Ben collected model trains. He didn’t just collect them; he also ran them across about a few hundred feet of track. It had become his life’s work, tacking down the track, running each of his entire collection over the track, then ripping it all up and starting over again.
When I met Ben he was 89 years old. The only reason I knew that was because Ben’s social worker, Janice, invited me to Ben’s 90th birthday party. In fact, most of what I knew about Ben I learned from his social worker. Most of the questions I asked him were answered with either a nod of the head or simply with something like, “That was a long time ago.”
Owning and operating his own railroad was a natural thing for Ben to do. He was 15 when he started working for the railroad, a few months shy of 70 when they told him to quit. Sometime during those 55 or so years he started his collection. When he started playing with his trains full-time he started buying more pieces. Apparently all he spent all his money on his improving his collection and stopped paying his rent. Fortunately for him the state was called in and Ben was assigned a social worker. The first day of the month then became ‘Ben’s day’ for her. She parked herself in front of Ben’s home and waited for the mailman. She took Ben to the bank, made him put some money into savings, took him to pay his rent, and then grocery shopping. When she dropped him off he still had about $20 spending money, which meant ‘train money.”
At that time he was saving for a top-of-the-line model steam engine, a “Mudhen” he called it. The piece was going to cost him about $300. He’d been putting his money aside for it for quite a while when Kitty Kat got sick.
Other than his trains, Ben’s cat was the only thing he cared about it. Ben saw the white Angora rummaging through some trash cans, took the thing home, and named it Kitty Kat. That was the last time the cat was outside. It spent its days sitting on the window ledges, watching the people, traffic and trains going by and waiting for a chance to escape.
One morning, about three weeks before Christmas I awoke to the sound of Ben pounding on my door, “Help, help,” he was screaming. He was in his pajamas when I opened the door.
“Kitty Kat,” he cried, “Something’s wrong with her, she won’t eat. She just lays there.”
“Is she breathing?”
“Yes, but I put her food on the floor and she didn’t get up.”
I told him to get dressed and I’d drive him to the Vet.
The entire trip home he moaned, “Don’t die, Kitty Kat, please don’t die, you’re all I’ve got. Please don’t die.”
At the Vet’s the news turned out to be good and bad. With a common operation, Kitty Kat would probably be okay. However the operation was going to cost $250. Of course Ben had them operate. He used his ‘”Mudhen” money. On the way to get it I learned that the engine was going to be Ben’s Christmas present to himself. The hobby shop was going to have a sale during the two weeks before Christmas. He was going to buy it then. Now, he wasn’t going to get it. He didn’t even have enough money left to buy a new train car of some kind. He wouldn’t be doing any special celebrating, just the usual Christmas party at the Senior Center.
We brought Kitty Kat home the next morning. Ben said, “I don’t need any Mudhen. This is the best Christmas present I could ever have.”
It wasn’t Santa Clause or the sound of reindeer hoofs on the roof or even church bells that woke me that Christmas morning, it was the sound of Ben pounding on my door.
Kitty Kat’s died, I thought.
“Did you do this?” was the first thing he said when I opened the door, no “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays.”
“Do what?” I asked.
“Put this in my room,” he said holding up a train engine. “You were the only one who knew about it.”
“Knew about what?”
“Don’t act like you don’t know. This is a Mudhen. It’s what I was going to buy. You can’t give this to me.”
“You’re right, I couldn’t and I didn’t.”
“Then who put this in my room?”
“Was your door locked?”
Ben stared at me.
“It wasn’t, was it?”
“This costs too much money to give to me. You’re the only one who knew.”
“You didn’t just once in all this time you’ve been saving maybe tell someone else, like maybe Janice?”
“You don’t think it was her. It’s too much money.”
“Tell you what; she’ll be here next week. Ask her.”
A week later Ben caught me at the door, “She said she didn’t do it, so it had to be you.”
“Ben, do you think I’d be living in a place like this if I could afford a $250 model train engine just to give away to an old guy I hardly even know?”
Ben always stared into space when he was trying to make sense of something. That’s what he did for the next thirty seconds or so.
“It don’t make sense,” he said. “That just leaves Santy Claus and we both know there ain’t no Santy Claus. You sure you didn’t do it?”
“Ben, I’m not Santa Claus either.”
I moved out three months later. I never saw Ben again. I was passing through Davenport one summer day about six years later. I stopped and knocked on Ben’s door, the door behind me opened.
“I don’t think John’s home,” said the young man who stepped out of what was once my room.
“John? I was looking for Ben.”
“Ben? Oh, Ben… died a little more than a year ago.”
“That’s too bad. Would you know what happened to all his model trains?”
“Guess they packed them all up. Gave them to some model railroad museum or club.”
Unfortunately, he had no idea where the museum or club was located. I thanked him and continued on home to Chicago. As I crossed the Mississippi I thought about the one thing I wanted to tell Ben that I never got the chance just because Ben wasn’t very social. One of my uncles is also a model train enthusiast. That uncle thought it would be fun making an old guy happy. Too bad it’s unlikely he’ll ever see that particular Mudhen in operation again