How George Herbert Walker Bush Got Me Back Into Model Trains
By Mike Marmer (TCA 92-35192) Winter 2019
I had model trains, like many kids as a child, from 1958, when I was 3 years old. This continued until 1974, during my first year at the University of Maryland. But like most kids, the trains got put away for other things in life as I grew older. I started out with American Flyer trains, S gauge and really got into HO trains as a ten-year-old in 1965.
Even though the trains where put away, my first American Flyer engine was gone from 1974 till 1984, due to a “repair” by a train shop in Rockville, Maryland. But that is another story in itself! I never forgot them, and still have them, from childhood. I always thought I would get back into the hobby, even when I married in 1982, but never got around to doing that.
My wife Linda and I started visiting Acadia National Park, in Bar Harbor, Maine, in October of 1987 for two weeks, and we have done this every year since. Vice President George H.W. Bush was elected President in 1988 and one of their homes becomes a tourist attraction just south in Walker’s Point, Maine.
On our trip to Maine in 1991, we decided to leave U.S. Route 1 and see the Bush house. We had no idea where we where going, but we figured, we would find it, since U.S. 1 is along the coast of Maine.
We did find the home and it’s an impressive compound, now surrounded by a security fence with a booth for the Secret Service to check in any legitimate visitors. It was a cloudy day and there were a lot of people and cars, taking pictures of the home with the ocean as a backdrop. Walker’s Point is the long peninsula, off Shore Road, as the road on the peninsula goes to the house. You can see the house just fine.
We were doing some sightseeing before going to Walker’s Point, as we are no longer “tourists” in Maine. Actually, I have been told by many Mainers that we know more about Maine than they do. We got to Walkers Point at about 4 o’clock and by 5 PM it was getting dark. The point is far up the East Coast of the United States, and it’s due to its outward angle towards the sun. We did see Mrs. Bush this time at Walker’s Point, walking a dog from a distance by the house.
I did see President Bush in person, from a distance, in Washington, D.C. sometime later on a Tuesday. Tuesday was my day to see my customers in the area of the White House. I was walking up 17th Street towards Pennsylvania Avenue at about 8 AM and a limo turned left into Pennsylvania Avenue, one corner of the White House grounds. The limo stopped and this man jumped out and started to greet people. It was President Bush! He did this a few times, and I think the Secret Service was not happy.
Meanwhile, a lot of people are having a great time checking out this house in Maine. But after 15 minutes of so, you have taken all the pictures and it’s time to go, since there is really nothing else to see. We continue to drive northeast on Shore Road, not backtrack to U.S. 1. We figure we would pick up U.S. 1 pretty easy a little farther north. No, not so. We end up doing a loop around back to Kennebunkport, Maine and we come across a sign pointing to the right for U.S. 1 taking a road called Log Cabin Road. It is now getting really dark and the road is long and just keeps going and going. So long… We see a sign on the road to the left for the “Train Shop” and it’s open!
So, we pull into the parking lot and it’s a house. The train shop is downstairs, and it’s called Scale Rails. We go downstairs, where we see a glass counter with a cash register and it’s a professional train shop! We start to look around, as it had rows and rows of aisles with new HO train products. The usual, engines, cars, accessories, scenery material, building models, and so on.
But in the glass cases and on the shelves behind the counter are used American Flyer trains, a lot of them. I had no clue what I was looking at, since I was not really into the hobby. Oh sure, there were engines, cars, track, etc., but I had no idea of pricing and never really thought about collecting American Flyer. My thoughts were about running trains, one day, either American Flyer S gauge trains or HO. My heart was always with American Flyer trains, despite the fact that I had very little in American Flyer trains as a kid. I had a lot of HO trains, which I purchased all by myself, from having a paper route that paid me about 13 dollars a month.
The man who came downstairs looked like Earl Flynn, or the character out of the Jimmy Buffet song “Pencil Thin Mustache.” He not only had a pencil thin mustache, but was wearing a white shag bathrobe and carried a little white poodle to match. He was smoking a thin brown cigarette inside a cigarette holder and he had on black framed glasses. Turns out this man had just gotten out of the hospital with triple bypass heart surgery! Yikes! And he is still smoking! But he looked really good and seemed to be doing well, not sickly from the aftermath of surgery at all.
He introduced himself as Merle Parsons and I got one of his business cards. I still have his business card to this day, among others I have accumulated over the years of meeting sellers in the hobby.
We talked for a bit, and we told him who we are and how we have been coming to Maine for the 4th year. I told him about my history with model trains and that I hoped to get back into it.
