a few locomotives, track, models, and even some box sets. It even has parts to repair trains, so that’s good. It does have a very large selection of rolling stock (trainspeak for train cars). Sadly, the focus of the store is Remote Control (RC) toys and plastic models, and apparently only one employee knows anything about trains. As such, G&G was unable to help me service my little Jupiter.

Papa Ben’s is a train shop in the Montrose area which offers nothing but trains. Its entire focus is model railroading. They even have a “club room” with a huge N-scale layout setup where members of the local train club come and play. One employee, a tall man named Steve, not only was able to educate me on how to maintain my Jupiter, he even fixed the broken coupler on the tender for me. I was able to get several ideas for my train setup and all the part I need to complete it.

I also attended a train show in Stafford that had several stores from all over the country as well as many of the chapters of the model train club. I took my grandsons to this show and they had a ball controlling an HO switcher to put together all the cars needed to form a train.

An old high school friend of mine contacted me several months prior and offered me the chance to partner up with him in a hobby shop in New Hampshire. When he found out I like model railroading, he became very excited and declared I would be the train guy! Now, I am learning a lot about trains as a result of my efforts to fix my Jupiter, but I don’t know if I’m “the train guy.”

I learned about a new technology in model railroading that did not exist the last time I entertained the notion of trains. Digital Command Control equipped trains have a computer chip that allows the train master to run multiple trains on one track independently. With old DC technology, any train on the track would draw the current from the transformer and they would all run based on the amount of current. The train master couldn’t set independent speeds or stop a single train. It was all or nothing. Also, DCC allows the master to turn the train light on and off at will. Some trains even have a sound chip so it actually rings the bell, whistles and chugs along the track with realistic noises.

Now I have gotten the idea to retrofit my Jupiter with one of these DCC chips and an LED bulb to make it more realistic.

While I was in a train shop in New Hampshire, I found two flat bed cars with Army tanks on them. I thought they were clever so I bought them so I would have something more interesting than just plain old box cars or tanker cars. At a store in Austin, I found a surface to ground missile on a rail car. At a train show in New Braunfels, I found flat bed cars with other military vehicles and I got the idea of making an Army train. I bought two flat beds with a duce-n-half, two ¼ ton jeeps an M113 and an M577; all vehicles I drove in the my time in the Army. So now, I plan on having a Chessie System locomotive pull my Army train, my Union Pacific engine pull the box cars and I am thinking of getting some logging cars for my 0-6-0 steamer to pull. My Jupiter will pull my excursion train, which has a Pullman car and two open sided passenger cars.

All I had to do at this point was build a model train layout on which my trains could roll. I’m creating a new blog to document the development of my model. Have fun. I hope I will.

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The Language of Racism?

I was perusing Facebook this morning and this post caught my eye: “I will not be forced to learn a foreign language to accommodate illegals in my country.”
That post had this as its first comment–which started a heated discussion on the topic: “Closed minded and hateful speech is what I just read.”
A person makes a statement asserting first amendment rights and someone practically accuses them of racism.  Why is it racist to refuse to learn a different language?
People have come to this country from all over the world since the 1700s.  People from England, Norway, Spain, Portugal, France, Italy, Germany, Russia, India, Saudi Arabia, China, Taiwan, Japan as well as many other countries all have immigrated to the United States over the years to find more freedom, a better life and new opportunities.  In the early days of this country, every one of those immigrants learned English, not because of some sense of American colonialization or because of a mandate from the government.  They learned it to form the country, because every form of government has to have one common language.
Every one.
The United States has always been the melting pot.  Dozens of cultures combined over the 240 year history of this country to bring it to where it is now.  And now, in the interest of globalization, we are are undoing some of the foundational ideas that are central to keeping our country strong.
Liberals and anti-colonialists are bemoaning what has until recently been a common trend of learning the predominate language of a country to which you wish to immigrate.  If I wish to move to Germany, it would be rude of me to ask every one of my neighbors and coworkers to learn and speak to me only in English, just because I don’t want to learn German.  Similarly, if a German comes to America, they learn English.  It is common sense.  But now it is considered rude for Americans to expect foreigners to speak English while in the U.S. and it is considered racist to expect those who wish to live here to learn the language of the country they wish to call home.
If an immigrant comes to this country and refuses to learn English, that immigrant is going to find life difficult.  So difficult that they petition our government–ours, not theirs–to produce official government forms in their language and try to assume state government offices without the ability to speak Engish.  Yet, with the mass of immigration from Mexico, there is a push to force Americans to learn Spanish and to have official government forms printed in Spanish and to have mandatory classes in our schools.  Why is this?
No one is suggesting that we force German, Greek or any other language on our citizenry.  Why Spanish? And why force any foreign language?  We live in a country that values freedom and freedom means not having the Government mandate your daily life.  Americans have the freedom of speech, and that freedom includes which language is spoken.  It does not mean that they have to speak a second language.
Having said all that, it is probably a good idea to learn another language, especially if one works at an international company or with people for whom English is a second language.  But there can be no mandate for this; it has to be an individual, personal choice.
One sure-fire way to know you have lost your country is when you are forced to speak a language different from the one spoken by the citizenry.

