Monday Music

I said yesterday that I have been involved in church music my entire life. The truth is I have been surrounded by music of many kinds since I was old enough to remember anything. I was born in Detroit and lived there until I was seven. I recall my mother always having what I call “elevator music” playing in the house. It would have worked as dental office music, although, as much as I hated going to the dentist, if they had had music playing I might not have pursued music at all.

My mother, who died of cancer at the very young age of 49, was actually a very good pianist. She didn’t play often, and I’m not sure she ever knew I was listening when she played. I can remember her playing “Clair de Lune,” by Claude Debussy, and “Blue Moon,” by Richard Rogers. She had a wonderfully soft touch and played beautifully. My dad played the piano as well, once or twice. The only song he played was “Boogie-Woogie.” He did alright for a guy who didn’t play the piano.

I started playing cornet in the school band when I was in 5th grade. I continued playing in band through my junior year of high school when I decided I was finished. My horn was stolen during my first year of college. I still remember many of the songs from band, and I often find myself “air-playing” familiar songs when I hear them, especially at Christmas time.

I had a guitar when I was twelve and had lessons for two summers. My piano teacher during that time, Art Galonska, who was an incredible jazz pianist, was also my guitar teacher. I didn’t get any farther with the guitar than I learned during those two summers.

In eighth grade I received extra credit in History class for playing “The Second Time Around” on the piano. That was the only time I was given credit for what might be called “playing across the curriculum.”

Three of my six piano teachers emphasized classical music. I will always be thankful for the experience I had with the classics while I had teachers who could help me. I still enjoy playing a few of the masterpieces I learned. For an entire year on my own, I worked on the piano score of, “Rhapsody in Blue.” I finally was able to play through the entire piece, which is about eighteen pages long. It absolutely fascinated me that George Gershwin actually completed Rhapsody in Blue while he played it on the piano during his first performance of the classic. Genius.

I have to admit I could have learned so much more than I did while I still had piano teachers, especially two of them. They hammered chord structure and scales. My mastery of both was their plan, but I fell far short. What I didn’t learn affects me to this day. I now use all kinds of chords on the piano that I couldn’t tell you what they are. They just sound good to me. I could probably figure them out but it doesn’t matter, until I write music.

I have written a lot of music. A lot of music. It would have been so much easier if I had really known what I was doing. I started writing in 1975. A couple years later I was writing continually. The music I wrote was used in the evangelistic association we were working for at the time. I was the crusade coordinator, publications director, and music leader for all of the crusades the ministry held across the country. I often wrote entire songs inspired by the message as the evangelist preached. There were times I sang the song I wrote at the end of the service.

You have never heard any of the songs I wrote. Only a small number of people have. I don’t really know how many songs I’ve written, but I’m going to figure it out. I recently found a pile of my hand-written scores in a file cabinet. I sent most of the songs to music publishers and they went nowhere. A few were “signed” by publishers, but still went nowhere. Years ago, I received a letter from a music coordinator for a very popular southern gospel group who liked a song I wrote. She said, “This song will be good for…” (the group she performed with will remain nameless – I’m being self-serving enough without dropping names.)

So, why write music that goes nowhere? Why write book manuscripts that sit in a file cabinet? Why write a blog relatively few people read? Why build a model railroad? Because I can. The songs, manuscripts, blog posts, and my model railroad mean something to me. I honestly don’t need anyone to say, “This is really good,” to be pleased with it myself.

I’m still learning this.

Sunday Singin’

I have been involved with church music my entire life. Still am. I started taking piano lessons when I was seven years old, and from the beginning, dreamed of playing the piano for a southern gospel quartet. Never happened. That’s okay, I never pitched for the Detroit Tigers, either.

I played my first trumpet duet in church when I was in 6th grade. I sang a solo for the first time when I was in 7th grade. “Now the birth of Jesus Christ was on this wise, when as his mother, Mary, was espoused to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Ghost.” I still hear the melody in my head. It was a small clip in a Christmas Cantata entitled “Born A King.” I sang in the church choir until 10th grade when we moved to a different town.

