A full-limbed evergreen flush with lights and trinkets. An electric model train chugging around its base on a circular track, disappearing momentarily behind brightly wrapped boxes before coming back around the bend with its whistle cheerily declaring its return.
The nostalgic tableau could be right off of a holiday greeting card or a Norman Rockwell painting. Pure Americana. But is it the right whistle?
"The sound systems are digital reproductions of actual train sounds," says model-train guru Skip Stundis of Pembroke Pines. "For the real purists, there are even specific variations." A Union Pacific Railroad engine's whistle, he explains, differs from a Pennsylvania Railroad's.
Stundis is a member of Fort Lauderdale model railroading group Friends and Family Lines, grown-up kids who indulge their passion for little locomotives. And yet even among model-train hobbyists, there's a threshold that separates the enthusiast from the extremist -- the kind of person who, say, questions the accuracy of a train's whistle. The "rivet counters." And that's not what the local club is all about.
"It's a great group of people," declares Stundis, whose living room -- or what used to be his living room -- is a train shrine. "It thrives well on just the camaraderie, and displaying the trains publicly is important to us."
Stundis plans to attend the Great American Train Shows exhibition in Fort Lauderdale Saturday and Sunday, spreading the toy-train gospel. The traveling display of model-train equipment is the largest in the nation, with more than 10,000 trains; it features five operating sets, including those brought in by local clubs that share a penchant for the pastime.
Pastime may be understating it just a tad in Stundis' case. An HO-scale train, its cars about five inches long, circled the Christmas tree when he was growing up in New England, he recalls fondly. The 51-year-old Stundis has been model-railroading for 33 years and now installs the systems in businesses and homes. He's moved away from HO but still has a large display of that "gauge" in what used to be his garage. "Former" parts of his house seem to come up in conversation when Stundis discusses his hobby.
His ex-living room now contains 1400 pounds of ballast, the crushed rock that drains real rail beds. Life-size silk plants and trees line the track, creating a park setting in the house, where several large, G-scale -- or garden -- railroads with sixteen-inch cars serve two model villages.
Like railroad magnates who linked our nation with ribbons of steel, Stundis has laid enough track -- about 400 feet of it -- to provide rail connections all over his property. The indoor park motif, with its lampposts, park benches, and eight-foot-tall trees, continues outside. After exiting the house through one of two tunnels in the wall, trains visit three other towns and cruise around his swimming pool -- a large lake in the scheme of things.
The setup is permanent, but, like other club members, Stundis has modular layouts, smaller sets built on tables, which can be assembled and disassembled. When members connect their "modules" at shows, a 30-by-40-foot diorama takes shape: Various sections depict a circus scene, farmland, parks, and an industrial area.
"It's the whole aspect of what you would see from a train if you were traveling," notes Bill Muenzenmaier of Family Lines, who adds that the group of train devotees came together in 1990. "We only have two rules in the club: Play trains, have fun." And no "rivet counters," please.
Family Lines members hail mostly from Broward and Dade counties. A few travel even farther to participate, including John and Katie Abbott of Islamorada. The couple's outdoor garden railroad has 600 feet of track on three levels and includes lots of tunnels. "One part is like an Old West locale, and the other is more modern," Katie Abbott says. Their own, real-life locale makes them owners of the southernmost garden railroad in the continental U.S., Katie claims. She hedges only because a G-scaler might lurk somewhere in Hawaii.
John Abbott caught the model-train bug, like most aficionados, as a kid: "I got a set for Christmas, and I got hooked on that." And, yes, his first one was set up around the Christmas tree.
But you don't have to be a train fanatic to enjoy this weekend's show. Says Stundis: "People are interested in miniaturization. To transfer your own imagination down to a scene that you're looking at, it's very relaxing and it's stimulating. You put your eye down at table level and you can just put yourself there, whether it's the mountain scene or one of the little towns."
-- John Ferri