The Colonel’s Plan – Setting the Tables

April 25, 2018

Dear Daddy—

I cleaned the basement for about two hours last night—not that you’d really notice. It takes a long time to make a visible dent in rooms where so much storage has occurred. I worked on the room with the train tables. Remember the train tables? 

The train tables… Today.

It’s difficult to define rooms in the basement. There are nominally five. The cinderblock walls define four—two end rooms, about 24′ x 29′, and two long, middle rooms, each about 15′ x 44′. You added a darkroom early on. It’s not in the plans, but it’s about a 15′ x 6′ space with a laundry tub and the ability to double as a laundry room. 

The train tables are in one end of the long front room, under the dining room. Back around 1979 or 1980, Charles and I planned to start building an HO model railroad layout. We were each going to construct one 4′ x 8′ section of it. The book we had on scenery recommended an open-framed style platform on which to construct the plaster landscape. We had our design sketches ready, and I believe I came to you and asked if there was a stash of 2′ x 4’s not spoken for. (Trust me, as many mildewed 2′ x 4’s as I threw away last year, I’m sure there were, even in 1980.) 

You asked what we were up to, and then immediately grabbed a yellow legal pad and started designing 4′ x 8′ tables with storage shelves underneath them. I explained patiently—as patiently as my 14 or 15-year-old self could, which was probably not patiently at all—that that was not what the book said to do. 

Your relationship to books was the same as your relationship to the Internet. Your relationship to the Internet was the same as damn near every other person born before 1960’s relationship to the Internet—that is, you didn’t believe a word that appeared on it. I recall you saying more than once that you knew more about the subject at hand than the author of the book I was referencing. And yes, you said it once about a veterinary manual—by a veterinarian!. And no, you never attended a veterinary school, nor did you have any practical experience in the field beyond once contemplating removing a tumor off of Old Susie’s foot with a pocket knife and a match. Susie, here, refers to your mother’s hound dog, not my sister. I would never refer to my sister as “Old Susie.” I’m less sure that you would not have contemplated removing a tumor from my sister’s foot using a pocketknife. 

Suzie on Ma’s back porch, c 1973. Suzie was the mother of our dogs Benji and Lady. I believe Suzie lived until about 1985.

You dismissed Bill McLanahan’s knowledge of framing for model railroads, and further declared, “I’m not just thinking about model trains. I’m designing something sturdy that can be of use after the train fad is over.” I guess you didn’t realize that model trains are usually a lifelong hobby, even though you’d just bought a model train for your father for his 80th birthday. We still have that train. And it will be going on one of those tables. 

So you built the amazingly sturdy tables, and Charles and I took over that section of the basement for the next three years. I built a couple of buildings for my layout—one by hand out of found materials. I smashed it in anger after Charles got mad at me about something else one day and left me a note saying that, by the way, the building “stinks.” We filled the floor behind the tables with discarded Fudgsicle wrappers until Mother threatened to stop buying Fudgsicles. I believe, when tossing them back there, I would often sing the idiotic space hippie song from Star Trek about eating all the fruit and throwing away the rind. We built airplane models. I was working on a B29, like you flew in the War. 

And, eventually, I got over my anxiety of starting a project—because once you’ve started it, you have to work on it, and you might make a mistake. While you’re planning, it’s perfect—and began constructing a hillside out of plaster. I had that well underway when I was struck with graduation, complications of which led to my being institutionalized at the University of Maryland. 

As soon as I moved into my dorm room, you took over my bedroom to be your new corporate offices, and you took over the train room to be your conference room. Our hobby supplies were removed from the Very Sturdy Tables, including my plaster hillside, which you carried to the second floor and leaned up in a corner of my general purpose room. I think I finally threw it away. 

Your prophecy was self-fulfilling. The “train fad” ended because you ended it. I think that was your plan all along. The conference room lasted until the late 1980s. Your chalkboard is still on the wall, with diagrams for fighter planes and radar images—the last project you worked on for the Pentagon was how to fool the seeker heads on air to air missiles. 

After that, the conference room filled up with junk, like everything else. The space in the “L” formed by the two tables was impassable. The cubicle you had set up for interns to use wasn’t visible behind the towers of equipment. The equipment was moved out last Summer and Fall, leaving that end of the room largely clear. I think there’s still a big laser on the floor behind one of the tables. Christian cleared the tables of junk and began bringing over his collection of game consoles. The room was coming back to life as a hobby space again. 

And then we emptied Mother’s office so it could become her bedroom, and, well, all her boxes of files had to go somewhere. In a “Greater love hath no man,” move, Christian stacked them on his tables. So I spent two hours last night beginning to transfer the files into one of the eleven file cabinets you left behind, eight of which are now also in that front room of the basement. It will take many more hours, and I really need to focus on bathrooms until they’re finished and inspected. 

But we’re getting there. And, as God is my witness, there will be trains on those tables again. 

Love, Steven

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