Tuesday, October 23, 2007

What is model railroading?

I joke that I have been a practicing modeler since I was two.

One day, just before Christmas I decided that the operations on the christmas layout (not to be confused with the serious model railroad living in the basement) were not prototypical enough, and that it needed something. While my mother cooked dinner, and my father was at work, I took out my fisher price tools (the safe screwdriver was key here) and set to work. Somehow I pried up some spikes and removed some rail joiners and re-laid some track. Where these came from, and the other mechanics of how I did this are all lost to the intervening 23 years of time, but model I did, I assure you. My parents discovered my handiwork, and being suitably impressed (my father was a modeler himself, hence the layout in the basement) asked me what I had done. I informed them, very matter of factly that I had installed a passing siding.

Now, while you may say that what I did was playing, I posit that this was my first true modeling experience. I performed three individual behaviors that I find myself repeating to this day.

I observed reality. As a child (and even one of a scant two years old) my parents would make the pilgrimage to Strasburg PA's bastion of steam, Strasburg Railroad, what seemed like monthly during the summer. Arguably, this was my first real immersion in the world of prototype railroading, and I credit it for many of my later tastes. At Strasburg, I observed that real trains used passing sidings in their business of being railroads. I also observed that steam locomotives are loud, and that the headlight on their 2-10-0 #90 came from the pyle manufacturing company, and that it had a Sinclair style radio antenna on the cab. I also observed the color of the ballast, the color of the trees and the automobiles in the parking lot.

I filtered the reality that I observed and identified traits which seemed important to me as elements representing the reality that I observed. This process began with my observations of reality. At that point I made conscious and unconscious decisions about what parts of the experience I wanted to remember and committed to memory. When I was two, I imagine the aspects of reality which I committed to memory were much more unconscious than conscious, but I believe that the majority of what we modelers absorb is done this way. I know that lately I've been consciously looking at and attempting to digest the patterns of vegetation near various rights of way (railroad, highway, etc) so that I can better understand them and then reproduce them, but most of my modeling is based on experiences and observations that I did not intentionally commit to memory, but I know are there whenever I see something that "looks right". This process of interpretation is not restricted to long term memory. It also comes into play when observing photographs (since there is always a selective impression, call it memory of what we see in a photograph, even if we almost immediately perform an action based on a photo). When I look at a photograph of a locomotive in a scene, I may see take away "they used that locomotive in that service at that time", while another modeler might notice the weathering pattern on the trucks, while yet another may note that the three radiator fan styles do not match and a final may observe "wow, that locomotive looks particularly handsome in that paint scheme". I believe that how we process our observations through the process of selective recall largely dictates our modeling tastes and pursuits, even if we don't consciously acknowledge it. When I was two and performing my first track-work, I couldn't tell you the manufacturer of the headlight adorning 90's smoke-box, but I could tell you it needed a passing siding to run around its train at each end of its run.

I attempted to recreate the filtered reality in miniature. My reproduction of my observed reality was what lies, I believe, at the crux of what we all do in our modeling. We create our own interpreted versions of reality in miniature. Modelers do this in a vast array of ways. From very abstract versions of reality represented in many tinplate style layouts (that I have observed are not always O gauge, and since we do not seem to have agreed apon genre terminologies in model railroading, I use the term despite it's reference to a specific scale, guage and even manufacturer) to highly researched and intricately detailed layouts that are aim to represent a very specific prototype on a specific date. Our ability to recreate our filtered reliability rest in our skill levels in the various aspects of modeling, and the value we place on these aspects. For example, modelers who are primarily focused on solving the often complex engineering problems posed by model railroading may not care that their ability to recreate a winter forest scene is lacking, but they may be very interested in advancing their skills with a soldering iron, and what advancing that skill means for how rewarding they find the hobby. Conversely, my lack of soldering ability does not hold me back from enjoying the hobby because I don't tackle complex soldering projects, instead I focus on an aspect I do find rewarding, such as scene building. Some other modelers do not seem intent on replicating the details of reality, instead relying on more symbolic representations of reality to replicate their interpreted version of reality. It may not matter to model railroaders of this persuasion that they are creating more a caricature of reality than a reproduction, they still derive their enjoyment from their attempts.

In rebuilding my family's Christmas layout, I performed all three of these key modeling functions, and I whole heartedly believe that that was my first true model railroading experience.