We started to look at the American Flyer trains he had, but I still had no clue what things were, other than what they looked like physically. So now, here I am, getting hooked on American Flyer trains. Linda, I think, was having a good time too, with approval of what was about to take place. We probably spent about two hours there, and Walker’s Point at this time, was pretty much forgotten!
We ended up buying about $2,000 in American Flyer trains. We did not take it all, but most! Sadly, these trains came from someone in the seafood industry who was having a rough time making ends meet.
From the top of my head, we got a 343 Switcher engine, the rarer version with the reverse lever in the cab. We got a 21813 M & StL Baldwin engine, with a repaired broken step done very nicely. It was reduced to $150 due to that repair, which was a great deal since it was a $600 engine at that time. I was told it was Doug Peck (TCA 81-16386) who did the repair. At the time, I did not know anything about Doug, but I would meet him soon enough. I got three red-striped passenger cars, which I later learned where from the uncataloged sets A.C. Gilbert made. The cars with the silver paint are beautiful with no marks on them.
Merle had two State of Maine box cars, one was a 982 and one was the rarer five digit, 24029. I had no idea about the different variations of the three digit and the rare five digit cars. I took the 982 car, because I liked the bottom stripe on one side of the car was orange! And there is no sign of sun fading, since the rest of the side was fine, like the five digit car. I know about variations on collectables, so I just knew I had to take this one, but I did not take the 24029 car.
There where many transformers, but the 12B just stood out to me, with the two wooden handles and gray metal casing, vs. the black transformers. We also purchased a Checker Board Water Tower that is on the layout today, along with two other Checker Board water towers.
Merle’s desk was inside a space created by a square of glass display cases. Adventures in train buying could be deadly. There was an American Flyer Tool Shed that was sold with a hand car. He only had the Tool Shed. We added a pair of switches, which eventually were thrown away. Unfortunately, they did not work at all. They where an early type of switch, not the typical 720 and 720A. I think they were a 678 and 679. We did not pay much for the switches. I am sure Mr. Parsons probably did not know they did not work.
There was another engine he was working on, a steam engine, but I do not know the number. He had three of the link coupler aluminum passenger cars that looked horrible, so we passed on them. I know there are some other things we got from the shop. What we did have was great fun in doing this. Mr. Parsons was really a nice man, as we talked about many other things. All of the trains we bought that day where in Like New condition and the pricing was perfect, as the Greenberg guide books I would buy later showed that.
We continued to stop at the shop every October and we did end up purchasing the Aluminum passenger cars, as it seemed nobody wanted them. He never had any more American Flyer for the rest of the time the store was still open. I almost threw those passenger cars away, as they were only $50 each, but the underneath was rusty and the body of the car was so awful. My friend Bob in NJ told me how to clean them off and wow, they look like new now. I sanded the frame bottoms and sprayed new black paint on them. Now they have a place on the layout.
When we got home from Maine with the trains, I promptly got my old American Flyer out, and took some pieces to Burrett Hobbies in College Park. There they were cleaned and tuned. When I went to pick up the trains, the repairman doing American Flyer repairs was Ralph Loveless (TCA 89-29172). He told me about the Train Collectors Association and I joined in time to go to my first York meet in April 1992. This was the most memorable of all Yorks for Linda and me. We did not get to see Neil Young, ever at the show, but we did see his custom bus and his son, Ben.
So we parted ways with Mr. Parsons, and yes, U.S. 1 was about a mile away. Across the street from Scale Rails is the Seaside Trolley Museum, one of the best in the country, as we did visit that a few years later. I have a picture from the Trolley museum, and while it was not pointing at the house, in the picture is the sign on the road for Scale Rails.
My collection grew over the years. I like collecting like-new to mint-rare American Flyer pieces, as the collection is going to the TCA one day. But the best train memory of all is Mr. Parsons.
Sadly, the store is no more. Every time we stopped in, even though Mr. Parsons did not have any more American Flyers to sell, we got caught up on things. It was like he was an old friend. In 1995, we pulled up to the house and the sign was not longer promoting a train shop, it was now promoting a hair salon in the basement where the glass cases of trains had been.
As for President Bush, it’s okay that I got back into trains due to seeing his home in Maine. Linda and I enjoy the hobby and the friends we have made over time. So I place full blame on Mr. Bush for winning the election of 1988 and becoming the next President. If he had not won the election we never would have heard of Walker’s Point, we never would have visited Walker’s Point, we never would have gotten lost trying to get back to U.S. 1, we never would have discovered Scale Rails, and we never would have discovered such a great time getting back into model trains!