My father and I did do some things together, and one of them was model railroading. Historically, MIT's Tech Model Railroad Club in Building 20 was a crucible of the computing revolution, since it was one of the few places where MIT students could build and design electronic projects without having to turn in a lab report for it, but I was just a kid at that time: I liked the clickety-clackety sound from the heavy-metal American Flyer locomotives chuffing round the tinplate track; I liked the ozone smell from thrown switches; and my father and I liked to turn out the lights and see glowing red and green lights of the signals, the white lights of the engine headlamps, the warm yellow glow of the caboose--and the occasional sharp blue spark. Running "the trains" through their circular courses gave me (at least) a timeless, comforting feeling.
So, almost forty years on, I've come home to the model railroading magazines I read through my teens, and it's interesting to see what's changed:
These magazines--not musty, Westcott used excellent stock--portray a vanished world, and I'm filled with regret at its passing. Because when I read the Model Railroader (MR) of today, it seems like, well, today. All the little changes that we've seen over the last forty years--everything that the winger billionaires have put into place since the 1970s--spring into sharp relief.
One obvious change is the language: Model Railroader's editor of that time, Linn Westcott, quite unself-consciously refers to his readership as "men." Another obvious change is the sheer time these men had--a Westcott-esque sentence--to devote to their hobby: Hundreds, thousands of hours, with wives who work only at home and bring coffee and Danish down to the basement. And money went a lot farther: You could buy a model of a steam locomotive, beautifully crafted in brass and imported from Japan by Pacific Fast Mail, for well under $100, though some of the articulateds ("Big Boy," "Challenger") went for a good deal more.
And technically, the changes are all to the good. The TMRC computing promise has been realized in locomotives that are digitally controlled with remotes and play "real" sounds; and the baseline for "detail" in the models has risen dramatically.
Pacific Fast Mail isn't on the back cover any more. There aren't any more brass engines that ordinary model railroaders can buy; we can't afford to make them anymore, and the ones that were made have vanished into the vaults of collectors. Today, all the engines are plastic: Beautifully detailed. But petroleum-based.
MR has always featured images of their
men staff building their railroads: Hammering, sawing, soldering, painting, wiring. But in today's MR, the men wear golf shirts with corporate logos.
Model railroaders have always equated detail with realism; with fidelity to a prototype. (John Allen, who invented the idea of "weathering" models, was a prime exponent of this ethic.) But now.... I don't know why it is, but the photographs in today's MR have an airbrushed, pornographic sheen to them. The detail is there, but somehow the images have acquired an eerie, kitschy intensity, like a Thomas Kinkade painting. Somehow, the hobby has transitioned from building models to creating collectibles, and it shows.
Once, the point was to build the railroad. Design the layout, lay down the track, add the scenery, build the buildings, choose the locomotives and the rolling stock. Cut the wood, glue the plastic, solder the wires, assemble the kits.
But today, at least for many, the point isn't building: It's having. There are businesses that will build your "dream" model railroad for you, for a price--and who was the time these days?
And then, these collectible railroads are featured in MR.
Since when did Model Railroader give a railroad a spread because somebody owned it?
It didn't used to be that way.
John Allen must be turning in his grave.
My father, too.