Sunday, September 23, 2007

Lost weekends

I've never been a big partier, so the title is not referring to some dissipative debauchery. Instead, it's describing the handful of weekends I've spent infatuated with a change in direction of what I plan to model. Most of these have been brief divergences driven by some off-hand discovery, article, or idea.

When I moved to the Bay Area in 1997, my plans were to build a proto-freelanced shortline/secondary mainline based on the proposed-but-never-built Midland Pacific. My layout design and operating plans for the Midland Pacific were covered in detail in the Layout Design SIG's Layout Design Journal # 35, December 2006.

Within a few years, I shifted concepts to a prototype-based Bay Area plan focused on San Jose and environs. I worked on this for a couple of years, until one day while on a walk I realized that San Jose was ten pounds of sugar in the five-pound sack that was my garage. The only way I could get all the things I really wanted into a layout was to proto-freelance. This led me to the Oakland Harbor Belt (OHB) layout currently under construction in the garage. I remain happy with this concept and I'm looking forward to it slowly taking shape.

But along the way, I've had ever-so-brief dalliances with other ideas, locales, eras, even scales. There was the one long holiday weekend (while my family was out of town) spent feverishly on the computer wrapping an HOn3 Hawaiian-themed proto-freelance layout into my garage space. Operations would have been somewhat limited with no interchange, but at least my HO-chauvinist friends could have read the car numbers. I decided I liked the OHB better, but I did get the germ of an idea for an article out of it, slated for publication soon in the commercial press. So that weekend wasn't really lost.

Another model RR crush was on the Central California Traction (CCT), an eminently modelable traction line turned diesel shortline. (Fan site here, the RR's official site here) This one was pretty serious, dropped only when I decided the lack of suitable models in N scale for the period in which I wanted to set the layout was going to be too difficult for me to overcome. Friend Dave Stanley has since written a terrific book on the CCT with Jeffrey Moreau. Fortunately, the book had not been published when I went through my brief CCT obsession, or who knows where I would have ended up! Once again, the focus was not wasted, because later I had the chance to do a custom proto-freelanced HO design for a client based loosely on the CCT and the neighboring Sacramento Northern.

One other weekend fling was with the Modesto and Empire Traction. This is a very neat little shortline that does some pretty big-time railroading in a few miles of industrial park in central California. In the end, my interest in rail-marine brought me back home to the OHB, but the idea of shoehorning some tight HO curves into the garage for a couple of Bachmann 70-tonners was good for some heated doodling. Eventually cooler heads (and some radius reality!) prevailed.

This last affair came to mind this month with the article by friend Trevor Marshall in the October 2007 Railroad Model Craftsman. Trevor does a great job outlining the present-day M&ET and offering a neat Free-Mo based layout design concept. It's a two-part article, so I am really looking forward to next month's issue. This is a very modelgenic prototype, especially for contemporary or near-contemporary layouts. No tangible results yet from my M&ET infatuation, but there is that long, empty wall in my office … and there are still some 70-Tonners around ….

Each of these brief flirtations has ultimately strengthened my focus on the OHB. The explorations of different eras, themes, even scales helps bring to light the reasons I made the choices and trade-offs that led to this concept. Hopefully these lost weekends will be fewer in number (and less intense in severity) as construction continues, but I'm glad for the perspective they brought along the way.

This weekend's guilty listening pleasure was Un-Led-Ed by Dread Zeppelin. Yes, a reggae band fronted by an Elvis impersonator doing Led Zeppelin covers. I can't explain why I enjoy listening to it … and I have even less justification for why I bought the CD in the first place. It was LA, I was young .... (alright, younger) This is definitely a once-per-decade listen -- but I liked it! (Talk about a lost weekend …)

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Too common to name

Thanks to the Discovery Channel, most of us know the word describing animals that are active at night and rest in the daytime (like most bats, for example) -- it's "nocturnal". But is the word for being active in the day and resting at night on the tip of your tongue? It's "diurnal". Because I was a biologist once (a long, long time ago), it's a word I know well. But for most people, it's not a regular part of their vocabulary.

