Never too old to play with trains

Pat Buchanan pays close attention to one of his trains Saturday

When Morgan Hill Councilman Mark Grzan moved to the South Valley
from his Sunnyvale home, he brought with himself quite the
– every rock, tree and shrub from his old backyard.
When Morgan Hill Councilman Mark Grzan moved to the South Valley from his Sunnyvale home, he brought with himself quite the collection – every rock, tree and shrub from his old backyard.

Grzan, an avid model train fan, had landscaped his back yard to accommodate a garden-scale set complete with steam from the engine, a shrill whistle and a programmable voice chip that allowed him to make the train say phrases at certain intervals.

“The trees were all miniatures done to scale,” said Grzan. “Everything was, so I didn’t want to leave it there. It took me a while, but I got every last one moved over.”

And Grzan is not alone. In the greater Bay Area, there are more than 500 garden railroaders and an infinitely greater number of (mostly) men and boys both young and old collecting smaller versions like the more common HO line (a 1/87 reproduction) or the miniscule N line (a 1/160 reproduction).

Grzan’s family may be low-key about his project, which includes waterways, dioramas and scenes reminiscent of various national parks, but Bob Peck’s wife says he likes to play God. That doesn’t stop the HO line collector from heading out to the San Benito County fairgrounds most Wednesdays and Saturdays. A member of the San Juan Pacific Model Railroader’s Club, he goes to run his model trains around the miniaturized countryside of the club’s scenic tracks and to gab with other conductors.

Fascinated with the miniature locomotive sets as well as the real thing since childhood, Peck got his first locomotive and track as a Christmas present from his train-obsessed uncle. There have been sporadic spurts of growth and temporary losses of interest, but since that Christmas, his collection has grown … and grown … and grown.

“I don’t even try to keep track anymore,” said Peck’s wife, Nancy. She laughs, lightly teasing her husband of more than three decades. “He took me out to a nice dinner for our anniversary, so I gave him a train pass, but I was here when UPS came twice a week.”

There’s something in the club for everyone, Peck finds.

The mechanics of the group like working on their own engines, sometimes building a small locomotive engine from scratch, while the engineers enjoy things like the digital chips that allow multiple conductors to run their trains along the same track without facing interference from other enthusiasts.

The artists in the bunch enjoy creating town scenes, the larger versions of which can take weeks to complete.

But there’s something about trains – minute details, hulking power and even their danger – that awes and excites these men.

Brent Leffler, 46, got involved in the club when he found his son Rayce, 9, preferred sitting in the train house and watching the models go around to the rides and games offered up at the San Benito County fair.

Rayce would sit there for hours simply watching, but the reality is he’s not that typical.

Most children, particularly boys, still enjoy a fascination with movement, but in a day and age of video console and Internet-based games, there is little room for model trains. The population of the San Juan club is getting older.

“Back 30 or 40 years ago, every department store had a Christmas train set,” said Peck. “They were very popular, that and erector sets, and you don’t see that anymore.”

In fact, what got Peck back into his hobby were his attempts to get his children and granddaughter interested in model trains.

They’re a relatively minute investment to start with – $20 to $50 for a starter set – but the kids didn’t bite.

One found the spider webs in the building more fascinating than the trains themselves, according to Nancy.

It doesn’t matter to Rayce, though. He’s still wide-eyed at the sight of roaring steel, and when Peck allows him to go to the display cabinet and pick up his favorite train, he gleams.

That look hasn’t faded since he first spied a model train, and someday soon enough, he’ll be the one showing off his models.

The San Juan Pacific Model Railroaders meet Wednesday evenings from 7pm to 9pm and Saturdays from 10am to 1pm at the train building in the San Benito County fairgrounds. For more information, call (831) 628-3243 during those hours or e-mail [email protected] for more information.

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