Model trains much like bullet calibers and brassieres are classified by size. They range from "large scale" (1/12) down to the 1/220 or "Z" scale, a size so small that even among the model train crowd, building these generally is regarded as a mental illness.
The boys loved the layouts, especially the various dioramas. Small trains passed through tunnels, forests, deserts and urban sprawl. Some of the scenery was so intricately constructed that even up close it was hard to tell that it wasn't reality.
"It's like real," Tate exclaimed. "Only smaller real."
That's what I thought when I got a miniature train set for Christmas when I was 8. It was the first "real" big kid toy I owned. I felt mature beyond my years.
The train wasn't much by today's standards. Just a circle of track, an engine, three cars and the all-important caboose. Even so, it was a mechanical device that required "big kid" sophistication to operate.
When it comes to creating an alternate reality, modeling is the way to go. It required less imagination, or so I thought.
Along with the train, I got a Roy Rogers ranch kit complete with plastic figures of horse Trigger, dog Bullet and the highly dispensable Dale Evans. Who needs a cowboy in a skirt?
Retiring to my room on important railroad business, I assembled the set and made a few test runs. The engine clanked and rattled and smoked just like the real thing. But was it really realistically real? A test seemed in order.
Securing the bedroom door, I placed the plastic Dale Evans on the track and gave the train full power. As it hammered around the track, I got down close to watch the gory action.
The engine rounded the bend and hit Dale at full speed. But instead of cutting her into thirds, the engine stopped, chugged a bit, then fell over.
I had a "Ralphie" moment, the one from the movie "A Christmas Story" when he discovers his Orphan Annie decoder ring is just a commercial. But I said a lot worse than "son of a #%$&."
Depressed by the lack of realism, I put the train in the closet. Eventually, I got it out again, sawed the roof off a box car, and used it to give my pet rat rides.
Even scaled-down realism means different things to people. Gage and Tate weren't much interested in the meticulous detail of model trains. They were more interested in the Lego trains.
I pointed out the complete lack of realism in Lego trains. Gage wanted to know what was so "real" about a train that just went around in a circle? Was that all it did?
"They should make a model train video game," he said. "Then you could drive it. That would be closer to real."
If you miss the original realism of model trains, check out the Hostler Model Railroad Festival in Ogden, March 2-4. No video trains allowed.