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Don't Play With Your Model Railways in Your Bed

Erwin was my father's best friend. They both came from the same town in Czechoslovakia, Topolcany. There was quite an age difference between them; my father was married with a daughter before Erwin went off to Yeshiva in Budapest, Hungary, as a young teenager.

After the war, when the few survivors of that terrible war returned to their hometown, everyone had lost their families. I have heard from others that the "young" boys from the town and the survivors from the surrounding villages gravitated to my father as some kind of leader. Erwin may have been one of them. My father was set to marry Erwin's cousin -- but in the end that didn't happen -- so it could have been a "family" thing.

My father and Erwin ended up in Melbourne following the communist takeover of their homeland after which the remaining Jews left. My father moved up to Sydney when he heard my mother was coming there. Erwin joined him a couple of years later. They were always best of friends, and remained so even though they were business partners for years. Erwin was always generous to us kids, especially on my birthday. My birthday was on the same date as that of his little brother, who died of leukemia as a child.

For my fifth birthday, Erwin bought me a Tri-ang Model Railways train set. Now this was some present back in the fifties; the whole block was jealous. I remember the evening he brought it over. I was about to go to bed, and Erwin walks in with an enormous box. I unwrap it and I am wrapped. My mother wants me to go to bed, I was after all, still four years old yesterday. But Erwin and my father promised they would set it up quickly so I can see it running. After an hour, it still isn't operational. I was rubbing my sleep out my eyes, and my mother leads me to bed.

I fell asleep quickly, though a bit later (I couldn't tell the time yet) I awoke and heard voices in the lounge room. Out I go, and there are these two grown men, on their hands and knees, observed by a lady on the couch, watching a model steam locomotive, pulling two carriages around a small circular track. They are so absorbed in what they are doing, having so much fun, that they don't notice a five year old little boy in the room with them. They show me how it works, let me twiddle the control knob a couple of times and pack me back off to bed. I'm sure they played with it for half the night -- and why not, these things didn't exist in their childhood -- they deserved it after the horrors of their youth.

Growing up, I only remember two friends who owned train sets. Both were incompatible with mine. Jeff had a Hornby, another English model company which was later bought out by Tri-ang. Frank Hornby, who started manufacturing miniature model trains after the first world war, was the man behind Meccano.

My friend, Kraut, didn't have an English made train set. He of course had a Märklin. His grandmother used to bring him pieces for it each time she travelled to Germany, which may have been annually. He had the biggest train set of all of us.

Model trains are an expensive hobby. When I was older I would by extra parts for my set whenever I had a bit of spare cash: sometimes tracks, occasionally points, carriages, and even another locomotive. I usually waited for a sale to maximise my purchasing power. I had a Tri-ang catalogue, and I would read it cover to cover, often in the bathroom, or in bed at night; I dreamed of building a super railway that would travel all over the little flat in which we lived. I coveted the green Britannia engine, with its separate coal truck. Never got one, but that was the top of the range loco.

Kraut and I kept our models in boxes, and set them up when we had the time to play. While setting up was fun and creative, it took time and didn't leave a lot of time for actual train driving. Living in a small apartment, I continuously had to ensure that the other occupants and worse still, their visitors, would not trip over the tracks. Whenever I left the room, I always took valuable engine with me for its protection.

Jeff on the other hand, had his rails screwed onto a board. This board was hinged at the bottom, and the back of it doubled as a notice board. When put up against the wall, the tracks were out of sight. It was a bit like the Three Stooges' bed. (When they awoke in the morning and put on their trousers -- remember, their nightgowns doubled as shirts -- they folded the bed into a cupboard and closed the closet doors. Remember the antics those idiots got up to in bed -- the three of them together in one bed -- they never got much sleep.)

The advantage was that when Jeff wanted to play, he'd drop down the board -- the far side sat on his desk -- plugged in the transformer/controller and he was in action. It took up most of his bedroom, but he didn't share it with anyone else. I really wanted to do something like this too and Kraut offered to help be achieve this goal.

We were fourteen or fifteen years old and Kraut lived about a mile up Coogee Bay Road. He had lots of room in his house including a backyard. From somewhere (I can't remember the fine details) we acquired a big piece of Masonite fibreboard onto which to stick the tracks. This project was carried out during the Easter school holidays. On the Friday, the first vacation day, we nailed some two by fours to the outside of the board to give it some strength, and we painted it white. On the Sunday, I brought all my tacks up to Kraut's. We set up an interesting track layout, and screwed it down. We tested it and it worked great. I finally had by wish.

OK. Now we have to get this back to my place. We must have looked like a right pair of dills, but it was a public holiday and we did this during the morning on the Monday of the break. Australians don't get up too early on a public holiday, and I don't think we passed anyone on the street over the course of the full mile. Which was just as well. One of us walked in front and the other behind, with the boarded tracks between us. It was heavy, and grew heavier as we approached my place. We took up the full width of the footpath. We scraped a couple of telegraph poles, but no-one saw. It was slow going.

Finally we arrive at my block. We negotiate the stairs OK. They are wide, the stairwell ceiling is high. We just get it into our front door, through the double door of the living room and out the door on the other door onto the balcony. Phew! Horizontal again, connect up the controls, and away we go. We're having so much fun. My mother comes home and says, "I think that's enough boys. Big day tomorrow."

"Yes mummy" (that's what we still called the old ladies in those days -- I guess it was a fashion thing). Of course we had planned on where we were going to store this monstrosity -- you don't undertake such a project this large without fore planning.

In those days my mother slept in two big beds, up against each other. The beds were on legs with quite a bit of clearance (I used to transfer negatives into the developing tank under the beds because this was the darkest, crampedest place in the vicinity.) The board was to be stored under the beds. Between the verandah and the bedroom was a four panelled glass door, the centre two opening and the outside two fixed. Each panel was made up of four small pieces of glass. We get the board through the double doors, jiggle the beds around a bit to get the board under them, and . . . oh bugger! . . . didn't we measure the width of the beds?

It stuck out a couple of feet. Maybe at an angle . . . no, not really . . . how about putting a space between the two beds . . . two inches maybe, but not two feet . . . maybe she can step over it getting out of bed? no? . . . my Gd, what are we going to do?

We wiggled it a bit more, and . . . smash -- we broke one of the little windows! "Did she see that?" "No, she's in the kitchen." "Good, maybe she won't notice! Quixk, clean up the glass."

Well, you guessed it, there was nothing to do . . . but take the thing apart, and dispose of the board.

Please feel free to and don't forget to stop by my site to look at my latest (and classic) photographs.


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