Ode to a Great Geek Dad… and his Geek Hobby

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My Dear Husband Dave showing his train layout at a train show in Raleigh, NC, 2007. Photo: Patricia Vollmer

No, he isn’t one of those GeekDads… although he’d certainly fit the bill. After all, he’s getting Brian Greene’s latest book for Father’s Day!

My Dear Husband Dave is a great Air Force professional, husband, and father to our two Geek Spawn sons. He has several other great hobbies, from art to Civil War reenacting. Sadly, those hobbies have had to make room for greater responsibility at work and as a parent.

But one of his hobbies will always have a place in his life, and in our family: model railroading.

Model railroaders exist throughout history and pop culture, such as Rod Stewart, Frank Sinatra, and Roy Neary from Close Encounters of the Third Kind. But for the most part model railroaders are quiet, detail-oriented guys with a knack for creativity. They enjoy building a complete world all to themselves.

As the head of a military family, Dave has been challenged with keeping up his hobby while picking up the family and belongings and relocating every 2-3 years. He visits and reads about other model railroaders’ basement-sized layouts with envy, and is always planning “the big one”…the layout that will dominate the basement of our retirement home. Whenever that may be. Wherever that may be.

Dave didn't let parenthood stop him from enjoying his hobby! Here's our oldest son at 5 months old watching Daddy set up his layout at a train show in Melbourne, FL, March 2003. Photo: Patricia Vollmer

For now, Dave keeps current with his hobby with a relatively small layout — two hollow-core doors (yes, you read right: doors!) with table legs affixed to the bottom. Perfecting the scenery is an ongoing process, you can never “finish” this task! In fact, this past spring Dave added model wire to his telegraph poles!

Keeping his layout current with “digital command and control (DCC)” is also an ongoing project. Unlike the simple model train sets of our youth where applying power meant that all trains moved in the same direction with the same amount of power applied, with “DCC”, you use the electrical connections of your track to transmit pulsed coded signals: forward, reverse, change a light signal, turn on a headlight, lower a signal gate, etc. Two trains can now move in opposite directions on the same track!

Dave keeps the world apprised of his current layout with his website as well as through assorted model railroading forums.  The layout is a “dual era” model of the same location – central Pennsylvania, but he can change out locomotives, rolling stock and scenery details such that he can portray either the Pennsylvania Railroad in 1956 or else the Conrail Railroad in 1980.

Dave's dual-era model railroad requires an incredible amount of detail and patience that only a true geek possesses! For example, check out the soot stains over the stall doors behind the locomotives...indicative of the exhaust. Photo: Dave Vollmer, used with permission

This month has been especially awesome for Dave, and we couldn’t be more proud! He was invited to give a talk about maximizing a small model railroad layout at this month’s National N-Scale Convention, and his layout is also being featured in this month’s N-Scale Magazine, which is just coming off the presses and entering subscribers’ mailboxes as I type this.

Let me be the first to admit that I have a love/hate relationship with Dave’s model railroading. This is something he’s been interested in since we were dating and got married, and I knew that going into it.  Most of the time, I’m very proud of Dave’s work of art!  It’s absolutely amazing!

But it doesn’t come without cost, both in terms of the checkbook and time. Emerging new technologies in model railroading (such as the iPhone remote throttle app and the ability to make his tiny N-Scale locomotives produce realistic engine sounds) and Dave’s constant scenery improvements means that model railroading is a consistent part of our family budget.

Our oldest son with his new model railroad, which will represent CSX and Amtrak in Apex, NC, the town we lived in from 2005-2008. Construction started in early 2011 and now is covered in grass and ballast. Photo: Dave Vollmer, used with permission.

Also, Dave can sometimes take a Sunday afternoon and disappear into the “train room” and happily crank out several hours worth of tasks/improvements. Many times, Dave will set forth to do a “simple” task, such as repairing a weak spot on the track, or airbrushing a new boxcar to make it look “weathered” (i.e., worn with use). He’ll try to fit in a small task in between playing baseball with our sons in the backyard and dinnertime.  Sometimes that “simple” one-hour task blossoms into a 3-4 hour extravaganza, because of a problem with the soldering gun, airbrush or he realizes the paint is the wrong color and he attempts to improvise to get the paint color correct.

Since the kids have come along, Dave and our sons participate together with the model railroading.  The boys enjoy model railroading as much as elementary school-aged boys can. On a recent layout extension project in 2009 the boys helped Dave with putting in trees, sprinkling grass, and pouring ballast (the rocks) onto the track. This past winter he started on a smaller layout for our oldest son, which will sit in his bedroom if we can make the space work out.

That is not to say I don’t have hobbies of my own that he has to tolerate, such as when I spread my scrapbooking supplies all over the dining room, or I forget to prepare dinner for the family because I’m engrossed in sewing a Halloween costumes for our sons.

To Dave, the love of my life, my hats off to you for having a safe, family friendly hobby that you can share with our sons and the world!  Okay, so it’s an R2D2 Mickey Mouse ears hat 🙂

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2 thoughts on “Ode to a Great Geek Dad… and his Geek Hobby

  1. My hubby runs N-scale too, that’s what the back basement room is for afterall! We also took our 2 yr old on an impromptu train chase this weekend. He replied, “dada more choo-choo” when we were done. We must be doing something right!

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