After we moved, I played piano for the choir at our new church. I think playing for the choir got me out of a moving violation from a police officer. One night I sped up to get through a light before it turned red. The officer who pulled me over said I didn’t make it. When he asked where I was going I said, “I’m going to church to play the piano for choir practice.” He told me to slow down for yellow lights in the future.

I played my first piano competition when I was 12. I received a second place trophy simply because on the last chord of the music I lifted my hands before I let go of the sustain pedal. I played in many other contests and never got higher than second place. I hated competing because I was always so afraid my mind would go blank, which made my mind go blank. After the last one when I was 15, I said, “Never again,” and that was it.

Crazy, but I can still play the song I performed in that last competition. It is “Springs of Living Water,” arranged by Ted Smith, who was the pianist for Billy Graham. I just won’t play it in front of anyone.

I continued playing the piano for church but I started faking it. I played the music like I wanted rather than what was on the page. That way, if I blew it no one would know. I still don’t play written music in public more than fifty years later.

Music in church has changed drastically in my lifetime. It used to be hymns only, then hymns plus a “prayer chorus,” then a couple hymns and a few choruses, then no hymns at all. That’s okay, to each their own. But some folks have had a difficult time adjusting.

In one church I pastored, my wife and I led the music as well. As soon as we sang something that wasn’t in the hymn book, there was an old man in the front who quit singing, folded his arms and stared.

I don’t want to be that old man. I am an old man, just not that one.

Saturday Snackin’ and Sippin’

I’m convinced coffee is as much feeling as it is taste. Coffee is an experience. Some coffee experiences are better than others. I can’t remember having a cup of coffee that was so bad I couldn’t drink it. There have been lots of cups that were less than hot, making the coffee more difficult to drink, but there is something wrong with wasting coffee. Cold coffee is better than no coffee.

When I was young, after arriving at home from school I went around the house to find the coffee cups my mom left during the day and finished the cold coffee she left.

For a short time when I was in high school, I stayed with an older couple who lived in the town to which my parents were preparing to move. They were kind and loving folks and they made sure I felt right at home. With an in-ground heated pool in the back yard and a pool table in the basement, it was difficult to feel anything less. Because of their religious beliefs, they did not drink coffee. They drank Postum, which is made of roasted grain. It was actually very good and many years later I bought a jar just to try it again.

I obviously prefer real coffee, as opposed to instant. You might argue that instant coffee is real coffee, and I can’t offer a convincing rebuttal. But instant coffee doesn’t provide the aroma that fills the room when coffee is being brewed. Even Keurig coffee cups release a wonderful fragrance. I have, however, had some memorable experiences with instant coffee.

On a vacation, I used instant to fill a thermos with hot coffee every morning before I went fishing on beautiful Houghton Lake, Michigan. That was nearly forty years ago and the memories are still vivid in my mind. Not so much for the fish we caught, but for the thoughts and feelings about the experience I still enjoy. Instant coffee was right in the middle of it.

The company I worked for in my first job supplied instant coffee for employees. I was the janitor, so it was not only my job to set up the coffee stand, but to drink some as well, then clean up at the end of the day. There were also times the boss provided donuts, although not many.

I was privileged to have my grandparents living in the same city where I grew up. Many times after church on Sunday, I went home with them for Sunday dinner. The main entrance to their house was in the kitchen. Every Sunday, rather than changing clothes and returning to the kitchen, my grandparents put the coffee pot on the stove to reheat the breakfast coffee, sat down at the kitchen table, and enjoyed a hot cup of coffee before preparing dinner. I will never forget the sound of them gently stirring cream and sugar into their coffee. It was some of the best coffee I’ve ever had. The Pyrex coffee pot in the photos is exactly like the one my grandparents owned.

Here’s a question for you. Have you ever noticed that when you eat a York Peppermint with coffee it tastes like cigarette ashes smell? No kidding!

The snacks enjoyed with coffee are important, but not as much as the coffee. Good coffee doesn’t need help. I have to admit, drinking coffee makes eating snacks more likely, as in, “I don’t really need this but I’m going to eat it anyway, to go with my coffee.”