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Decorating with History

I spent this weekend putting up the outside Christmas lights and finishing the indoor Christmas decorations after a week of procrastinating. While doing so, it occurred to me that decorating for Christmas is like enjoying Christmas in advance. Opening the boxes and totes of decorations is like opening presents; each one brings back memories of when it was first placed on the tree. This is particularly poignant with “first Christmas” ornaments—whether “baby’s first Christmas” or “Our First Christmas.”

When we pull out the decorations, we put on Santa Hats and play some Christmas music on the stereo so we get sufficiently jolly. Last year, I organized and labeled the totes so they were easier to find and sort. Of course, we still had a hard time finding some of the decorations that we knew we had; but the fun of discovery of the decorations we forgot we had made up for it. We started a tradition on our first Christmas of making an ornament from scratch each year; and we make a point of putting them on right after the base ornaments.

Base ornaments you ask? I know every family has its own way of decorating a tree and some people are quite adamant on their idea of the proper way of trimming the tree. Some say the tree topper goes first, others insist that it should be the last thing to go on and that dad has to be the one to do it. Some insist on garland while others prefer icicles. Well, our way of decorating is two strings of c7 lights first, then several strands of mini lights (including on musical twinkling strand) and then the three sizes of glass ball ornaments; big ornaments on bottom, mid-sized ornaments in the middle and smaller ones on the top of the tree. After the glass orbs, we put on the artistic ornaments, including the home made ones.

Each ornament has a story and a special place on the tree. The long sea shell was a gift from my mom after her Bahamas cruise. The Lionel train was given to me by my dad, a long-time model train enthusiast. The acrylic angel has to go in front of a white c7 bulb in the front of the tree. The mirrored cube has to be nestled in a bundle of mini-lights to reflect the most color. The angel goes on top after all the others are in place.

The tree is not the only decorations with stories. We have the hallmark singing snowman and snow dog that I won at a Christmas party at work. We have the cheap Wal-Mart nativity set that looks like the one mom and dad had for years while I was growing up. We have the Christmas bear that sits on the bookcase that one of my Aunts made. I cannot forget to mention the wooden Noel sign that Michelle gave me the first Christmas in the house. So many decorations that have stories and history of their own that they almost take on a life of their own.

Yes, Christmas means celebrating love and life and giving of one’s self to others. But it is also a great opportunity to celebrate family by opening the gifts of history that are our traditions. When opening your decorations this year, take a moment to remember when you got them and listen to the stories they tell you. They are your stories after all. It’s like an early Christmas.

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Picture Perfect

With the recent snow, I noticed something that I had been thinking about for some time. Pictures are being taken left and right these days by everyone. I was taking pics of the snowstorm at lunch Friday and this couple came out of the restaurant I had just left and both pulled out cameras and started taking pictures too. The guy had a camera phone (I think it was an iPhone) and the lady pulled out a small digital camera. It seems everyone has a camera these days.

As a photo hobbyist, I tend to take a lot of pictures (some may say too many) and I appreciate others pictures as well. I have a very nice Nikon D-80 with which I do my serious photography. I also use a Canon Powershot A40 and I even shoot film on a Canon EOS Rebel G. I even have a vintage Canon AE-1 Program that I shoot as well. In case you can’t tell, I like Canon. I got the Nikon because it uses SD instead of CF memory (and because my wife wanted a Nikon).

Even though I shoot film occasionally, I do not get prints when I get the film developed. I opt for the photo CD and print the pics I want on my photo printer at home. It’s cheaper and gives me more control and less prints to file away (and trust me, there is little more annoying that boxes of pictures that have never been indexed or put into albums gathering dust in a cabinet or closet somewhere). I still have several old prints to scan so they will be available and indexed in digital format. Every image I have shot is now digital. It makes things easier.

With the advent of digital photography several things happened. One, you no longer have to worry about the expense of developing all of your pictures. You can pick and choose which ones you really want to have printed and discard the rest. Two: you no longer have to worry about running out of film—at least not in the traditional sense. In the old days—and younguns you may not understand this—you only had between 12 and 36 exposures (old-time term for picture on film) per roll of film. If you ran out of film, you stopped taking pictures, so you really had to pick and choose your shots and take great pains to make sure it was right. Worse still was that you couldn’t know if it was a good picture until the film got developed—which back in the day could take a week or more, so you took pains to make sure the lighting was right and it was in focus. Three: pictures look a lot better now with the improved optics and resolution. Four: the price of the equipment plummeted so anyone can get a camera.

Photographers used to spend hundreds to thousands of dollars on cameras, lenses, flashes, tripods, meters, lighting equipment etc to take their pictures. Those who wanted to take snapshots of their vacations still paid a pretty penny for the camera and the film and the processing. Only the “good” shots got taken and most people only had one camera. Then Polaroid made instant photography and more people got cameras, but they were still relatively expensive. Even the cheap plastic 110 film camera couldn’t become “must-have” technology, despite a huge marketing campaign. Film and processing were still price hurdles most people didn’t want to make.

