My American Flyer Legacy

When Mom and Dad moved out of their home of 44 years and into a senior apartment, we all knew that his trains were going to have to go. Sure, there was closet space for a few of them, but there was so much more than he could take along. Discount-store N scale from the late ’60s. O scale trolleys built from LaBelle wood kits. A smattering of HO scale items. Plasticville structures by the boxload. And lots and lots of American Flyer S gauge. American Flyer was his first love, and when I was very young, it became my first love, too.

The pieces on the fringe of Dad’s collecting activity went first, offered to friends around the hobby. He offered me a box of old N scale, which I naturally accepted. I know there’s a bunch of first-generation Atlas freight cars in there, a pair of ancient Arnold Rapido FA-1s, and probably that set of heavyweight coaches we ran for hours as kids. To be honest, however, I haven’t really gone through the box yet, let alone decided what to do with it.

I also expressed an interest in some of Dad’s AF items, but his short-term memory isn’t what it used to be.

The process of collecting American Flyer trains was once very different than it is now. There were no price guides, no eBay to search, and very few train shows. AF collectors were a small, private clique. The more ambitious ones placed want ads in the paper; the rest searched yard sales. During the Sixties and Seventies, Dad picked up a number of desirable items. A few of those went on the shelf, but most of them were carefully boxed up and tucked away in the crawl space, and were rarely seen. Then there were the common items—those went onto the layout in the basement.

Dad’s S-gauge version of the Gopher Valley Central was cast as a steam-powered, coal-hauling short line, in the style of the Shawmut and its ilk. To that end, Dad gathered up a sizable fleet of scruffy offset-side hopper cars, mostly 640s, but also some 632s, all with the link couplers used on early AF. He gave them a none-too-careful hit of flat-black spray paint with a rattle can. I proceeded to hand-paint numbers on most of them. They weren’t pretty. They were coal hoppers. They weren’t supposed to be pretty. They made countless laps around the layout over the years.

After the move, Mom and Dad put the house up for sale, and have been shedding their excess possessions at their own pace. Late last year, when it looked like they might have a buyer, they called in Paul to take the excess American Flyer. Paul’s known Dad for years, and was already familiar with the crawl-space stuff, as well as the basement stuff. (He’s the same guy who sold me the “Nazi engine.”) He made Dad an offer, which was accepted. Most of what Dad kept were crawl-space items.

I saw Paul at a show about a month later. There were a lot of items on his tables that might have been Dad’s, but there was really no way to tell for sure. One flat-black hopper, however, stood out.

“Is this one of Dad’s?” I asked him. It was. I purchased it, and offered to buy any others that he had. A few weeks later, he showed up with three more. Still later, he found a boxcar, too. I took them all.

I don’t really mind if all of Dad’s beautiful crawl-space items have slipped away from me. I have some pieces with real memories attached.