By Glenn Gehlke
(Links connect to photos. Click on them to see more of the day's happenings.)
Most of our friends thought we were crazy when we told them. "You're inviting a kindergarten class to your HOUSE to see trains?" It was true. Not only had we invited our son's class for an afternoon of basic "training," but we were actually looking forward to it.
Our adventure more or less began in April when our son Benjamin, a devoted young railfan, told his teacher Mrs. Furlong about our various model railroads and gave rave reviews of our garden railway. Somehow the idea came about that it might make an interesting field trip to take the kids to our place to see the layout firsthand.
Roni and I were initially apprehensive about the idea. At the time we were in the thick of rebuilding the retaining wall in our back yard and things were in various stages of incompletion. The yard was in no condition to host a visiting school class. But of greater concern -- at least to me -- was that the garden railroad our son spoke of to his teacher in such glowing terms was little more than a 46-foot oval of track surrounded by a garden that was in sore need of attention. I had run trains only once since early December, and various repairs and a good pruning session were at hand. For months I had been planning to add 100 feet of mainline, but all the yard work had consumed much of my time and trains weren't figuring high on my to-do list.
But not wanting to disappoint our son, I decided to see what I could accomplish during an 11-day vaction I had scheduled for mid-May. It took about a week of digging, grading and tracklaying, but at last we had the makings of our expanded mainline. A couple more weeks and we had added much of the landscaping and rockwork that transformed our train's run through the barren sand into something a little more scenic. Now we had a bridge and a second town to add interest to the layout. The tracks extended along the entire west side of our yard, more than enough for restless kindergartners to follow without tripping over one another.
As "Train Day" neared, plans for the afternoon's activities began to take shape. We already knew that the garden pike would be the star attraction. But even in its expanded form, the layout with its one locomotive and two small cars was unlikely to hold the youngsters' attention for the full 90 minutes we had allotted. There needed to be more.
So, we put in a call to our friend David Epling, whom we knew is involved in Operation Lifesaver. We asked if he could set us up with some materials and he came through with a 10-minute cartoon video, along with some coloring books, bookmarks, brochures and lapel pins to hand out.
Next, we took a look at our other model layouts. We decided to spruce up the HO switching layout in Benji's bedroom and make it available to the kids for hands-on play. We also pulled our Christmas layout from storage in the garage, set up its wooden layout table, and let Roni cook up a little display sans yuletide tree. With some coaxing from the rest of the family, I disassembled a portion of my languishing N-scale layout and created a little figure-eight display to set up on the dining room table.
Being the crafty sort, Roni set about coming up with a craft project or two the kids could try during the visit. She settled on baking train-shaped sugar cookies that they would decorate with assorted candies and cake frosting. We printed an outline of a steam locomotive using our laser printer, then bent a strip of lightweight tin to follow the outline. Roni rolled out several tubes of Pillsbury cookie dough mix and cut out the shapes in the wee hours of the morning on Train Day Eve.
We also came up with the idea of letting the kids make their own trains out of paper. I downloaded several of the drawings of railroad cars and locomotives available from the Paintshop Web site and sized them to fit on 11-inch paper. Roni then printed them on colored card stock and cut them out. We found a clip art collection of railroad heralds, which she printed out in quantity. The idea was that the kids would glue the emblems to the cars, then string the cars together using paper clips as couplers to make a train.
Meanwhile, I cooked up a brief history lesson on the BNSF's Stockton Subdivision that runs behind our house. I used our color inkjet printer to print out a sampling of photos we had taken to show the kids the types of trains they might see there. I also rounded up as many railroadiana items as we had for a show-and-tell.
We all worked like mad for two days to clean and childproof the house and remove the remaining construction debris and other clutter from the yard.
Train Day greeted us with clear skies and a gentle Delta breeze that soon turned into a strong Delta breeze. This made outdoor preparations problematic, as the uncooperative wind deposited a thin layer of sand and grit on my freshly polished tracks. It also hampered the setup of our craft tables, pulling up our plastic tablecloths before we could tape them down. We eventually had to weigh the plastic down with bricks.
With the preparations wrapped up at last it was time to wait. Benji's class was due to arrive at our door at noon, following what we estimated would be a 20-minute walk from his school and through our neighborhood. At 12:20 the first kid trooped through the door. The walk had taken longer than expected, and the temperature was starting to warm up. It was shaping up to be a H-O-T day. We had prepared for the arrival of thirsty kids with a round of apple juice. Sixteen students had shown for the trip, which would be a nice workable number. Along with the teacher, there were two other parents with the group. We directed everyone out to the back yard and I gave a brief welcome under the shade of our mulberry tree.
