model train set on track

The Circuitous Route of A Lionel Polaris Binnacle

e*Train Issue: Jul 2010   |   Posted in: ,

By Gordon Wilson, TCA #76-10233

More than 15 years ago at the Billy Budd bandit meet during the York week, the late Cole Gibbs introduced me to a friend of his, Rich Dedufour.  Rich lives in a part of New Jersey close to where I grew up and near to an “olde-tyme” flea market in Lambertville, NJ, which I still frequent on my treks back East.  But Rich had something that interested me far more – a truck load of Lionel Polaris binnacles from World War II vintage US Navy and Merchant Marine vessels.  These are not items which sell with the frequency of a Macy’s “January White Sale.”  Thus began a rather lengthy period of negotiations, which finally came to fruition in November of 2009.

At that time I had also purchased the two seats that Christie and I had occupied for 20+ years as season ticket holders with the Philadelphia Flyers of The National Hockey League.  Their building, the Spectrum, which had become obsolete and too small, had been demolished.  A friend of mine, from the town in which we used to teach, drove into Philly, picked up the seats, and took them to his home for safe keeping until we could pick them up during Christie’s college teaching semester break in March.  Then I contacted Rich and told him that I would stop by his place in central New Jersey and pick up the binnacle.  Unfortunately, Rich would not be home on the prescribed weekend, but he said, “Have no fear!  I’ll deliver them to your friend’s house.”  All I needed to do was provide him with the directions.  So began the circuitous route of the Lionel Polaris binnacle.

Getting from Rich’s home in Hopewell, NJ to Cedar Avenue in Pitman, NJ is no easy task, even for MapQuest, mainly because of the confusing road signage of I-295, as one approaches the metropolitan Philadelphia area.  There is little, if any, room for the slightest miscalculation, lest you find yourself on the Walt Whitman Bridge heading into a Philadelphia neighborhood with which you are totally unfamiliar.  Rich told me he missed one of the turns and found himself on the way to Delaware, heading south instead of east.  The delay, as it turned out, only cost him an extra hour of time, as he managed to find his way to Pitman, a town of roughly 4 square miles.  But that was just the beginning of the binnacle’s journey.

Fast forward to Friday, March 12.  Christie and I were scheduled to leave Sky Harbor on a Southwest Airlines one-way frequent flier award flight to Philadelphia at 11:30 AM, due to arrive in Philadelphia at 6:10 PM, when we would pick up a one-way Thrifty Rent-a-Car Stow ‘n Go Chrysler mini-van.  Between the time we checked in at 9:30 AM and arrived at our gate at 10 AM, it was announced that our departure would be delayed until 2:10 PM because of severe weather conditions in Philadelphia.  Being suspicious of any message received from any airline, because of past deliberate inaccuracies, I immediately made two phone calls back East, one to my friend who had my Spectrum seats and the binnacle, and the other to a lawyer friend who lives in Center City, Philadelphia.  I simply had one question:  “What is your weather like right now?”  Both answers were the same, and, as I suspected, the airline was lying through its teeth.  It was sunny and bright in Philadelphia; there were no severe weather conditions socking in Philadelphia International Airport to prevent us from landing there.  Only Southwest Airlines knows why they had to concoct a falsehood and delay us by three hours.  What was amazing, however, was that when we finally did land at 9:45 PM, there really WAS a “severe weather condition” – RAIN – at Philadelphia International Airport – so go figure???

We went on to secure our pre-reserved rental, a Town and Country mini-van, arranged with the Thrifty facility’s manager more than a month earlier.  The counter agent knew all about it, called to the outside lot for them to bring the red mini-van in Space 22 to the front.  Alas, Space 22 was empty.  Apparently another agent, failing to recognize the hold on that vehicle, had rented it out prior to our arrival.  They had to scramble to find a similar vehicle for us.  There was one on the lot, but unfortunately it was not as fully equipped as the one we had reserved.  Early the next morning, with the rain coming down even more heavily than the previous night, we loaded the binnacle and the Spectrum hockey seats into the Stow ‘n Go rear section of the mini-van.  I was pleasantly surprised when the binnacle (disassembled into four parts), the seats, and our luggage fit better horizontally into the space, rather than vertically.  Now we were ready to head west to Arizona.

