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Model Trains

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

By day, Lou Belby is a perfectly normal professor of Spanish and Latin American literature. Late each afternoon he leaves his office and returns to his home in Rock Island. Perhaps he reads the paper, talks over difficult students with his wife, Laura, and sits down to supper.

Then, three or four times a week, something happens to Lou Belby. He gets up from supper and descends the stairs toward the basement.

Welcome to the world of Lionel trains—dozens of them on an octopus of tracks that envelop nearly the whole basement. Here, Lou Belby is the empire builder, engineer, conductor, repairman, and station agent of the Rock Island Lines, as well as the real estate developer and mayor of five scale villages along the tracks. In hundreds of other basements across the United States, the great railroads that have died in the upstairs world have been reborn. In these train heavens, the colors have not faded on the Milwaukee Road and the Santa Fe, and the tracks of the Great Northern still echo with the clatter of wheels as they snake across trestles and through cramped villages.

After a day of shuttling freight cars and transporting passengers, dusk begins to fall in Lou Belby’s basement. It's 7:05 as the lights in the passenger cars of the Rock Island Rocket come on. A lonely whistle echoes against the basement walls. A new blue and white Rock Island engine eases out the station, and heads west across a plywood prairie toward the snow-capped papier mache mountains in the distance beyond the furnace, carrying the spirits of all those who remember and loved trains.

Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois.