I received an HO gauge train set for Christmas in sixth grade and took to it immediately. It was a Tyco HO set, a freight train with a Santa Fe F9 diesel locomotive, silver and red, with several freight cars, enough track to make an oval, and a power pack.
Next year I received another train set, this one a Tyco Old West train set that included an 1890 Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe green and red 4-6-0 loco (four swiveling pilot wheels under the cowcatcher, six big drivers under the boiler and no trailing wheels under the cab), brown passenger coaches with green roofs, white combine passenger/freight cars also with green roofs, and track. About that time my love of the Old West was developing, and that train fascinated me, representing a time and place I longed to visit.
Over the next few years I added more cars: a Santa Fe GP20 diesel; the J.W. Bowker, a red 2-4-0 Virginia and Truckee loco that I bought at Penney’s in Canton; and the Genoa, a dark gray Western & Atlantic 4-4-0. V&T was a line in Nevada at the eastern foot of the Sierra Nevada serving the silver mine communities, and W&A was a Georgia line that served, for one, as the route on which Andrews’ Raiders raced north in 1862 on the stolen General trying to reach Union lines in Chattanooga. I ran the modern freight trains on an outer oval and the old-time on an inner with a two-prong spur for storing trains not in use.
I learned basic wiring with my HO layout. I added a twin power pack and with that and the first unit could simultaneously control three trains. I learned about sections, where you separate a line using plastic track connectors into two or more individually powered sections, each controlled by a switch. I ran the main power to a series of switches that were hooked together, each switch sending power to a section and to spurs where I kept dormant trains. I could pull a train from the spur, park it on a section, pull the other train off, and run the train that had been on the spur, all while running the freight train on the outer oval. I had more switches to trigger the turnouts that sent trains to the spur or the other oval, and I put little flashlight bulbs in all the buildings. The result was a maze of wires under the board, but it all made sense.
I loved to turn off the overhead lights, illuminate the building lights, and kneel on the floor for a track-level view of trains rolling by, and my imagination got as much a workout as my logical son-of-an-electronics-engineer brain that enjoyed running all those wires. Having read about Andrews and the Great Locomotive Chase of 1862 and having visited Kennesaw, Georgia, the site of the heist, in 1972, I pondered an HO layout that would replicate the entire W&A line from Big Shanty to Chattanooga, but one limitation of train layouts is they must be set up as ovals to fit in a room, whereas the W&A ran a decidedly non-oval course, and besides, that route was almost 90 miles long and would have required, in HO 1/87th gauge, a mile of model track.
Those trains initiated a lifelong interest in railroads, especially those of the 19th century, that continues to this day. Other gifts — a chemistry set and an Erector set, for example — held minimal interest. Childhood involves discovering your interests through play and toys, some holding intense appeal, others sitting on the shelf. My interests have always been in the fields of history, music and words.
I never did build a full-fledged model layout. I spiked my track onto a pressed-wood board but did not build scenery, being more a reader than a modeler, but after more than four decades my imagination is busy as ever, dreaming of the Bowker skirting the foothills of the Sierra Nevada and the Genoa carrying Confederate soldiers to the front.