He was telling me he forgot the name of the town that is just south of Garnett. I wonder if he is a Trump supporter, I thought. “I’m sure I don’t know it, anyway,” I said. “I hardly know anyplace in Kansas, except along the way to Colorado. My great-grandparents’ farm was near Lancaster, though, that’s a pretty small place.”
“I know Lancaster!” he said. “I used to work on some equipment up there.” He worked on aircraft engines, and now he is a volunteer at the train-station-turned-museum.
“I’m already forgetting things, too,” I said, the fortysomething to the eightysomething. As we looked at object after object in the museum, a hand-built miniature, a case for an exhibit, several times he said, “The guy who made this used to volunteer here, but he passed away.”
The Grand Overland Station in Topeka has some displays on the Harvey House that was there, a spunky repainted ceiling, and replicas of the light fixtures, which were melted down to help with, as they say, “the war effort.” (Not “fighting the war,” or “making tanks or bullets,” but the effort.)
I was in Topeka for a meeting, already conducted, and had time to see something. A tiger just attacked a zookeeper at the zoo, and I’ve already seen the Brown versus Board of Education museum, so I ended up at the train station.
“The kids love this,” he told me, as we looked at a child-sized train car playhouse. “We can hardly get them away from here.”
How had we survived this, how were we surviving this, the president claiming there had been a “coup,” when referring to an investigation by a Republican prosecutor, which had led to several convictions by federal courts.
“You want to take the stairs, or the elevator?” the man asked me.
I had just injured my knee, but I was feeling better, so I said, “The stairs are fine.”
“I don’t want to wear you out,” he said. We walked slowly up the steps.
He told me about where they had taken out train tracks, where tracks weren’t, anymore. I said I missed taking the train on the east coast. He said he was from Vermont, originally. I said my stepmom’s dad worked on mail cars. He showed me the contraptions that let men on trains hold out paper messages to be grabbed by someone at the station (or vice-versa).
I wondered if he thought any change was good. He explained how he met his wife, and said they had been married 56 years.
He showed me a giant bell. “We put something inside it so they kids can’t ring it. It was so loud you could hear it through the whole building!” He showed me a steam whistle, with a flowery pattern around the bottom edge. “Think you can lift that thing?”
“Oh, no,” I said.
He got out a remote control and pointed it at a miniature train. “They’ve got just about everything you’d have in a real town,” he said. “A blacksmith shop, I mean, of course you wouldn’t have one in a town now, but in the town I grew up in, there was one at each end, so your horse wouldn’t have to go so far.” A farm, a carnival, a church with a wedding, a parade, a fire house. “And every animal!”
“And Mickey Mouse,” I said.
“And see Hong Kong over there? I mean, King Kong?”
“I’m sorry the flags aren’t up right now,” he said.
It was a windy day. When I had gotten out of the car, dozens of bare silver flag poles were having their ropes whipped in the wind.
“The wind has been so bad this year, they took them all down for repairs. We have 50 American flags and 50 state flags. And they are expensive. But we got volunteers to repair them. When the volunteers are done, they’ll be better than they were to begin with.”
“It sounds like you have great volunteers,” I said.
“Well, all of them except me,” he said, and we chuckled.