With the introductions concluded, we divided the children into two groups. We had made up paper "boarding passes" in advance, which Mrs. Furlong had distributed to the children at the start of their walk. Purple ticket holders got to go inside the house with Roni, while the green tickets stayed outside with me.
I had only intended the garden presentation to run about 15-20 minutes. I told the class about the BNSF tracks and showed them the photos, then we had a quiz on different types of train cars. Surprisingly, most had little knowledge of the rolling stock and only one knew what a caboose was. I guess kids aren't into trains nowadays like they were years ago. What they definitely WERE into was the models. I asked for volunteers -- one to be the engineer and one to be the conductor. The other kids got to be "passengers," each choosing a toy figurine to load into the gondola of my Aristo-Craft L'il Critter switcher set. While the conductor helped the passengers load up the train, I showed the engineer how to operate the throttle. With a call of "All aboard!" the engineer started the train and let it run around the 150-foot circuit, bringing it to a stop at the station. We rotated duties, then repeated the process a couple of times. Naturally, everyone wanted a turn at the throttle. After 30 minutes it was time to break for lunch.
The weather had warmed to the point that no one wanted to eat on the lawn, as had been our original plan. Instead, we seated the kids inside our spa gazebo where they ate in the shade while we played tracks from John Denver's "All Aboard!" CD. Those who finished earlier than others got to play in Benji's sandbox, or with the wooden Brio trains we had set up on the patio behind the spa.
After lunch we switched groups. While I entertained the purple group with the garden railway presentation, the green tickets went inside with Roni for the Operation Lifesaver video "Sly Fox and Birdie," which was preceded by a train quiz in which stickers were awarded for correct answers.
After the video, the kids were provided with quick demonstrations of the Christmas layout and the N-scale circuit. It didn't take them long to discover that they could have fun making little tunnels with their hands for the train to pass under. They also found it humorous when the locomotive came detached from the from of the train and then proceeded run around the track and derail the tiny cars when it crashed into the rear. Oh well, who needs rolling stock to have fun when you're under six? They all seemed to get a kick out of Benji's layout, which Roni had decorated with backdrops made from computer printouts of our photos. Most were content to simply push the trains around on the tracks rather than run them off the power pack -- which was a good thing considering that the pack conked out on us midway through the afternoon.
Around 2:15 p.m. it was time for the crafts. We moved the craft tables under the shade of the gazebo and the kids spent many happy minutes making their cookie decorations and paper trains. Roni had made each child a paper sack in which to store their creations. The sacks were decorated with each child's name and a different railroad herald. They were very excited about their bags and proudly toted them around with their day's goodies inside.
The heat had become a major factor by now. We had made the mistake of not buying enough paper cups, so we were forced to round up our regular mugs and glasses to provide water for the kids. It was decided that it would be even better to let the kids run through the sprinklers for a while, and seeing as how the back lawn was looking heat stressed too, we decided it was a win-win situation. So some ran through the water while others completed their crafts or sought shade in the house where Benji's trains were.
As we wrapped up the craft projects, so too were we nearing the end of Train Day. The kids were becoming restless, so we killed the last few minutes singing "I've Been Working on the Railroad" and "Down at the Station." Everyone really got into the latter song, as each child named a favorite item to be loaded into the train for the next verse of the song.
Around 3 p.m. it was time for the walk back to school. The adults were concerned about the kids walking back in the heat, so we turned on the garden hose in the front yard and I gave them all one last good soaking. A quick-thinking parent had stopped off at the grocery store and returned with a bunch of ice pops that the children enjoyed on their trek back.
As we cleaned up that afternoon, we compared notes on how we thought the day had gone. Not only had we and our home both survived, but we had a warm feeling as we remembered the smiles on the kids' faces and felt proud that we had been able to share our enthusiasm for railroading and hopefully sent the kids home with some important safety lessons and a better appreciation for trains that will serve them well as they grow up.
If you have a passion that you would like to share with a youngster, but put off doing so because you were unsure of how to do it or how your message would be received, our experience taught us that you should just do it. You'll be doing something good for your community and you'll feel good about yourself as well.
We welcome your comments and suggestions. Please send e-mail to Glenn or Roni Gehlke.
Proceed to Milepost 1147.2 on main track. Hold main track at last named point. Over.
This page was last updated Monday, June 19, 2000 at 15:30 hrs.