Biscotti is wonderful. Although, successfully eating biscotti is an art form. If you dip biscotti in your coffee and do not withdraw it at the right moment, it will disintegrate into mush, floating on top of your coffee like debris from a boating accident.

Have you ever heard of Tim Tams? “Tim Tam is a brand of chocolate biscuit introduced by the Austalian biscuit company Arnott’s in 1964.” (Wikipedia) They’re little chocolate covered cookies about one inch by two inches. You first bite both ends off, then hold the biscuit in your coffee and use the Tim Tam like a straw. As soon as coffee hits your lips, pop the biscuit in your mouth. Some people love them. To me, the experience was a little like eating a warm piece of chocolate covered Melba Toast. No offense to Tim Tam lovers.

Honey roasted peanuts are a great snack to eat with coffee. You have to keep an eye on the peanut jar or it will be empty before you finish your coffee.

Chocolate chip cookies. Nothing else needs to be said.

The number one snack to enjoy with coffee has to be Peanut M&Ms. Done. Peanut M&Ms and coffee carried me through an entire master’s degree program which took three years.

Well, there it is. Saturday sippin’ and snackin’.

What kind of snacks do you enjoy with coffee?

Friday Fries

French fries are a miracle of culinary ingenuity. Where else can you find something so perfect, so incredibly delicious, so amazing in a few quick bites?

Which French fries do you prefer? Are you a McDonald’s fry fanatic? Do you put anything except salt on your McD fries? Of course not! McDonald’s fries are the only ones in the world that scream, “Don’t dip me in that!!”

If McD fries are hot and fresh, they’re terrific. If they’re beyond their life cycle and luke warm, they’re nasty. Ever gotten a bag of McD fries that were the crunchy burnt end pieces instead of real fries? You can break your teeth on those. Dogs love them, by the way.

Do you always look for the stray fries in the bottom of the bag? They’re actually the best ones in the whole bag. In their attempt to escape to freedom they fell into the bag anyway, but the effort shows they really are the best ones. The other fries just climbed into the box like most good fries do, followers instead of leaders.

My most wonderful memories of hot, scrumptious, mouth-watering McDonald’s fries was when I ate them with the old fashioned, huge, delectable cinnamon rolls McD used to have. Those cinnamon rolls were not twisted cardboard with crunchy white stuff on top. They were huge, soft, bulging with cinnamon and butter, made with real yeast dough, and smothered in icing.

I went to McD’s just for those cinnamon rolls as often as I could. I also ordered extra icing. Sometimes the icing dripped out of the container. I didn’t care. I could tell by the weight they had fully granted my request for more. I dipped the hot, thin, salty fries in the icing, and ate them. Then, I devoured the cinnamon roll and immediately started thinking about the next time I would get away to have another one.

Where do you get your favorite French fries? You might not have “Culver’s” in your area, but they have amazing fries. They’re thicker than McD’s and rippled. They require ketchup, not because they don’t taste good enough by themselves, but ketchup increases the delightfulness.

At a few restaurants, I have had breaded fries. Are you kidding me!? Breaded fries!? Maybe they don’t call them breaded, but they’re dipped in something before they’re deep fried. I call that breading. Anyway, they’re incredible.

What about “steak fries?” These are fries that look like small deep fried slabs of wood. Delicious.

Have you had cheesy fries? How about chili fries? I love cheese, and chili, and French fries, but not together.

French fries have different names around the world. “Chips” is a name that comes to mind. When I was young I had fries in a bag with vinegar on them. We were in Canada on a fishing trip.

I would love to hear about fries where you live. I wonder where “burger and fries” came from. Who decided burgers needed French fries? What about “fish and chips?” Whoever decided burgers needed fries and fish needed chips, I’m glad they made the call.

Thursday Therapy Thoughts

Mindfulness has been defined as “awareness, without judgement, of the world as it is, of others as they are, of yourself as you are.”

Awareness is described as “being fully present” in each moment. If we are fully present, we choose to listen and hear, and see.

If we struggle with constantly comparing ourself to others, mindfulness is a challenge. To be aware without judgement means comparison is gone. No more “I am better than…”, “I am less than…”.

