Side Track

My father led a fascinating life filled with art photography, furniture making, and French cooking. So why did he spend his final years building toy trains in the attic?
TRAIN MAN: F. William Nelson in 1988, ten years before he bought his first model railroad.

It took my sister and me just two hours to demolish my dad’s train set. My mother went off to see him at the nursing home, and Julie and I got to work on the attic room. What else did we have to do, waiting for our father to finally die?

He’d been dying for a while, losing pieces of his essential self to Parkinson’s, first the physical, then the mental. Dementia—F. William Nelson had left the building. He wasn’t the man we’d grown up with, and that made it easier to accept his final passing. We’d become accustomed to his disappearing, to finding less and less of him there when we visited. He’d already moved out of the house, never to return, so dismantling his train set didn’t seem like a violation.

It had once been an elaborate affair, consuming a great deal of basement real estate, two or three different lines running at different strata around the room, backdrops made of plywood and painted to resemble mountains, a city of plastic buildings, populated by tiny people—laundry ladies, rake-bearing farmers, children at a bus stop—around whom the trains would swoop, synchronized and stylish, lit up and puffing smoke. There was a line from the thirties, one from the forties, one from the fifties, and my father their conductor, a man who’d also moved through those decades, always abreast of the current trends, always, in fact, ahead of those trends.

But over the years, as his mind grew messier, the train set also grew dissipated and odd. It moved to the attic, the backdrops fell away, the little buildings got broken, the three levels were reduced to one. Eventually, all he really did was connect pieces of track and work endlessly to make a single car move. “Fine motor skills,” he would tell you if you asked what was going on.

It was a hobby he would have been appalled to see himself take up. My husband taught me to make peace with my father’s decline by imagining what, at my age, he would have made of his current self. What would that forty-something-year-old have done with this eightysomething-year-old? What would the agile, active English professor think of the hunched, stiff form in the La-Z-Boy? What would he say about the model trains?

He’d had other hobbies that were more glamorous: French cooking, brewing beer in the basement, tying wild flies to accessorize his trout fishing passion, raising exotic fish, taking arty photos of my mother posed around the house in existentialist aspects (photos he developed in the lab he built in our second kitchen), making beautiful furniture—handmade cribs for each grandbaby. These we could get behind. They seemed a natural accompaniment to his eclectic and charismatic character. We could bring home our friends and brag.

But those trains. It was a hobby none of us could really understand. It disappointed us, frankly. Small children and Mister Rogers played with model trains! They had nothing to do with art or culture or dissent or anything even remotely cutting-edge. They were the male equivalent of the female sensibility given to running quaint B&B’s filled with doilies and dolls and useless embroidered pillows proclaiming needlepoint niceties.

I suppose my father liked trains because he’d grown up in a time when they were one of the real options for travel. He certainly would have heard their lonesome whistles from any of the bedrooms he’d slept in as a boy and young man, that sound track to longing, to loneliness, to dreams of escape. He’d forever been afraid of flying and enjoyed seeing the world, especially the American West, from a train—usually the club car, cigar and martini in hand, lurid sunset in the distance. He covered a lot of ground—was raised during the Depression (and in the Dust Bowl, no less); served during World War II; went to college on the GI Bill; wrote one of the first master’s theses in the country on William Faulkner (this was at Columbia University, in New York, but he claimed that at that time there wasn’t a scholar on the faculty who knew enough about Faulkner to oversee the project); taught English for years and years at Wichita State University; hosted Allen Ginsberg in our home (where family lore says that I was, at age four, a rare youngster unafraid to sit on the bearish man’s lap); taught his grad students Joyce’s Ulysses at our dining room table; smoked pot on the porch; protested various wars at various peace rallies; began a film series and an honors program at the college; and took up all manner of culturally avant-garde positions. As children, we were denied white sugar. Our wheat-bread sandwiches were wrapped in wax paper because we opposed Baggies. Our peanut butter was organic, our jelly homemade, and our milk unpasteurized. We repaired rather than replaced. We knew who Adelle Davis was. We boycotted grapes and stopped for hitchhikers. We didn’t own a television. We were atheists. We believed war was unhealthy for children and other living things. We subscribed to the Evergreen Review, which wasn’t about trees. I mean to say, he seemed ahead of his time. In 2000, with most of his wits still about him, he purchased one of the first Toyota Priuses.

Is everybody’s father a larger-than-life character in the family narrative? His passions—natural history, literature, the environment, politics, justice, health, woodworking, house repair—determined all the important features of our lives. I had crap jeans because my father wouldn’t teach summer school—opting, instead, to go camping. We scrimped on material items and took pleasure in less tangible goods: space and time. We drove beaters because we prized our huge ramshackle house, which, by the way, was so cold during some winters that the mice I kept in my bedroom would literally go into hibernation.

I hate those trains,” we all said when we came home to visit. But up we would go, to see him at the big sawhorse-supported table. With Q-tips and alcohol, he would be painstakingly

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