I also believe that the spectrum of modelers that exist fans out not from different realities which they observe, but the different ways in which they interpret them, and the different ways they attempt to create the versions of reality that they have constructed in miniature form.

I also believe that much of the conflict that often arises on model railroad fora stems from the fact that we, as a community of hobbyists, have never really discussed and acknowledged these differences. Recognizing the differences in individuals modeling efforts as differences of approach as opposed to differences in value would be an step toward calming some of the animosity that often seems to manifest itself between "Tin platers" and "Deputized rivet counting members of the proto police".

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

What Am I Modeling?

Railroads are intensely interesting to me. Modeling is intensely interesting to me. It should therefore come as no surprise that I am a model railroader, and have been since the mid-60s. But what specifically am I modeling, and why is it all so intensely interesting?

Ed has previously explored some the many kinds of modeling that we do. Some choose to recreate the day-to-day operations of a line of interest. Some wish to accurately represent a railroad and its setting with no desire to reproduce its operations. Others have no inclination to remain faithful to any real railroad, and simply enjoy seeing model trains in action. These are but a few of the many possible flavors of modeler.

I've had a hard time classifying my modeling. While I am generally reticent to pigeon-hole myself, recent forum discussions and blog entries have had me pondering the meaning and purpose of my modeling efforts. Presently I am sitting on a commuter train bound for New York City, and as I have on nearly every such trip I've taken—which is a great many, since at one time I commuted to the Big Apple for several years—I am passing the time by studying the railroad.

I see countless disused spurs, bridges, industries and other railroading artifacts—so many that it's often depressing. For example, I am right now passing a big old factory complex near Newark, a sprawling sea of crumbling brick laced with a cobweb of rails buried in dirt. I wish I'd brought my camera. But this is a business trip, and I prefer to travel as lightly as possible, so I have only my laptop.

Perhaps it's just as well that I am without camera; I might otherwise be focused on taking photographs. Instead I'm focused on my feelings as I study the world outside, and recording them in near-real time. As a result, I'm coming to a better sense of my modeling passion: I want to bottle the bittersweet, melancholy mood I experience as I take in the remains of that great icon of the industrial revolution.

It explains why my last layout had so much abandoned track. I rationalized it as a means to heighten the realism of a modern-day setting; yet, for practical reasons, we all model things selectively, so why would I choose to include so much of something most modelers rightfully consider a waste of precious real estate? Because it supported the mood I wished to capture and convey.

My last layout also featured a vast factory complex, all abandoned save for a small recycling center staked out under an old transfer crane. One of the recycling center's most prominent features was an enormous pile of palettes, which was inspired by one that I passed on my commuter trips. The factory was an amalgam of many such places in and around Trenton, not far from where I lived.

A favorite activity of mine is chasing down old rail lines. I get a little thrill when I spot a strip of trees marking the path of a long-abandoned right-of-way, and then find it on an old map. For a long time I harbored a desire to render a map of New Jersey that detailed the condition of every rail line that ever existed in the state, all supported by field research. After a while, I came to realize that this was a much bigger task than I was ready to tackle, not to mention that I'd probably be eternally frustrated not being able to model everything I found.

I also have this inexplicable attraction to abandoned factories. Anything from a few telltale foundation stones peeking out from beneath the brambles in a wooded lot to enormous brick mausoleums housing the rusted remains of machinery—I'm drawn to them like a moth to candles. And if the factory was served by rail, all the better.

Thus the recurring theme of my recent modeling has been a depiction not of what was, as in period modeling, but of what remains. Somehow, owing to my singular personality, seeing things that are still standing is more evocative than seeing things the way they used to be. It's as if I'm an archaeologist (which I might have been in an alternate life) preserving artifacts as they are just before the dig or the reconstruction.

I'm not a rivet counter, but I enjoy modeling things with lots of rusty old rivets, and doing so as realistically as possible. I'm not married to modeling a particular railroad, but there are a few real roads that attract my attention because of where and when they ran. I'm not much interested in operation, but I do like learning about it, if only to get a feel for what used to take place among the weeds where I'm standing. I'm not much closer to comprehending why this is all so for me, but at least I've connected some of the dots and finally become better aware of what exactly I'm modeling.

I am modeling a mood.