Mindfulness. Awareness without judgement.

Building a Control Panel for the Maple Valley Short Line Model Railroad

The Maple Valley Short Line Model Railroad is operational. I have been running trains on the main lines without any major interruptions or catastrophes. From the moment I first drilled holes in the cement blocks, to securing the last piece of HO scale flex-track, this has been an enjoyable journey. But the journey is far from over.

The simple control center in the photo supplied power to run tests on the layout. Although I have always used Atlas Selectors (four blocks of four switches) in the past, I am building a control panel with DPDT (double-pole, double-throw) three-position toggle switches to direct power to the layout.

I will use indicator LEDs on the control panel. I plan to have a signal LED on each spur as well as a direction indicator on each turnout. Atlas Snap Relays will be used for each turnout to control track signals at the turnout and an indicator LED on the control panel.

My layout control panel base is a thin (3/16″) piece of plywood. I first drew the track plan on the wood with a pencil. (I actually did it twice as the first one wasn’t large enough.) I covered the pencil lines with 1/8″ artist tape which bends easily and sticks securely to the board. The short cross pieces of tape indicate where the rail gaps create blocks. I chose to make the mainline a single block. With the same layout design, you might choose to do otherwise. But with only one way to and from the outside main line, I didn’t think a shorter block was necessary.

I will place an LED on either side of each toggle to indicate if the spur is powered, and which cab is operating it, A or B. Two LEDs at each turnout will indicate direction.

I first had to decide how best to attach support for my control panel to the benchwork. I could have attached support to the layout joists, but chose to use the bracket legs instead.

I cut two pieces of 3/4″ plywood, 5 1/2″ x 49″. The plywood supports extend sixteen inches beyond the outside edge of the layout, allowing plenty of room for the control panel. I secured the supports with three 2 1/4″ screws through each 2 x 2 leg brace. A block of 2 x 4 behind the leg brace supplies plenty of strength to hold the panel support in place.

I made the same mistake on my previous layout. I didn’t think about the control panel as I was building the benchwork. I had a general idea where I wanted it but didn’t plan ahead by adding supports. I am confident the plywood will hold the control panel safely, but it would have been better to design the structure before, not after.

I finally received the three-position, double-pole-double-throw switches I want to use for the control panel. Before I decided how to proceed, I watched a lot of videos by the best modelrailroaders to see what kind of control panels they designed. Some modelers use plexiglass, others prefer aluminum, there are some who use computer aided design, all of which are impressive. I chose to go simple and basic.

I am actually going to use the DPDT switches as two single-pole-double-throw switches. One side will be DC, the other side AC. DC will obviously power the railroad spurs by supplying current from either cab A or B, determined by which way the toggle is thrown. The other side will supply AC power to LEDs to indicate the spur is live, and which cab is supplying power.

For the time being, the space is perfect for the new round of soldering that will soon begin. Even though the Atlas Selectors provide a workable solution for dual-cab operation, for this, my third layout, a better plan is underway. My new panel will have lots of LEDs to light up the controls.

Future posts will include details on wiring and soldering progress on the Maple Valley Short Line.

News to come:

  • Running wires for turnouts
  • Building more signals
  • Placing signals along the layout
  • Attaching Atlas Snap Relays under the layout
  • Scenery progress
  • Ballasting

If you have comments or suggestions, please let me know. Tell me about your experiences with model railroading.

O-Scale Model Railroad Techniques

A visit to the Detroit Model Railroad Club in Holly, Michigan, is always an opportunity to learn something about model railroading. The giant O-scale railroad fills what was once the Holly Theater. I think the most fascinating part about this model railroad is that every inch of the thousands of feet of track is hand-laid.

Anyone interested in trains can immediately see the artwork and skill that has been invested in the trackwork at the Detroit Model Railroad Club. Each of the ties is precisely the same size, stained and glued in place at exactly the same intervals. Each tie has four hand-placed O-scale spikes holding the rail in place, just like the real thing.