But with Digital, well, now we’re talking. Since the price of electronics fell into the basement, a digital camera can be had for as little as five bucks. Even a 10-year-old can get his hands on five bucks—and they do, trust me. They only thing you need besides the camera is a computer with which to view and/or print the pics—and you don’t really even need that. Most printers now can print straight off the memory card or even right off the camera itself. So, cameras are dirt cheap, memory is dirt cheap and prints are cheap. Now—the camera is must-have technology.

I credit the cell phone for it really. When cell phone started featuring cameras, many people at first thought “why do I need a camera on my phone?” But they quickly started using it. Even though the picture quality was terrible (even worse that the pictures those old plastic 110 film cameras took) people took pics. With today’s phones, the image quality is better than even the average hobbyist might have taken back in the day with a nice camera. Couple that with the price of dedicated digital cameras and it is even more accessible. Camera phones have come a long way since Sprint introduced it back in 2000, but a dedicated camera still has better optics and better image resolution.

Kids all seem to have either a camera-phone or a digital camera with them at school. Social networking sites are loaded with pictures kids take with their phones. The internet is crammed full of pictures. In fact, there are too many pictures. Since there is no more issues with developing and printing costs, people just snap away. With the availability of cheap huge-capacity memory, no one ever seems to run out of space. Some people use SD memory like a film package. They take the pictures until the card is full, then the file the card away and buy a new one.

The sad part is that since there is no real expense to take a picture now, people take photo after photo after photo. Sometimes, they don’t even try to figure out the lighting, they just snap away until they get one that they like—and then they don’t delete the bad ones. They just post all of them. Have you ever seen some of these Facebook albums? I know they are your friends. Heck, they’re my friends too; but some of them are loaded with hundreds of pictures of the same blurry or washed out or dark thing. Come on, people. Pick the good ones and delete the rest.

But do continue clicking away. Photography is capturing a bit of history that—someday—you will want to look at again. Just be careful what you shoot. Some things no one wants to see.

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America The Lost

The end of our way of life is near. This great nation, forged on the heads of tyranny and oppression and that has stood the test of time for more than 200 years is about to collapse into oblivion. What will be left behind will be a shell of what it once was. The fall of America will not come on the canons of some great military battle. Nor will it be lost to an army storming our shores. No. The end of our nation will come from our complete surrender to apathy, laziness and a loss of moral character.

Our society was born on untamed lands, unyielding soil and unexplored vistas against the wishes of a tyrannical monarchy, an indigenous society and despite tremendous odds. The colonists had to work in the fields, mines and shores with bare hands and the most modest of technology to eek out the means of survival. Hard work saw those early Americans through the tough times and hard work forged the foundations of a country that grew in short order to command the world stage.

People set goals and worked to achieve those goals no matter what obstacles—be it famine, flood, hurricane or a poor economy—were thrown in their path. Those who suffered most in the dark times might enjoy the assistance of those more fortunate who could afford to help and whose moral character—based on Christian principals—compelled them to act. There were no Federal programs designed to help those incapable of work.

Many died during the early days of our country from sickness, injury and poverty. There are family histories of despair and disillusionment and the end of the American dream for those who could not succeed in their endeavors. While this is unfortunate, the American dream does not promise happiness; but rather the pursuit of happiness. Similarly, it does not promise success. It does not promise economic well being. It does not promise an education, a job, a paycheck, a new car or a home.

But in our society today, we have bred a generation who believes that by taking residence on American soil, one automatically inherits the benefits of citizenship which must include a free education, free healthcare and even a car. On top of these entitlements, one is not required to work and to suggest the contrary is tantamount to a hate crime.

Those who would remind society of our roots are ridiculed as being outdated. The principles which founded our country and were the instruments of success for more than 200 years are no longer in fashion. Now, one must accept tolerance rather than hard work as the watchword. We must be tolerant of those whose character and principals are different from our own. We must accept those who do not feel that drawing from the public coffers while not contributing to society is an acceptable way to live. And worse, we must push God into a closet and never speak His name in public, because the founding fathers demanded the separation of church and state.

The saddest truth is that when those of moral character are told this, they simply shake their head and mumble to themselves. They do not rail against the opposition. They do not shout from the rooftops at the inequity of lies and perversions of truth that would drive them into silence. The words used to silence the moral conservatives are the very words that give them the power they need to speak out. The first amendment says nothing about separating church and state. It clearly states that congress shall make no law regarding the establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. That means that the government cannot tell Americans how to worship, nor can it tell American that they cannot worship.

But the new generation would have us believe it means that we cannot worship God without including all religions. This is a perversion on many levels. Inclusion and tolerance have gone too far and are undermining the moral center of our society.

Only when America recognizes the lies being foisted upon it, only when people of conscience realize the depravity of society and only when everyone remembers what hard work is, will the country regain its footing. With hard work comes character. With character comes moral clarity. With moral clarity comes a better America.

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