A reflection on Dad - and a generation

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From left, Father Pat Bell, Bill Bell and Mike Bell.

At the end of last month I spent some significant time dismantling my father's model railroad layout. It was a project he began in earnest during the winter of 1950. There was not much to do during those winters on the farm, and he had always been interested in railroads and in modeling work, so it was a perfect outlet for him during the "off-months" to be creative and active. Much of the work from even those early years, like the main freight yard, the hand-built brass engines, the scratch-built rolling stock and many of his early buildings, still graced the much larger operating layout which consumed two bedrooms of his now vacant house (Dad and Bettina moved into an independent living facility in downtown Spokane last November).

It was left to my brother and to me to tear down what amounted to 60-some years of detailed artistry and imagination. Once we saved what could be removed and shared, it was left to me to bust out the extensive scenery of mountains, rivers and trees; to tear out the hundreds of feet of hand-laid ties and rails, along with the thousands of feet of wires feeding electrical switches, control panels, signal lights, and accessories. And then to dismantle the undergirding bench work, some of which came from Dad's own hand decades ago being cut from trees felled on our farmland.

All of that amazing work became just a pile of waste and dust.

I knew before engaging this task that it was going to be hard on me. I grew up on that railroad. I spent untold hours with my Dad operating that imaginative miniature world, and even more doing so all by myself during my high school and college years. It held memories, and a kind of promise for me, that nothing else has. But I found myself surprised - not that I did NOT find it very taxing to dismantle, but why it was so impacting.

As I hammered every mountain, tore apart every right of way, separated every wire, I realized the loss of this prized and highly touted layout was not what caused me pain. The loss came in the realization of the end of a generation. My Dad's 60 years of passion, the source of so many commendations and prizes, was gone. And in that finality is marked a concrete end to a generation of labor and play, of legacy and learning. The Palouse and Pacific Railroad will never be the source of another whistle blowing again.

When the dust settled, an era ended.

What I am reflecting on in this experience of dismantling a hobby in one man's life is a profound awareness of and appreciation for the contribution of hard work, passion, family commitment and all that his generation has given, and even continues to give, to all of us who follow behind. I do not want to take for granted all of the living and giving that this great generation, including my parents, and many of you, has shared which now resounds to us. I am filled anew with a deep and profound gratitude. Thank you.

The Rev. Pat Bell is rector of St. Luke's Episcopal Church in Coeur d'Alene.

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