There are common techniques for building a model railroad, whether the layout is 4 x 8 feet, or a 24 inch deep shelf-type model, or a huge empire like the Detroit Model Railroad Club. No matter large or small, the delight in the imagination and heart of the model railroader is the same. From the first cut in the timber that will eventually support the benchwork, to the risers, the roadbed, and the ballast, each step is a treasure in the adventure that is model railroading.

In the more than thirty years I have been attending the Detroit Model Railroad open houses, I have only gone into the “basement” one time. Visitors are allowed to go under the layout during open houses, accompanied by a club member, and the view is incredible. As impressive as it is, the benchwork construction that holds the beautiful DMRRC layout in place is much the same as it would be for any open-grid layout in your home. Open-grid simply means the layout is not on a table-top. The benchwork, or the foundation of the layout, is built of girders, joists, and risers that hold the roadbed underlayment in place.

In the case of the DMRRC, the track underlayment is 3/4″ plywood. For a layout in your home, 3/8″ plywood works well. Over the plywood, 1/4 inch homosote is placed following the track plan line. On my own layout, I used cork roadbed, as many model railroaders do, instead of homosote as it is already prepared with beveled edges. On the DMRRC, 3/16 inch basswood is cut into 2 1/4 inch strips for ties. The ties are stained and glued in place. The steel rail is spiked to the ties. Ballast, or “rock,” is placed and glued. The resulting track is amazing. I have never tried hand-laying track, but many skilled model railroaders do it. I choose to use HO-scale “flex track” which makes laying three-feet sections of track at a time quite easy.

On my most recent visit to the DMRRC, I paid particular attention to the brass bell on display just inside the front door. As you can see in the description, the bell came from a steam locomotive that was going to be scrapped. It was donated to the DMRRC by the New York Central Railroad in 1953. It is fascinating to see this bell that once clearly announced the arrival and departure of passenger trains.

As you can see in these photos, the scenery detail on the DMRRC is difficult to describe. I remember several visits many years ago when I noticed a pair of legs lying along the rails, as if some unfortunate bystander had gotten too close to a passing train. I think they’ve been removed. The key to exquisite detail is the resultant impression that a viewer could easily step into the scene. I was particularly impressed with the cabin built on the side of the mountain. I would love to sit on the porch and watch the trains roll by.

Operation of individual trains on the DMRRC is a combination of work between the dispatcher and the engineer, just as it is on a real train. With Digital Command Control, or DCC, each locomotive on the layout receives a signal from the engineer giving movement commands. The power in the rails is constant, as provided by the dispatcher, and the engineer moves his or her trains individually. It’s amazing. While several trains were already moving along the layout, I watched an engineer moving a single locomotive into place on a siding.

Looking at the photos, it’s easy to imagine the scenes are real. Model railroading is constantly evolving with new technology providing opportunities for detail the old-timers, like me, could have only dreamed of when we were getting started with our first “train set.”

I was excited to notice the milk delivery truck from Twin Pines Dairy in Detroit. My uncle, now in his eighties, has always been my inspiration in model railroading. We still talk on the phone about our layouts. When I was six years old, I visited Twin Pines Dairy with my uncle. He was proud to show me where he worked. I think I’m going to hunt for a HO-scale Twin Pines Dairy truck for my Maple Valley Short Line Railroad.

Scandal at Maple Valley – Episode 20: The Bat Suit

Christmas in Maple Valley has come and gone. Intense anticipation in the weeks before Christmas keeps everyone in good moods and actions with lots of “Merry Christmas” and “Happy New Year” greetings in the streets and shops. Hundreds of visitors came to town on The Old General just to take in the sights and sounds of Christmas in Maple Valley.

Just as they planned, Shorty and Hannah’s Ya’ll Sit Cafe was constantly crowded with happy shoppers looking for that perfect cup of hot chocolate which they were proud to provide. Christmas carolers walked the streets of town every night singing to visitor and resident hearts’ content. Carrying an accurate tune in Maple Valley, especially at Christmas time is not important. Tempo and tune mean nothing. Joy is everything, so, the range of talent and lack of it is broad and obvious.

