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  • Glenn Sonnenberg

Musings from the Bunker 10/16/20

Good morning friends,

I’m getting off of the political train for a day. I figured it would be fun to riff about two subjects that are non-political.

Like many others, I have had a fascination with railroads. I’m not sure whether this attraction began with Engineer Bill on Saturday morning television, the S Gauge model train in our garage, or the train that circles Disneyland. But it stuck. By the way, here’s the information on Engineer Bill. You need only watch the first 20 seconds to get the “feel” of great children’s 60s TV…

Railroads have captured imaginations since their invention in the early 19th century. Until the advent of the railroad, a person could only proceed as fast on land as their legs or the legs of a horse could carry them. Then came the railroad, which could reduce distances many-fold. The railroad sufficiently compressed time such that, in order to coordinate schedules, time zones were necessitated. Before then, noon in any town was the moment at which the sun was in its highest point in the sky (hence, “high noon”). Since “noon” would be a different time in each town, scheduling would be impossible without standardization of times to match the desired standardization of arrival and departure times.



I’ve written before about the peculiar hobbies that exist and how they bind people together in sub-cultures of communities. Model railroading is one of the most interesting. These are people who are history buffs, lovers of the outdoors and machinery, and hobbyists who like to build things. Lionel trains started the beginning of the 20th century. The high water mark of the hobby was post-war through the 60s. Things have dropped off since the advent of video games and other pastimes with a low barrier to entry. Model railroad set-ups require space, dedication and skill. They also require time, work, and persistence. Given that there are many other hobby options, this is a pretty intensive one—in time, space and money…

I still have the S gauge (“American Flyer”) and HO gauge railroad sets from my childhood, added to when the kids had a briefly-lived interest. The most common gauges are O and HO, at 1:45 and 1:87 ratios to full size, respectively. Choice of gauge depends on detail, cost and space. O and HO are the most typical.

Most train set-ups are fairly simple, typically fitting on an 8’ x 4’ piece of plywood. Others are more elaborate affairs. Here is a video of arguably the most elaborate set-up, at 3,000 square feet of train tracks and extraordinarily details:



When 9/11 occurred, airplane travel came to a complete halt. I remember vividly coaching soccer that weekend and commenting to the kids that there were no planes in the sky. It was eerie. But a week or so later, people started traveling again. Once planes were no longer banned, I needed to take a business trip to Albuquerque. As I was readying to book a flight, Andrea still was concerned about flying. She asked if I could take the train. It actually seemed like it could be a fun adventure. I headed for Union Station in Downtown L.A., the last of the grand train stations built in the U.S. I got on board around 7:00, dropped my bag in my sleeper compartment and then headed to dinner. We were all seated randomly; after a quick meal and some chitchat, I retired to bed and was rocked to sleep—then the periodic stops (with whistle and all) along the way started waking me up…much like the song, “Route 66,” but in reverse. …”Winslow Arizona, don’t forget Winona…” We arrived in late morning the following day.

My fellow travelers were an interesting lot, whom I got to know at meal times. They came in several varieties:

Foreigners. Many of us took a trip to Europe when younger and relied on a Eurail Pass to get around. As you probably know, train travel in Europe is incredible. I imagine that foreign travelers may think an American rail pass is similarly useful, with frequent trains that are on time. I’m guessing they were sorely disappointed.

Retirees. There clearly were folks with lots of time to kill and getting from place to place by train was a leisurely way to go. The train I was on continued to Chicago for a day and then one could transfer to a train to Washington, D.C. Basically three days, coast to coast. But if all you have is time…

The John Madden crowd. There are folks who simply don’t like to fly, like Coach Madden (who famously took his tricked-out bus from game day to game day). Seriously, they exist. If you don’t believe in air travel, there aren’t a lot of other options…

Railroaders. This is the strangest group of all. They would sit in the observation car with guide books, noting the points of interest at certain mileage markers. The level of detail, and their commitment to living each moment on the rails, was impressive.

I was being picked up by a broker in Albuquerque, who assumed he’d pick me up at the airport. “No,” I said, “Pick me up at the train station.” He was shocked, saying he had never been there before. I explained that my wife didn’t want me flying out of Los Angeles. When it was time to leave town, he assumed we were headed back to the train station, when I instructed him instead to go to the airport. “Why the change of heart?” he asked. I explained that I just couldn’t take that train again. “But what about your wife’s instructions?” “Well, she isn’t here, is she?...”



Europe has an elaborate train system. Japan has bullet trains. China is busy building more lines. California is building a high speed rail line, purportedly connecting Los Angeles to San Francisco. Besides the significant cost overruns and delays, the huge bridges and trestles required, there is just one tiny little problem—the high speed sections don’t reach all the way to Los Angeles or San Francisco.

I am torn on this project. On the one hand, it stands as a major undertaking that could change travel in our state. It feels like the type of major project that was more common in mid-century America, when we tackled major infrastructural challenges. So I am proud and encouraged. On the other hand, it is absurdly over-budget, is being built without a final source of funding, has non-bid contracts and political largesse as part of the calculus, has been routed to minimize impact on competing interests along the route, and is bloated beyond comprehension, representing the worst that our over-regulated, inefficient government can do. I suspect it can be both a source of pride and a source of disappointment, simultaneously…



Andrea isn’t the world’s greatest sports fan (well, other than college football), but she loves the come-from-behind or “against all odds” sports movies. Give her a scrappy kid, hopeless team of losers, or washed-up player with one more big game in him and she’s putty in the Director’s hands. Sports books and movies have given us many underdog stories. Here are some of my favorite “against all odds” sports movies:

• I think one has to start with Miracle on Ice as the tops, since it’s a true story of a remarkable run by the U.S. Ice Hockey team that defeats the USSR and wins the Olympic Gold Medal in 1980.

Major League, for all the many reasons already cited before.

Hoosiers, Gene Hackman in the role of a high school basketball coach who leads the team to the State championship.

Rocky. He didn’t actually win in Rocky (but stay tuned for Rocky II). A classic on so many levels.

Friday Night Lights. Great movie. Andrea loved it; but she loved the TV show even more. A sociological study of high school football’s grip on small town Texas and the many personalities—players, coach, boosters, parents, and girlfriends. It is not only a great sports movie, but a great social commentary and a great high school movie.

Blades of Glory. Not actually a real thing…but still fun. Male pairs ice skating with Will Ferrell. Enough said.

The Mighty Ducks. Cute. Watch with the kids. Typical feel good movie. Which came first, the film or the sports franchise?

Dodgeball. I truly believe this movie about a bunch of underdogs competing in a made-up sport on ESPN8 (“the Ocho”) is a classic comedy. A group of misfits (including the classic “Steve the Pirate”) try to save their gym. Rip Torn steals every scene he’s in as Patches O’Houlihan. Vince Vaughn, when he was still funny, Ben Stiller, and Jason Bateman as Pepper Brooks, the dim-witted announcer. Here is Patches on the keys to the game:

“If you’re going to become true dodgeballers, then you’ve got to learn the five “d”s of dodgeball: dodge, duck, dip, dive and dodge!”

Cool Runnings. The story of the Jamaican bobsled team and their unlikely participation in the 1988 Calgary Winter Olympics. With the Jimmy Cliff cover of the great Johnny Nash “I Can See Clearly Now”: Here’s Kevin Thomas of the L.A. Times: “… a sweet-natured, high-spirited comedy…that rare movie that plays effectively to all ages. Even rarer, it celebrates genuine sportsmanship, placing the emphasis back on how the game is played in the face of the winning-is-everything philosophy that permeates every aspect of contemporary life."

Happy weekend,


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