Saturday, June 14, 2008

A Memory In The Distance: A Father's Day Tribute To My Dad

I live in a small southern Kentucky town that has a railroad track running through it. The crossing is about ½ mile from my house and I can hear the train whistles from inside my house whenever one comes through town. Every time I hear a train’s whistle, be it night or day, it reminds me of someone whom I loved very much: my dad.

You see dad loved trains. Back when I still lived at home with my parents our house was also close to a train track. Every time the train would come by if Dad was home he’d go to the window and see what kind of engine was pulling the line of freight cars. He’d just stand there and watch with wonder and admiration.

One of my most memorable father/son trips I ever took with my dad was to Altoona, Pennsylvania to see one of the great engineering feats of the industrial age, a famous section of railroad track called “Horseshoe Curve.”

Model railroading was Dad’s life long hobby. He spent his entire life collecting and customizing model trains. There were quite a few birthdays, Christmas mornings and Father’s Days when he opened a gift box delighted to find a new model engine or box car kit for his railroad.

To relax in the evenings if he wasn’t working on his trains or planning out the layout he hoped to some day build he was shuffling through the boxes of past issues of Model Railroader’s magazines. Perhaps his life’s most prized possession (other than his family) he would carefully take each magazine out of it’s place, look through it and then return it to the box full of other issues; which of course was organized in chronological order.

When he and mom bought their house dad was excited because he planned on building his model railroad in the basement. Initially he had the time to work on it and made pretty good progress. But obligations to work, family and involvement with his church limited his leisure time. Pretty soon Dad’s railroad platform became a dusty reminder of the hobby he loved but no longer had time to work on.

Finally, after my youngest sister got married and moved out of the house in 1989, her empty bedroom became the place for dad to start building his railroad all over again. He created an entirely new set of plans with bridges, loops and over passes. He was going to build a model railroad that, once completed, was not only fun to watch run but was a challenge to run.

He developed a color scheme and logo for his fleet of engines and cabooses. Adding these required repainting, and putting decals on all the cars and engines. Although he didn’t have much more leisure time than he had before dad spent every minute he could working on the railroad.
In 1997 he finally got the track mounted and part of it elevated so the 3 loops would run above and below each other. He connected the initial electrical wiring to a central control board and put the cars on the track.

Although it was far from completed and still crude looking it was a running model railroad layout. To my dad it might as well have been the Orient Express. He was so proud of it. He continued to spend as much time as he could working on it because he wanted to finish it. The “train room” became the place where dad and his 2 year old grandson, Bobby the third, spent a lot of time together.

Later that year Dad was diagnosed with malignant tumors in his brain and lung. He started Chemotherapy and radiation treatments which quickly took his strength. He didn’t have the energy to work on his trains anymore.

In August 1999 when Dad went to be with The Lord his model railroad remained unfinished. The picture at the beginning of this post is how he left it.

Now this may seem like a very sad story to write about on Father’s Day. However telling it makes me smile. The smile comes from the thought of how happy Dad was when he got to spend time with his trains.

His model railroad platform is now set up in the basement of my sister’s house. I’m not sure if it still works but its there as a memorial to dad. I have an engine and a box car from his collection that I hope to one day get mounted and put on display in my living room.

His family was the delight of my dad’s heart and continues to be a large part of his legacy. He lives on in each and every one of us. He lived a life of faithfulness in marriage to my mother and in service to His Lord Jesus Christ. For me those are the most important parts of his legacy. As I struggle to live my life for The Lord I look to his example for guidance.

As I said Dad is with God on this Father’s Day. I’m sure he no longer cares or even gives thought to model railroads, music, television shows or any of the things he enjoyed in his life here because today he is in paradise.

With tomorrow being Father’s Day I sure do miss him but I hold onto the hope of seeing him again one day when I too will go to be with The Lord. Until then I have a lifetime of memories of my dad that remind me of who he was and I have a hope because, through the Grace of Jesus Christ, he is eternally with God. Both of those things come rushing back into my mind every time I hear the sound of a train whistle in the distance.

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