Sam McManis

Discoveries: Lure of the train whistle in Walnut Creek

WMom is out of town, so Dad is staring at a long weekend with two preschoolers. Planning ahead, Matt Keeperman seeks solutions online, looking for activities that would, if only temporarily, entertain and enthrall his energetic redheads, Violet, 5, and Andrew, 2, who just so happen to share a deep and abiding love of trains.

“I was debating about whether to head over to the Little Train at Tilden (Park, in Berkeley),” says Keeperman, who lives in Walnut Creek. “Then I saw that, ooh, this one’s open. Let’s stay closer to home.”

Now here he is, mingling among parents and grandparents with the same idea inside a building next to Walnut Creek’s Larkey Park, listening to the susurrus sounds of little locomotives wending through tunnels and over bridges, through mountain passes and along intricately mapped city streets, covering 4,300 feet of track over an 1,800-square-foot layout and, most impressive, managing to keep the rapt attention of the little ones.

At least for a while.

Keeperman tries gamely to keep his family unit focused and together. But now Violet is orbiting him like a planet around the sun, and Andrew is a squirming mass of protoplasm in his arms. Even with such challenges, he manages to take the time to appreciate the care and meticulousness to detail – each rail and cross tie is fastened by real spikes – that the venerable Walnut Creek Model Railroad Society has put into its periodic “whistle-stop shows” as part of its 65th anniversary celebration.

“The kids love trains,” Keeperman says. “It started with –”

He pauses, swivels his head to the left.

“Hey, Vi, get down, please.”

Violet, the little scamp, is trying to climb over the wooden partition erected by club members to prevent just such high jinks. Suddenly, Andrew jerks out his legs, knocking over a stool. Keeperman, adroitly and not missing a beat, picks it up and continues with his thought.

“It started with Violet,” he says. “She’s 5 and, when I was her age, my great uncle got me a train set. So from 5 years old to maybe right before high school, I played with it a lot. And then she fell in love with – Vi, where ya goin? – she fell in love with trains and – Vi, stand over there, honey – now I can’t wait to bring them here. As for this guy, you can see by his shirt (bearing the imprint of a train) it’s about the only way to get him dressed. And he –

Andrew tries to make a break for it, leaning in to elude dad’s grasp and maybe work on his fine motor skills by snatching an engine from the track, before the long arm of parental authority intervenes.

“I know you want to go touch everything, buddy, but sorry,” Keeperman says, smiling back at the guy asking him questions while he’s trying to herd his brood. “This is (Andrew’s) first trip here. Anyway, what I was saying is that their interest prompted me to get my train set out for –

“Vi, honey, stay close.”

Keeperman doesn’t need to finish his story. It’s something that, for generations, has been passed down from parents (let’s be honest, primarily fathers) to children (sons, mostly): Kid plays with model trains throughout his youth, putting them away usually around the time puberty hits, and then resurrects the long-neglected engines and tracks when he has kids of his own.

Sounds like a Disney-Pixar plot and, though it borders on cliché, it still resonates with anyone not wallowing in a sea of cynicism.

Kids, and overgrown kids, line the perimeter of the tracks, which feature not just a never-ending conga line of trains snaking through but also model airplanes hovering, oil derricks pumping, high-tech windmills cranking, ski lifts chugging skyward and tiny action figures (machismo demands you don’t call them dolls) posed as workers along the side streets and switching yards.

Periodically, the house lights dim, leaving only the miniature street lamps and the Centralize Traffic Control board dominating the back wall to stave off total darkness. At such times, you can hear the chuffing of engines and the lonesome, Hank Williams-like whistles until, suddenly, the space is inundated with the sound of thunder and flashes of lightning. A woman then makes the rounds, squirting water from a spray bottle. That’s the torrential downpour.

Yes, it’s kind of low-tech and rather cheesy. But kids squeal with delight. And if the kids like it, the parents like it. Grandparents, too.

Jack Balousek, 68, grandpa to Evan Reeder of Concord, claims he only wanted to take Evan to the train show because it would be his third birthday the following day. Kristin Reeder, Jack’s daughter, betrays his real motives.

“My dad’s a huge train guy,” she says.

Jack comes clean: “ I had an American Flyer train and I played with it all the time. When I got older, I started collecting LGB trains – big German large-scale trains. Every Christmas, I set them up. We have a train party at the house.”

“A huge train party,” Kristin interjects. “We have tracks going all through the house. He has a closet full of trains. A whole closet.”

Because he’s not of the “screens” generation, Jack laments how kids stick their noses in “video games and electronics.” He says his yearly train party proves that, if exposed to the pastime, kids will take to trains as ardently as he did.

“We get 30 kids at the party under age 7,” he boasts. “They want to come back.”

For some kids, trains are not just a fleeting fascination but a source of solace. Jill Herschman, of Berkeley, has made the rounds of every train museum, attraction and ride-along from Sacramento to San Jose with her son Jake, 12, who is autistic. Jake’s mostly into public transportation – he owns a model CalTrain engine and watches BART train videos on YouTube – but he looks entranced watching the model trains chug around the tracks at the Walnut Creek rail lines.

“Trains are common (subjects of interest) among (autistic) kids,” Herschman says. “It’s almost a cliché. They’re all engrossed. Subways, elevators and trains, especially trains.”

The Walnut Creek shows are not just for aficionados large and small. They also attract the mildly curious, adults who never experienced the whole let’s-set-up-a-track-in-the-basement childhood but now find themselves drawn their by their kids’ inexplicable interest in trains. One such guy is Jeff Loew, of Walnut Creek, carrying his 3-year-old Jack on his shoulders as he paid the $3 (for adults) and $2 (kids) at the “station” window.

Jack loves trains. Jeff, not so much.

“I guess it’s just something he got into,” Jeff says of Jack. “I mean, I had one model train as a kid. One. But, because of him, I’ve certainly more into them now.”

Nostalgia – even if you weren’t aware you felt it – has never been so inexpensive, yet so enriching.