The wonderful Christmas season was not without difficulty, however. If something is going to go wrong, it happens in Maple Valley. Everyone looked forward to the Maple Valley Church choir performance of “Hey Now, Hit That Gong,” the musical written entirely by Martha Hilmandy. After months of rehearsals, the time for the special concert finally came. The Maple Valley School cafetorium was rented because Maple Valley Church will only seat seventy-three people. It proved to be a wise decision because ninety-six people attended.

Rumors swept through town that what happened at the concert was planned. “Nothing could be further from the truth,” Martha scolded emphatically. As if on some kind of cosmic cue, when the choir reached the point in the theme song, “…angels sing along, joining a mighty throng, swells the happy song, hey now, hit that gong” a table at the back of the room loaded with plates of cookies collapsed with a huge crash. No one would purposely destroy a whole table of cookies just to make a point. It was a Christmas surprise no one will ever forget.

As expected, Dray and Morella Grimhok won the Christmas decorating competition. Alvin Thrashborn was disappointed, but promises to win the contest next year.

An important milestone for The Old General is the test required by the Railroad Safety Administration. As part of the certification for the Maple Valley Railroad, The Old General must run two complete circuits on the main line, pulling six freight cars. The Old General only pulls three passenger cars at a time. Once the process is complete, the MVRR is approved to run for another year.

Running the main line is exciting for the crew of The Old General. The Maple Valley Railroad line is a fifteen mile segment with a few curves. The train operates between Whistleton and Maple Valley, moving forward to Maple Valley, reverse to Whistleton. Running The Old General on a main line for close to seventy miles is much more challenging, and fun.

Folks know how important it is for the Maple Valley Railroad to complete its annual mainline run, so there is a great celebration when The Old General returns to town.

A great crowd, led by Mayor Alvin Thrashborn, cheers as The Old General rolls back into Maple Valley.

The end of the Christmas season brought a challenge a few people suspected might happen. Indeed, it has. Last Tuesday, a man walked into the Ya’ll Sit Cafe and ordered a cup of coffee. As he waited patiently for a cup to be poured he asked if the manager was available.

“The manager?” Shorty asked.

“Yes, I’m looking for Shorty Cloverton,” the man answered.

“You found him, friend. What’s your name?” Shorty asked, holding out his hand.

“My name doesn’t matter, but this does,” the man said as he pulled an envelope from his pocket and placed it Shorty’s outstretched hand. “You’ve been served,” he said.

Shorty stood with confusion on his face as the man put on his coat and left the cafe. He looked at the envelope and read the return address, “Skellson and Skellson, Attorneys at Law, 1215 Wilingman Street, Moison, Iowa.” It was addressed to him.

Shorty sat down at the table and opened the envelope. Shorty Cloverton, Hannah Cloverton, Alvin Thrashborn, Quintin O’Dillmotte, Able Kafflen, Henry Brimmerton, Stew Hanmin, Harden Sievers, Pete Terkinberry, Anabel Wizzleby, and Wanita Havertons, all members of the BAT Strategic Health Investigation Team, are named in a law suit brought by the family of Madeline Overweist. Mrs. Overweist was the victim of a bat landing on her face outside the Ya’ll Sit Cafe. She did not survive the shock. The suit accuses the team of knowing the bat problem existed prior to her visit to Maple Valley and did not protect her from the possibility of a bat attack.

The mystery surrounding the disappearance of Sylvia Meisner continues. Months have passed since she was last seen, and not a single piece of solid evidence has led to any knowledge of her whereabouts. But, there is DSL, the letters found scratched into the timbers of Three Tower Bridge. A group hanging Christmas lights on the towers found the letters and reported it to Sheriff Pete. He took photos of the letters, but little more has happened since. That is, until Christmas Eve.

Late on Christmas Eve, plates of cookies were found on the front porch of Pete Terkinberry, Alvin Thashborn, and the Cloverton’s homes. Each plate of cookies appeared to be homemade, and each had a small piece of paper taped to the wrapping with the letters “D-S-L” printed on it. Each spoke with the others, and no one saw anything. The plates of cookies just seemed to appear. No explanation.

