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My Father's World
by Forrest Seymour
In the basement of my childhood my father built a world. The house my parents bought when I was a toddler was old for the mid-western suburb in which we dwelt. It had, the story goes, been built bit by bit in the Great Depression, a farmhouse on a hill surrounded by fields that, by the mid-60s, were growing more houses than crops. A once busy rail line passed near by, used then only once or twice a day by long slow freights.
It was a time of change and turmoil in our society, most visible to me then in the earth moving machines that carved roads from the fields I had once thought my own. To my father, a journalist in the city, things must have seemed even more tumultuous what with riots in the ghettos and on campuses, and the assassinations of those who seemed to be our visionary leaders.
So in our basement my father built a world of long ago. It was a musty place, with an often damp concrete floor, and huge spiders in the wash tub. Heat ducts hung from the ceiling, though that was then far above my head; still they gave the place an eerie unpredictable feel. In one corner of this earthy place my father constructed, from plaster and wood, balsa and shredded newspaper, a mountainous land, with canyons to the concrete floor below and white peaks into the studs of the floor above. He laced these paper maché hillsides with narrow tracks that wrapped their way up the mountains, through tunnels, and over valleys on complex hand build trestles. In the valleys villages of intricate buildings nestled, each different, with windows and doors and hand cut shingles, and lights inside that worked.
Through all of this rolled his trains, model electric trains from the golden era of the railroad; steam engines with tenders overflowing with tiny wood fuel, each little log hand cut by my father and glued into place; cabooses with small figures waving from the windows, and more little lights; switch engines, freight engines, passenger trains with ornate first class carriages for all the passengers who should have seen those lovely mountains.
This world, which never had a name, grew over the years to fill much of our basement. A great control panel ran all the switches and lights and powered the trains. Schematics of the various lines, color coded, spread across the panel, with red and green lights to indicate switch settings, and delicate spring loaded controls to shuttle the trains between the lines.
In reflection "hobby" seems like far too tame a word for what he did. It was his creative outlet, his fictional exposition on how things should be, and maybe once were. It was not a world he shared too freely. He was not a railroad modeler club member, nor did he often invite his friends to see his work. I cannot recall my mother there with him, except to get to the laundry machines which were tucked behind one of the mountains. And it seems that it was rare that he invited me down, my childish hands being far too clumsy for the delicacy of his art.
Yet this world of his shaped my experience of my father. It became clear to me that he was an idealist, a dreamer, and a craftsman. He longed, I think, to make life, our world, a saner place for us all. To him this meant looking to the era of steam for solace, while at the newspaper where he worked computers began to displace his fellow workers.
In the way that childhood memories can seem both to have occurred several times and simultaneously, seem unique, I have a great memory of having shared my father's love of trains with him despite the isolation of his basement world. For though steam had long before been replaced by diesel electric trains, that long past era could still be evoked in the rail-yards of those mid-western cities. Early on Sunday mornings my father and I would awake, and travel in our old VW bus to the river flats between our Twin Cities. There we'd sit and take in the trains as they lumbered through the yards, the iron tracks creaking beneath their weight, the deep rhythmic rumbling as they gained speed, feeling the vibrations of these trains in my chest; the smell of my father's coffee filling the air. I don't recall talking at these times; maybe the trains made it too loud to speak. But just as men are so often silent about what is most important, I know that these are memories that my father now, at 70, still cherishes, as I do. An earth shuddering way for a father and son to connect across generations and eras and worlds.
At night in my bed on the top floor of that old farmhouse I could hear the rumble of the freights as they passed by in the dark, on their way to those river flat rail yards; I could feel the vibration of those trains coming through the earth and into our house. When they passed, and the night's silence returned, I could hear though the heat ducts the hum of my father's trains in the basement, just below the earth, lit with their little twinkling lights.
As I became a teenager, and, with the fall of Nixon, any lingering faith in our contemporary leaders faded, my parents decided that I and my younger brother needed our own bedrooms, and that meant remodeling the basement. By then my father's basement world had been dormant for some time, new additions unfinished, debris piling on the tracks, electric parts scavenged for other projects.
Looking back it seems like an unfair trade, almost biblical in dimension, a fathers' dream for a son's freedom. Maybe now that I am too a father I feel more sympathy for my father's losses. Though I felt some misgivings at the time, I was probably half out the door by then, and mostly eager to have my space, not aware of how a father, who can seem so omnipotent, may find it hard to find his own space in his own house.
It was one of the few times I ever saw my father cry, as he took down his mountains and villages, trestles and tracks. He declined my offer of help. It was by then the early seventies, and with the world around so unstable, my dad pulled apart the last vestiges of the dream world he'd built as a young father, the foundational fantasy of a simpler time, to give way in the world to his sons. In these last days of the twentieth century, I hold in my arms my own infant son, and wonder if I'd make such a sacrifice of my youthful fantasies, whether Dad, along with the value for idealism, dreams and craftsmanship, passed onto me the silent generosity that so often embodies fatherhood, and my father's world.
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