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November 23, 2014

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Columnist Tom Gorman: On the joys of model trains and the difference they could make for children in today’s computer world

Tom Gorman's column runs Sunday, Wednesday and Friday. He can be reached at [email protected] or at (702) 259-2310.

It dawns on me, as we approach Christmas, that one of the things wrong with the world today is that children no longer play with model trains.

They don't know the joy of slowly cranking up the controls on a small transformer, feeding power to an electric-driven locomotive so compact that it would fit in the palm of your hand.

They've missed the grinding whir of the little machine pulling 10 or 12 plastic box cars and a caboose beneath a mountain built of paper mache, alongside a spill of blue paint that passes as a lake, and through a forest of green and brown lichens, before slowing to a perfectly executed stop in front of the tiny, wooden train depot of a make-believe mining town populated by little plastic people.

We knew there was life in this little town of ours, and fish in the lake, and that a thunderstorm could be forming over the mountain. We'd dim the lights in the room, and grow mesmerized by the locomotive's tiny headlight as the train crawled across the top of the plywood table.

This is how I spent the afternoons of my childhood, 45 years ago, in the basement of our home in Leawood, Kan. I read Hardy Boys books, too, and fished in the pond for bass by casting poppers and jitterbugs, played Whiffle Ball and assembled plastic models of World War I and World War II airplanes. I always fumbled with the tender decals.

But my fondest Christmas memory is unwrapping the big Aurora train box.

I think our son, Paul, may have been among the last children to play with model railroads. This was some 25 years ago. We may have been guilty of pushing trains on him the way some parents push soccer and spinach. But we knew it was an experience he should have.

We constructed a small train layout, atop a piece of plywood that hung, with chains and hinges, from his bedroom wall. When lowered, it hung directly over his bed. We helped him create a small town with spur lines, crossing guards and towering, three-inch trees. A kind of grainy silica was used to mimick the track bed, and some of it would loosen and drop into Paul's covers.

It's entirely likely, now that I look back on this, that his mother and I were more excited about the train than was Paul.

Jeanne and I believed trains would provide him the trappings of a well-rounded childhood that would help him develop into the fine man he is today.

We were only partly successful, because he was more transfixed by other hands-on toys such as Legos, Transformers and slot cars. And everything changed in a wholesale manner when, one fateful Christmas, we bought him his first computer, a nifty TI-99/4A.

Our sweet little boy became a computer geek. He told us he could speak a new language, something called Basic, and we were stunned that Paul was, in many respects, smarter than we.

Sadly, we removed the train table from his bedroom, and replaced it with a computer desk, and from that day forward, we would see him only occasionally, such as Thanksgiving and Easter.

Paul and his wife, Sarah, have a nice home in Silverado Ranch and, somewhere in the back of a closet, he still has his TI-99/4A.

But no trains.

There are lots of reasons why model trains fell out of favor among children, of course. I would like to blame MTV, except we didn't have cable TV when Paul grew up.

Trains have fallen to the wayside, I suppose, because today's children seek speed and instant gratification. They lack the patience to plan and build a train layout (which to me was much of the thrill). It's easier for kids now to pop a CD into the computer and, in two or three seconds, call up one of 10,000 instant games.

I even remember a computer game that involved running multiple trains along very intricate layouts; the operator would use the cursors on the keyboard to throw switches and change speeds.

Today, model trains are things that old geezers play with, frequently while wearing powder-blue railroad caps. They are serious hobbyists. They build trains from scratch, and don't hesitate to cannibalize a locomotive for its parts. They have conventions and meets and newsletters. They buy parts at mom-and-pop hobby stores or -- the irony of it all -- on the Internet.

I long for the days of H.O. trains, Tonka trucks, sandboxes and Erector sets.

Are there any children in Las Vegas who build? Who create? Who assemble? Does anyone deliciously waste time over a hobby? Do children realize their hands don't always have to be moving at warp speed?

This Christmas season, try to avoid taking the kids in your life to the electronics departments at Target, Wal-Mart and Kmart.

Instead, introduce a child to a hobby shop. Encourage a child to create.

Tom Gorman's column runs Sunday, Wednesday and Friday. He can be reached at 259-2310 or [email protected]

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