There are two major schools of thought in the model railroad hobby in America today. One is serious, that we must strive to produce an accurate representation of that which we make models of. The other, while just as devoted to accuracy, is more relaxed and casual. We are after all, just playing with trains. Hal Carstens represented the relaxed school of model railroading very well, it is quite possible that he led that school of thought.
As I was growing up, I read a lot of Hal Carstens’ stuff, but I had little idea about the man behind those words. His writing style was fluid and personable, a joy to read. Certainly, his public persona was just a bit, ahem, frumpy, but in person he would prove to be an interesting and engaging man. What was especially interesting was that Hal seemed to have been at significant places at the right time. He knew many of the model railroad personalities that I had read while I was growing up.
I once commented to him about a certain model railroad writer, one who had written several significant model railroad books during the late 1940’s and 1950’s. I noted that one of his books had been a great resource when I first learned how to do metal castings. He looked at me askance and snorted: “You don’t think that he actually did that stuff, do you?” Like me, that writer was probably better at describing how to do something than to actually do it. It was the first of many interesting side revelations that Hal gave me about the industry that I love.
Like so many of the early pioneers in the model railroad hobby, Hal was a World War II veteran. Like so many veterans, his presence made it possible for the front line soldiers to complete their missions. Hal made the world safe for democracy, one X-ray at a time. It was that shared experience that would give Hal an entry into the model railroad industry.
It was that inside perspective and presence at key events that would lead to his book 150 Years of Train Models, one of my favorites. Every now and then I take a wee dram, sit down and leaf through the pages that chronicle the people that made this wonderful industry happen. It’s like sitting down with a favorite uncle and looking through the family album. We sit there and he tells me about all the crazy uncles and feisty aunts, the strong personalities of those who made this hobby what it is. He had every right to talk, since Hal was there for so many events that led to our modern hobby.
I think enough of this book that I brought my copy with to a Chicago trade show several years ago and asked him to autograph it. He took this seriously, keeping my book overnight while he thought of the right words. He gave the book back to me the next day, and it is perfect.
“To Riley O’Connor. The guy who invented model trains. Hal Carstens”