Our first planned stop was in Lewisburg, West Virginia, for dinner at the General Lewis Inn.  This edifice, dating from the 1820’s, is included on the National Register of Historical Places.  A bit ahead of schedule, we arrived at 4:30 PM, but the restaurant doesn’t open until 5:30 PM.  Fortunately, Lewisburg seems to be the “Antiquing Capital of West Virginia,” so there was plenty of opportunity to kill an hour while waiting for the restaurant to open AND this is a restaurant worth waiting for!  Plus the prices on its menu do not require a second mortgage to afford.

Several hours later, just west of Charleston, West Virginia, in a small town named Dunbar, we stopped for the evening.  Normally while traveling, I’ll unload everything visible through a window of the vehicle I’m driving.  Not tonight, however, as I discovered the nickname attached to the binnacle by my sister-in-law was most appropriate.  “The Iron Maiden” was exactly that – 350 pounds of dead weight.  Anyone willing to break into my parked vehicle and steal this behemoth of a World War II Lionel “objet d’art” would need a crane and a crew of strong arms to do so.  It and the hockey seats were covered with some blankets to keep them warm through the wet, rainy night; and the van, equipped with a theft deterrent system, was parked right outside our room.  Since this is the TCA online magazine, I’d better make mention of some trains.  On the way into Dunbar we crossed three guarded main lines of the Norfolk Southern Railway.  Those tracks, as it turned out, passed within 100 feet of our motel, which was blatantly apparent at least once an hour, as a locomotive announced its presence with four obligatory blasts of its horn, all night long.  Real, sound sleep was scarce.

The next day brought the Iron Maiden and the ice hockey seats a dose of more rain.  Apparently that’s all it does east of the Mississippi River – rain!  But, unlike January and February, at least it wasn’t snow!  Very shortly after we left our motel, we were in the Commonwealth of Kentucky.  It is here that we met with our former next door neighbor from New Jersey, Sue Gilvin, who took us to a Chamber Music Concert at the University of Louisville and then to dinner at one of the Travel Channel’s “101 Places to Pig Out,” Lynn’s Paradise Café.  This is truly one of those “do not miss” places, should you ever find yourself hungry, looking for a place of interest, and in downtown Louisville.  The road from Louisville back to Sue’s home in Brandenburg, KY, pretty much parallels the Ohio River, which means you should be prepared for a myriad of river boats, barges, and strange and unusual shaped railroad bridges.  By all means, have your camera loaded and ready.  Speaking of Brandenburg, it is the answer to one of those “so who cares?” trivia questions:  “What is the westernmost town in the Eastern time zone?”  If Alex Trebek ever asks you this question, you will know the answer.

Continuing west, we first had to take a little jig north so southern Indiana, where it was still raining, as it was throughout Indiana, Illinois, and all the way to Springfield, Missouri, where we stopped at another of the Travel Channel’s 101 pig-out places, Lambert’s Café.  You may remember this one.  It is where the waiters throw hot rolls across the dining room to eager patrons.  Yet another “don’t miss” venue.

Once in Oklahoma, riding their toll roads is quite an experience.  Let’s just put it this way:  hopefully, eventually, the tolls they collect will be used to fill the potholes that are nearly big enough to consume the vehicles that ride on their roads.  Some “washboard” roads that we’ve traversed in third world countries would actually be turnpikes when compared to Oklahoma’s toll roads.  I sincerely hope the sensitive instruments with the Lionel binnacle have not been adversely affected by the insensitive nature of what the State of Oklahoma calls a turnpike.  Two absolutely amazing and positive things about Oklahoma happened in the towns of Hinton and Weatherford, both west of Oklahoma City.  First, at Hinton, was the motel Travel Inn and Suites, which was the new name of the one we had reserved.  I’d recommend it without hesitation.  Second is a ’50’s style restaurant at Weatherford named Lucille’s Roadhouse – great food, great service, great prices, and also seen on the Travel Channel.

