Friday, July 10, 2009

Welcome & Introduction

Welcome to Goldfish on the Run. In the future there may well be goldfish here — or photographs of them in their element, as it were — but these will have been happy goldfish, running from or to nothing. My desire here is primarily to post photos (and videos if I deem such to be of sufficient interest) of my model railroading efforts and other things about or related to the past-time/distraction/hobby that is modeling. As well I plan on adding photos of the real life counterpart to the main focus of my modeling, which is, at present, the steel industry (or what remains of it). Speaking of which, the first photos in this sub-category will be "the remains," or better said, ruins of a long-diminished industry, although from time to time I should like to include photos from the past. Since copyright law is not among my areas of expertise, such photos will be restricted to my own, though links to worthwhile sites will be a future consideration.

I consider myself a mid-level modeler, at best, and one more than willing to experiment and try anything once. My love of trains in general can be traced back to my childhood, and model railroading (not to be confused with "toy trains," either collecting or displaying) was something I pursued sporadically in my adolescence, with the supervision and guidance of my father — a Pittsburgh steel mill railroader who first introduced me to the activity, in the mid-50s, when a 4x8 "platform" would magically appear on Christmas morning under the tree. When Santa was no longer an issue said platform was put up a week or two before Christmas and some of my earliest memories involve "helping" Dad put up the trains (which mostly consisted of me following him around with my little plastic, battery-operated drill). Later the whole business was moved to our basement. Year after year the "start time" for working with the platform grew earlier and earlier (extending eventually to as early as immediately after Thanksgiving), and the trains would stay up until well after New Year's. Gradually Dad let me take over construction entirely; an additional plywood board was added, one year, and this seasonal operation continued until my high school years, when a growing interest in girls, music, and writing began gradually to replace that of HO modeling. The trains and all the accessories went up into the attic, then, where they remained while I attended college and, following that, did a four-year stint in the army.

When I first married, in 1981, and was living in the Northern Virginia area (working in DC), the basement of our rented house was large enough for a good-sized pike and I took up the hobby again. Sporadically over the years I would be at work on something of one size or another, exploring the hobby in some depth and learning the different aspects of things — design, operation, electronics, scenery, kit-building, and so on. While all the various sub-activities were challenging and interesting, I found myself most fascinated by, and attracted to, the scenery aspect of this business. By the late 80s materials available for that (and the companies producing those materials) began to burgeon and as such ones options for achieving or attempting to achieve a certain degree of realism increased nearly exponentially. Sawdust was no longer ones only option for ground-cover, for instance (nor dyed lichen ones single choice for "vegetation"), for instance. Woodland Scenics, for one example, had come onto the scene, selling ground foam in various textures and colors, and many other landscaping materials as well.

Another extended and self-imposed interruption in my modeling occurred from 1987 until I took up the hobby again in '05. I had made some minor efforts to "keep up" with things but much had changed in the intervening years. (More on this in subsequent posts.)

I'd been divorced for quite a while but remarried in 1998. When my wife and I bought a home, that year, I had an eye on two potential areas in the house for possible modeling activity on a large scale, but other matters (among them graduate school at George Mason University, where I was pursuing for a time an MFA in poetry) interceded and I never got around to envisioning nor even even armchair-planning a railroad. I did buy, though, a kit I couldn't resist when I saw it. This was a large (very large) model of a blast furnace with casthouse and gas stoves which was being sold by Wm Walthers. This monstrosity was intimidating, to say the least and, since I had no place to put it, the thing remained in its box for many years.

My father passed away in March of 1996 and though he had been retired from the Monongahela Connecting Railroad (J&L Steel's [later LTV Steel's] Pittsburgh works inter-plant railroad) since 1983, and the entire complex itself was nearly gone by the time of his death, I had come to have a kind of relationship with various aspects of his past, along with the history of steel-making generally, combined with my own memories of growing up in such a place. On top of this was the fact that I had spent a summer in the car shop on the MCRR, in 1974, as a carman's helper.

A particular wish or desire to model something of or about this in HO scale seemed to take root — perhaps like the very first beginnings of a brush fire (a smoldering one really doesn't particularly notice or pay much attention to). I had since gotten divorced again and was living in a one bedroom apartment in Alexandria, VA. Then in early '05 and with a little time on my hands, I dragged that big blast furnace kit out of the closet, looked it over, sucked in a deep breath, and decided to "have at it."

This blog will be about what began then and continues.

My goal as a modeler is not to recreate a prototype. I am not a "rivet counter," as those perhaps overly involved with prototypical representation are referred to. I have not pored over blue-lines of the MCRR in the 50s and 60s with a desire to represent either the real railroad in scale (which would be impossible unless one had space the size of the massive HO-scale layout at Museum of Industry in Chicago, for instance) or even to selectively compress certain elements of real scenes. There are some modelers who do just this indeed, and they are to be commended and praised for their efforts and achievements at recreating "what once was." Instead, and as with my poetry when it comes to matters of reality, imagination, and the interface of those things, I've tried to create a sense, merely, of what something like this might be, might have looked and felt like at one time.

Thus my present layout is wholly free-lanced — an act of the imagination, as it were — and suffers, in many senses, as a result of that. In a future post I'll include a blue-line drawing of what was known as "the furnace alley" at J&L in Pittsburgh, if for no other reason than to suggest the difficulty one would have in modeling something like this. All of the trackage, which was extremely complex in that very small place, would have to be hand-laid, a task itself that would take a patience (if not the skill or ability) that I simply don't possess.

Of course, the ultimate act would be to recreate, accurately, that very furnace alley — the six blast furnaces there known collectively as the Eliza furnaces. This would be the supreme homage one supposes and would take, in scale, about twenty feet of real space. (And, in an integrated plant such as J&L was, the iron-making that went on in the blast furnace department was one small area of a significantly much larger operation. My single blast furnace, cast house, and the associated gas stoves, takes up four feet of linear space.) One might forgive me when I say I'm not quite up to that kind of endeavor.

In the meantime, though, I'm keeping busy learning, exploring, and discovering what my hands can do, what my imagination will allow me to create. There are times when I've been working for a while on some particular area, either in situ or as a module that I can build at a table and then place in its spot on the layout, and I'll look up at the clock and see how much time has passed — three hours, four, seven . . . whatever. I'll get up and stretch my back, grab a cold beer and take a look at things, at what I've managed to do. I'll think about my Dad, for some reason, and how he might have gotten a kick out of what I've been up to: "Still doing it, yep, Daddy, after all these years . . ." Then I'll think that what I'm doing — modeling something or anything — can't and will never compare with his own 40-some years on such a railroad in such a place. That kind of reality is difficult to understand, really, now that he's gone, other than the bald fact of it. The thousands and thousands of nuances and moments he experienced there can never be recreated, but it's amazing fun to work a little, once in a while, on something that allows me to engage with what I myself remember and deem essential to remember of this kind of history, and imagine him approving of it, on the whole, and saying perhaps, "Well, you know it looked a bit different from what you're doing

I'm not much of a photographer, particularly. The photos I've taken and will post here are mostly what would be called snapshots. One need only look at the pages of Model Railroader magazine to get a sense of the specialty that model railroad photography has become. I shoot with a little Kodak digital camera, no lighting other than what's extant, and do the best I can.

I hope you enjoy this blog, and return to find different and interesting postings.

I'll post only one photo at the moment — an accident I happen to like and have called, "Long After Sunset."

Till next time, then . . .

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