Summer Evening and the ML401

Summer Evening and the ML401
Conrail ML401 rolls west through Central New York farm country in Onondaga County, September 1994.

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

How Model Railroads Allow Focus on Gratitude

Hello readers!  I am realizing as I write this that while the Onondaga Cutoff itself has been operating for 10 years, that this blog is suddenly more than 10 years old too - another verification of the lasting power that this hobby has.  I feel like we still have so much to do!  

Some recent photo work for Lionel Strang's  'A Modelerslife' Podcast has helped me to take a pause this week and reflect over all that time gone by.  The layout as regular readers know is based in 1994, a year full of wonder and yet at the same time full of pending darkness for me personally.  Regulars also know that sometimes I'm a rather reflective person, and try to sit with memories and the feelings they evoke, whatever those may be.  In 1994 I was 17 years of age and the world was all very much in front of me, but mom was very sick with cancer, and those two realities created a dichotomy for me and the whole family.  

My model of my 1989 Dodge Grand Caravan, the official railfanning vehicle of the Abeles, with a backdrop of the official local power for the Albany Division.

For me in those days, railfanning and the small 4'x8' layout I had at home were an escape for me, a different world I could go to where there was much to learn and so much potential to share.  For sure, many dark nights dreading mom's illness and the uncertainty were made easier by my love of trains and railroading.  I found some peace in its consistency. I passed my driver's test on January 3, 1994, with a family friend taking me to my road test because Dad was with mom in the hospital.  In March of 1994, my dad decided to upgrade to a new minivan with everything going on, and I offered to purchase the family van from him using my savings.  It was a wisely spent $1400!  My plates had the letters 'YIX' and so Yixter became my wheels.  Of course I modeled him for the OC complete with 'woody' siding and a scanner antenna.  

This back and forth of opposites is something I watch with curiosity.  So much heartache is still fresh for me, running in parallel with so much joy.  And I think that's the balance of it all:  being grateful for both the joy AND the heartache, practicing gratitude for the gift of being here and of having made it this far, and for having a wonderful thoughtful wife who is full of grace herself, and for our three healthy, rambunctious and thoughtful kids.  I think many can relate.  So there is heartache and darkness, yes - but I feel compelled to focus on the wonder, while still acknowledging that darkness.  Gratitude for joy and heartache - for being here, and alive, and able to see them both.

Pete & Teddy running their layout - November 2020

I modeled my first Conrail SD60 from a Rail Power Products plastic molded shell in 1993.  I did it up as 6860, and it still runs in regular service on the Onondaga Cutoff today.   Model technology has come a long way since 1993, and today Athearn makes a beautiful 'ready to roll' model of the SD60.  Just as modeling brought me peace in my teen years, so it brings me peace in my 40's despite the chaos of a pandemic, toxic politics, life challenges, and indeed - despite so many blessings - some lonely nights.  So, here's Conrail 6852 with last night's work completed, now awaiting several layers of weathering before entering service as part of the fleet on the Onondaga Cutoff.  


I love the length, sleek lines and the massive presence of an SD60.  At 71 feet long and 16 feet high, weighing nearly 200 tons, these are just incredible machines.  Delivered new to Conrail in 1989, this guy will be lightly weathered as he was only 5 years old by 1994.  

The model itself has a curious story too - designed in the US, this was made in China and shipped to the USA.  I bought it in a lot from a fellow in Australia who was modifying the frames for upgrade motors but then changed focus in the hobby.  So what came to me from Australia was what you see in several pieces with a modified frame and loose motor.  What you see here has made no less than three trips across the Pacific Ocean, only to land on the OC, where it was superdetailed, with new sound, new controls, and now weathering to join the fleet.  It's another little story that fills me with gratitude.  

And so looking back on those days, my mind revisits the hopes and dreams of a 17-year-old kid who loved trains and who was damned lucky to have parents and a brother and sister and a greater family of middle-class roots.  I was so lucky to be associated with all of that, to be taught to save money and work hard and appreciate and respect other people.  Mistakes were common but they were learning opportunities - they themselves were a gift in a way, allowing growth by sitting with the darkness of bad choices.  Gratitude for everything, including darkness, always ironically leads to peace.  

May you and yours have a healthy, happy Thanksgiving, and while this time of year makes our hearts ache for those who have gone before us or who cannot be present because of the pandemic or other reasons, maybe it would be valuable to focus on being grateful for what we do have.  


Thursday, November 12, 2020

New Starts, and Old Friends

Life is sure a mix of a bunch of different things, isn't it?  

Amidst all the craziness that seems to be universal this year, there has been some opportunity for time spent on the hobby.  Sometimes that requires a conscious decision to stop watching the news or social media, and instead head down to the basement and make some progress.  Progress comes in different forms:  it can be physical progress on the layout, thinking about future projects or improvements, or it can be prepping for operating sessions.

Remote operations on the Onondaga Cutoff really seems to have taken off.  It is a way to keep the trains moving during the pandemic, and I am grateful for that at least.  Each session requires a 'set up night' where a few guys come over to reconsist power, clean wheels and track, and check paperwork.  It's a satisfying and fun way to get ready for a session.  Here's the lineup of power on the Island, cleaned and serviced, ready for the most recent session:

Speaking of the remote sessions, one of the fun parts about the Facebook Live events we have been hosting is that those videos are archived over on Facebook.  If you'd like to see one, take a look at https://www.facebook.com/onondagacutoff/ - and note you don't need an account to watch the videos.  Just close out of the pop-up and you can scroll down to see the listings.

Thanks to some restrictions having been lifted, too, Teddy had his first opportunity to operate on another layout.  Here he is making a move through Sparta Junction on Jerry Dziedzic's New York, Susquehanna & Western layout:


This photo makes me smile.  We all wore masks, per protocol, and kept social distanced, but Teddy's sailing right through the challenges:  he's watching his train intently, making sure to follow speed limits and signal aspects while we made a pickup from the yard.  This bodes well for the hobby as time continues and sure makes for some fun time between Teddy and I.

And, of course, there is always physical work to be done:  here we see an upgrade in progress for Conrail SD50 6707, which wore a special paint job to support the troops as part of Operation Desert Storm in 1991.  It held that paint through 1995 or so, and so wears it on my layout.  It is shopped now getting a sound decoder and new LED lighting including ditch lights, as well as new details including air lines and moving the grab irons to reflect Conrail practice.


As this wild year continues and begins to draw to a close, and as days grow shorter, my mind is always reflecting on the months passing.  I am more and more grateful for each moment - life has a way of improving if we are mindful, if we work hard, trust others, and open our minds up.  Doing those things and being grateful for what we have changes the color of the days to come.  

In mind of that, we have a new author who is going to begin contributions to these pages:  Jack T., who regular readers will know from his involvement in the Onondaga Cutoff from the inception 12 years ago.  I think it will add a great bit of variety and analysis that will make the blog a better resource for you all.  

And finally, book proofs are in and returned - the forthcoming signal book is going to be a really neat piece of work.  I am really excited at how it is coming out.  Two articles in Model Railroader, one each in the January and February issues, will prime the pump on the book.  The book is still on track for an April delivery, and that will build some anticipation through the winter:  Good stuff coming!

~Dave