Friday, August 15, 2008

Cardiff Giant Layouts and other Fairy Tales

The Internet is a mixed bag for model railroading. It provides tremendous benefits in research and information. But it has also given rise to a particular brand of tall tale that just leaves me shaking my head. Every few months a thread surfaces in a forum describing someone's plans to build a big layout. And when I say "plans", I really mean, "hallucinations".

Many of these folks don't actually have the skills or time available for such an undertaking, and almost by definition they don't have the financial wherewithal. But they are just sure the owner of that abandoned lot behind Aunt Tilly's house won't mind if they throw up a post frame mini-warehouse and start building a layout.

Next come weeks of on-line hand-wringing over which brand of locomotives are best suited to the envisioned 60 scale miles of main line, what manner of sheetrock screws to use to build the mezzanine for the crew lounge, and whether an elevator or just an escalator would be preferable to move operators between the three levels of layout without falling too far behind their train. And how will we build floor supports for the hot tub in the dispatcher's office?

And the forum-ites jump right in – offering that particular wild mix of speculation and overwrought amateur engineering that the Internet incubates like fungus in a fetid hothouse. Soon the forum is filled with talk of gluelam beams and solar panels vs. in-house biomass co-gen plants for powering the twenty-five thousand kilowatts of layout lighting. Heady stuff, that!

And somehow, nobody ever asks a few simple questions of the original dreamer. Is there really time, space and money for a project of this scope? How long will it take? Are you at a place in your life where you are sure that future education, job opportunities or relationships won't require a move within that timeframe? Might you not be better off with a more modest layout today, perhaps built in sections, to allow for life's twists and turns? Nope, everybody's just too happy to go along with the fantasy.

After a few weeks or months of delirium, the original poster and his grandiose dream disappear, undone by some unforeseen reality check. And then the next romantic arrives and the process begins anew.

Why do so many join in, when most must know that what's being proposed is unlikely at best? I guess we all want to believe in fairy tale giants – creatures bigger and more powerful than mere mortals. George Hull's Cardiff Giant was an elaborate hoax that tens of thousands bought into at 50 cents a pop, to the tune of $30,000 (in 1869 dollars!). Fossilized stone giants might be slightly harder to accept than the quixotic plans of some model railroad dreamers, but it seems there is always a gullible crowd for Gulliver‑esque layout fables.