Rec & Sports » Rec Features

One-Track Mind

One man's lifetime of tiny towns

by

A woman peers anxiously over a precipitous cliff. Meanwhile, her friend waves frantically in the direction of two police officers, but they are unaware of her gesticulations; their attention is instead drawn to an appealing motorcycle parked at the curb of a pastoral street. Below them in the ravine, a VW bus has come to rest traumatically against some rocks. The driver was thrown from the van, and a pool of blood surrounds his head. Midway up the cliff, the Grim Reaper himself is perched like a confident vulture, observing the misfortune below.

"He's not dead yet, so the Grim Reaper is still around," Bruce McCosh explains. "It's fun."

Look to another town and you'll find a man relieving himself next to a street post, and in the mountains, a bear protecting her young stalks an unsuspecting hunter. Elsewhere, an enterprising kid has attached an inner tube to a bridge with a long rope, and is playing in the river's current.

Running through all these whimsical flashes of life—from amusement parks to mines and through forested mountains—it is a model railroad that tendons the dynamics, just as it has for most of McCosh's 53 years.

"My dad got me started. He gave me my first train set when I was 4 years old," McCosh says.

McCosh is part of a loose affiliation of like-minded ferroequinologists (or, in McCosh's words, "train nuts") here in the Boise area who run model trains. They call themselves the Tuesday Night Turnaround Modeling Group, because they meet on Tuesday nights, then figure out where they're going to turnaround and meet the next week. They congregate at McCosh's home in the North End on Wednesdays and another member's place on Mondays.

"There are no officers, no dues and, hence, no politics," he says, which presumably means that they can call themselves whatever they want, night of the week be damned.

McCosh's railroad operation circumnavigates a large room in his basement and connects to another room where he keeps his shop and staging area. It's a world unto itself, but as McCosh's wife Jo cheerfully adds, "It keeps him broke, off the street, and away from gambling and wild women."

McCosh works on his railroad daily. He pounds on the ceiling and Jo stomps on the floor when they need each other. "It works," he says.

McCosh's wood-paneled shop is stuffed with model railroad periodicals, including all but four Model Railroader magazines since 1969. There are old sardined railroad books vying for scarce space with errant model trains and awards, earned from a lifetime of devotion to the craft and a commitment to volunteerism. At his vintage metal shop desk, there is a mounted magnifying glass, and rows of plastic boxes with labeled contents like "roof walks," "fuses," "hatches" and "animals."

The staging area sits on an unadorned platform nearby and is equipped with rows of crisscrossing track that are used to combine cars and build trains. For McCosh and many of his fellow enthusiasts, this is where the challenge begins when they convene. They often utilize computer programs that create work for the railroad operators. These jobs are derived from data like the types of train cars, and tasks such as moving coal (it can get far more complicated) that are fed to the program. The prescribed duties that the computer program churns out will often take two to three hours to complete.

For those familiar with model trains, McCosh currently runs HO scale and standard gauge. "Scale" refers to the size of the trains (there are numerous scales) in relation to the real thing, and "gauge" is a measure of the distance between the tracks. The National Model Railroad Association, of which McCosh is a member, was founded in 1935 in order to create standards that allow modelers and manufacturers to establish equipment compatibility. On their Web site, nmra.org, they boast that many of their standards have not changed in 70 years. McCosh updates the Pacific Northwest region's NMRA Web site, pnr.nmra.org/3div/, which provides links to different local clubs, and information on where public exhibitions are scheduled.

McCosh is a colossal man with a cascading amber and gray beard and lively blue eyes that dart under persistently arched eyebrows, which convey an appropriate sense of chronic wonderment. As I watched him roam around his model railroad that he fashioned after three small towns in northern Idaho, I couldn't help but smile at the sight of such a big man intently engaged in such an intricate little world. We spoke for nearly an hour before he ran a train for me. From a control console, he beckoned an engine to life, and built a three-car train that then journeyed across the landscape. One car would fit in the palm of my hand, so I was astonished by the sound the little train produced.

"I run metal wheels. You're hearing metal on metal," McCosh explained, in response to my apparent surprise. As the train went through tunnels, over bridges and by cliffs, the sounds changed and I was unexpectedly transfixed.

In one of the towns, McCosh pointed out a woman doing laundry in her back yard, a clothesline filled with drying garments. At a public exhibition held on Easter a few years ago, an elderly couple became quite upset when seeing this depiction of someone tending laundry on such a holy day. McCosh was chagrined. "They left angry. Can you believe that? It's just a model."