We left Oklahoma in a dense fog and temperatures in the low 30’s.  However, the weather improved as the sun came out and the thermometer rose into the 50’s.  At long last we saw blue skies and sunshine as we crossed the border into Texas.  Going across the Texas Panhandle, if you don’t stop, will only take about 2½ hours.  However, I’ll guarantee you’ll stop at least three times.  The first of these would be just before Amarillo at one of the most incredible Welcome Centers you’ll ever visit.  Then just two miles west is The Big Texan Restaurant and Motel complex.  Even if you’re not hungry, your curiosity certainly will have gotten the best of you, as billboards as far east as Indiana begin touting a “free 72 oz. steak.”  This is where you get to see it and, if you’re brave, this is where you get to eat it!  Your third stop will be about 10 miles further west at the famed Cadillac Ranch, where you’ll find 10 vintage 1960’s Cadillacs buried nose first, tail fins sticking up and out of the ground along I-40.

Entering New Mexico, we were greeted by a strange sight along the roadside.  On the news we had heard about all of the horrible snow storms in the East, yet saw no evidence of it in the Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington D.C. areas.  All along I-40 in New Mexico, between Tucumcari and Albuquerque, there were large patches of snow left over from recent storms and drifts.  As we arrived at our motel in Albuquerque, the CD player began Giacomo Puccini’s 12th and final opera, Turandot.  As we crossed the USA, we had listened to all 12 Puccini operas, interspersed with selections by Hector Berlioz.

A stop at Greg Palmer’s house got us a view of 3 Lionel Geiger Counters from a FEMA sale

In Albuquerque we spent several hours at the home of Greg Palmer, President of the Rio Grande Chapter of the Desert Division.  Greg has one of the most eclectic collections of trains and related pre- and post-war items you will ever come across, and everything is in a condition as if it just came from the factory.

A rare view into the corner of Greg’s museum-like train room

We celebrated St. Patrick’s Day with a dinner at one of my favorite Albuquerque restaurants, Landry’s Seafood House.  Not to be confused with a Landry’s anywhere else, this place is head and shoulders above all the others.

At long last, after nearly a week on the road, home was within reach.  The first stop was Gallup, New Mexico for Earl’s Restaurant, not only a place with wonderful food but also a place to check out authentic Navajo Indian crafts.  Such was the case today, as I was able to secure a pair of identical twin Kachina doll “clowns” with watermelons.  I have no room for them in my collection, but they were extremely interesting and unusual, as well as very affordable.

BNSF through New Mexico
La Posada, one of four still active “Harvey Houses”

Winslow, Arizona soon came into view, which meant the La Posada Harvey House Hotel and its Turquoise Room Restaurant.  A window table overlooking the BNSF main line just happened to be available and it wasn’t too long before the trains came along.

Looking at the BNSF Mainline from the Turquoise Room Restaurant (at La Posada) while eating dinner
A lobby display at La Posada in Winslow

From there, it was a relatively short trek south on the Bee Line Highway through the snow-covered White Mountains to Payson and the ultimate new home of the Spectrum’s Hockey seats and the Lionel Polaris binnacle at our home in Fountain Hills, AZ.  The circuitous route had finally come to an end, 6 days and 2,739 miles after it began in southern New Jersey.   We counted license plates and found all but 5 (AK, HI, NJ, RI, and VT), ate at three of the Travel Channel’s 101 Best Pig-Out Places, greatly helped the US economy, and in the long run, believe it or not, I lost four pounds!

Finally, on the last leg home in Northern Arizona

Maybe someday, we’ll have the binnacle out in the sunlight where we can get a good picture of it.  Meanwhile, it’s the brass one, looks like an iron maiden, and is pictured in the 1942 Lionel catalog.