Press Button for Action

By Sandy Ward

January 30, 2007

A young boy approaches the model train layout with bright eyes and outstretched hands. "Don't touch!" snaps a stern parental voice nearby. The boy lowers his hands and his gaze. There on the front of the case is a little button labeled PRESS BUTTON FOR ACTION. The boy looks again at the scene in front of him. It's a snow-covered mountain area with railroad tracks running across the foreground and a ski lodge and skiers on the far right. Blue gondolas moving on a wire catch his eye. "Wow! Dad, look at those things go!" The gondolas go back and forth across the railroad tracks, from the ski lodge to a parking lot of cars and buses in the distance. Father and son watch for a while, then look up and down the mainline to see if any trains are coming, and begin to walk away.

At this point I intervene. I have been standing inside the ring of N-Trak modules, watching the public pass by. This 80-foot long track system consists of many separate modules contributed by N-Trak clubs and individuals for this Big Railroad Show. I speak quietly to the boy, "Could you please push that button?" Looks of surprise (at my unexpected voice) and joy (at the invitation to touch the button) cross his face. He glances quickly at his dad and me. I smile broadly at them both, and the son pushes the button.

"Oh, wow! The bus moves!!" A white bus in the parking lot moves out onto the roadway, turns left, and drives down the hill, follows the curve around the mountain and disappears from view. "Where did it go?" asks the boy. "How did that move?" asks the Dad. I comment that the bus has gone to get more people. The boy flashes me a look of joy and recognition; we're in this make-believe together. "Cool!" "Neat!" "Wow!" His excitement draws others. They've missed seeing the bus, but are amazed by the moving gondolas and the lovely snow scene. The boy pushes the button again and a red bus starts to move. Soon the white bus reappears, driving up the road as the red bus heads downhill. The white one turns into the parking lot and stops by the gondola terminal.

Exclamations and questions burst from the crowd. I answer as best I can. I'm just a volunteer. I didn't make this module, nor do I work for the company that makes and sells the bus-moving system. My partner Ken bought the Faller bus starter kit, brought the gondola system, and designed an attractive layout that would show both off to advantage. He based his model on a California ski resort called Sugar Bowl, which was created in the 1930's by Walt Disney and others. The gondola there is called the Magic Carpet Gondola. It carries customers across the Donner Pass rail line to the ski resort, which lacks parking space of its own. Ken recalls riding on that tramway and seeing an Amtrak train run below him. Magic indeed for a boy in love with trains!

Now in 2007 at the Big Railroad Show in West Springfield, MA, the real magic is in the eyes of the public as they view Ken's Sugar Bowl model and watch the things move. Ken missed most of this magic because he was too busy being a Floor Manager elsewhere in this huge train show. For seven hours on Saturday I stood behind his module and watched. I hadn't intended to play this role, nor prepared for it, but I became captivated by the public reactions and the game of engaging them further. I especially liked encouraging young girls to stop and explore. Some would stop and stare at the button, wondering whether or not to push it. "What will it do?" some asked. "Push it and find out," was my answer. Each girl immediately seemed to gain confidence, stand a bit taller, smile at me, and then push the button while looking around the module to see what might change. The unexpected movement of the tiny toy bus in the parking lot always brought a strong reaction. "Wow!" "Cool!"

Watching these young faces light up with wonder, curiosity, and joy was a real thrill for me. I had not planned to return to the show on Sunday, but of course returned and was there for hours, drawing more people into the fantasy.

Ken won First Place for the Best Module in Show Category of the N-Trak Winterfest 2007, an honor based on a popular vote. People really liked the movement and the ability to interact with his display.

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Photos of Ken building his model and of the Show can be seen on the web at

http://sward.smugmug.com/gallery/2373590