Why is that? It would seem that the word (diurnal) that describes our own mode of life would be more common to us than a word (nocturnal) that describes a foreign mode of life. The reason it's not, I submit, is that some things are almost too common to notice, remark upon, or even name. But those common things make up most of our life experience. The exceptions are memorable, but the common occurrences, sights, and experiences make up our definition of normal life.

"So how does this relate to layout design, operations … or really, to anything I care about, Byron?" you may ask. Simple. When we build a layout or design an ops session, I think it's easy to become focused-in on something unusual, something unique. Some amount of that defines the character of a prototype or a place, to be sure. But too much emphasis on the exceptional can give our layouts or op sessions an air of unreality.

This came to mind recently looking at Jim Boyd's photo of an Illinois Central E6 passing through Rockford, Ill. in June 1965 in the October 2007 issue of Railroad Model Craftsman (page 47). The subject of his photo is obvious, the relatively unusual (by that time) E6 on the point of the Land O' Corn. But there are a myriad of details in the rest of the photo that scream -- OK, whisper -- "reality". The longer I looked at the photo, the more these became obvious: signs hanging from storefronts; some windows open, some closed; access ladders; power poles; etc. While the rare E6 is interesting, the humdrum details make the photo look real.

If we were asked what we noticed about the photo, most of us would be hard-pressed to name a lot of these everyday elements -- they are so common we filter them out. But they are worth the extra effort to think about and include in a design or ops session. Layout Design SIG founder Doug Gurin and others speak of "modeling typicality", and that's excellent advice. And of course, it's possible to overdo these details into a cluttered mess that overpowers the viewer. The typical is not always easy to appreciate, or easy to capture, but its ubiquity makes it an important consideration.

An "eye for the usual" sounds like a contradiction in terms, but it's modeling the things that are "too common to model" that gives a scene life.

Friday, September 07, 2007

Preview of coming attractions

Friend Bart Thurber has already contributed substantially to my Oakland Harbor Belt layout. He's researched the locale and railroads that served it during many dusty hours in the Oakland Library's archives, joined me for study jaunts to see what's left of the prototype railroads in the area, and been a strong supporter of the concept.

But now he's really gone above and beyond … building his own version of a key element of the OHB. Alice Street Yard was the Santa Fe's outpost on Oakland's inner harbor, a pocket yard served only by car float from Richmond. (For more on Alice Street, refer to W.W. Childer's fine article in The Santa Fe Railway Historical & Modeling Society's Warbonnet, Third Quarter 2001.)

Bart's done a great job of squeezing an HO representation of Alice Street into a spare-bedroom-sized space. He was kind enough to invite me over to operate (or was it that I was there and invited myself to operate …). The layout is still in its early phases and Bart has yet to apply any of his fine modeling skills to the structures. Most of the industries are still mock-ups, but I had a very enjoyable time working the yard, team tracks, freight house and associated industries in response to the arrival of a couple of car floats (actually cars Bart interchanged by hand from storage drawers beneath the benchwork).

For a nearly-new layout, things ran well and we had only a couple of very minor hiccups. It was terrific fun actually operating for a change while Bart busied himself with the "hands-on" interchange and working the nearby SP tracks with another throttle. He's taken the time to add a coat of earth-colored paint and sprinkle a bit of ground cover. That, along with the industry mock-ups, was more than enough to put me in a fun railroadin' frame of mind.

Even better, I was essentially "test driving" a section of my own layout years before I will get to that phase of construction. During my planning, I've wondered if switching on my own depiction of the Alice Street Yard would be varied enough to hold an operator's interest. After this preview of coming attractions, I think it's going to be great. But, Bart, I might need to do some additional research … umm … maybe I'd better come by and operate some more …

Gavin DeGraw's 2003 album Chariot is a well-produced pop package. That description might put some people off, but I have enjoyed listening to it lately. Crisp but unpretentious guitar work by Michael Ward (Ben Harper, Shelby Lynne, Wallflowers) sets off DeGraw's vocals and keyboards while adding just a touch of Keith Richards-style bluesy greasiness to "Chemical Party" and a driving southern rock feel to "I Don't Want to Be". DeGraw's voice flows easily from a slightly gritty Black Crowes-esque vibe on the latter to a soulful strut on "(Nice to Meet You) Anyway". Yeah, the teens swooned for the "Chariot" video and know DeGraw from One Tree Hill, but I don't hold that against him.