Life in Maple Valley really is great. Some times are greater than others, but Maple Valley folks always seem to find their way through. Hopefully, this will be no different.

The Most Delicious Peppermint Mocha

I really didn’t think it was possible. Honestly. Finding a peppermint mocha, which I absolutely love, that is better than the ones I have so thoroughly enjoyed from Starbucks, was inconceivable. I don’t have any idea how many peppermint mochas I’ve happily sipped since I first tried one. Many Christmases have inspired me to buy them, always extra hot. Extra hot, by the way, at Starbucks is not as extra hot as it used to be. For a time, I ordered mochas at 190 degrees. Really. One time, when I reached the drive-thru window, the barista said, “Here’s your insanely hot mocha.” I loved it. Now, extra hot means the barista pushes a different button on the frother machine that automatically steams the milk just a few seconds longer. Not long enough.

In a recent post I wrote about our experiences in Holly, Michigan. Walking the streets of Holly is like a delightful trip into history. The shops along South Saginaw Street and Battle Alley offer a variety of items with a wide range of prices. My favorite are the antique shops, and there are several. During one of our visits to Holly, I found the best peppermint mocha I have ever tasted.

Coffee is an experience. Peppermint mochas are an elevated experience enhanced by a cozy atmosphere and heightened by the Christmas season. The Battle Alley Coffee Company, situated on the corner of South Saginaw Street and Battle Alley provides both. The shop is an amazing combination of color and comfort. The real test of any coffee shop goes beyond the taste of the brew. The biggest question is, do I want to stay while I enjoy my drink?

The shop invites you to stay for a while and provides several comfortable places to sit and enjoy.

The Battle Alley Coffee Company roasts their own coffee beans. Since the equipment they have in the shop will only roast two pounds at a time, and the demand for their coffee is so high, they do most of their roasting off-site.

Obviously, when you visit the coffee shop it will be decorated differently than when these photos were taken during the weeks leading up to Christmas. Whenever you choose to visit the Battle Alley Coffee Shop, you will enjoy an amazing cup of whatever kind of coffee drink you choose, and will want to stay.

During our visit when I made the grand discovery, I didn’t find the words “peppermint mocha” on the menu above the bar. I asked about a mint drink listed in the coffee section. The barista asked if I wanted the drink to be espresso or coffee-based. When I said I preferred espresso, she asked, “Would you like the mocha to taste like a Peppermint Pattie or an Andes Mint?”

“I’ll take the Peppermint Pattie,” I said.

While she began working on the large peppermint mocha, we wandered around the shop, taking in everything it had to offer. When our drinks were finished, my wife and I sat at a table near the front of the shop. I took the first sip of my peppermint mocha and I couldn’t believe the taste. It was amazing! It was very hot and delicious. I enjoyed every sip, from the first to the last.

When we were finished with our coffee and muffin, I went back to the counter to speak with the owner. I said, “I didn’t think it was possible.”

“Oh, did you spill it?” she asked.

I laughed and said, “No. I didn’t think it was possible to find a peppermint mocha that was better than Starbucks, but that definitely was.”

She thanked me and said, “The secret is, we use four full shots of espresso.”

I told her again how much I enjoyed the peppermint mocha and promised to come back. That will be soon.

Chasing The Polar Express

One of my all-time favorite train stories is of the Berkshire class Lima 2-8-4 steam locomotive, #1225. The engine was built by the Lima Locomotive Company in Lima, Ohio and rolled out of the factory in November, 1941. It was built as one of twelve locos ordered by the Pere Marquette Railroad. The beautiful locomotive and tender carried 22,000 gallons of water and 22 tons of coal. (“Images of Rail Pere Marquette 1225” T.J. Gaffney and Dean Pyers for the Steam Railroading Institute, Arcadia Publishing, pp 22, 28-29.)

Many Berkshire-type locomotives were in service on the Pere Marquette Railroad and carried freight between Chicago, Grand Rapids, Detroit, and north to Saginaw, Michigan. In Grand Blanc, there is a railroad bridge still in use on the Grand Trunk/Canadian National Railroad. On the side of the bridge there is a large rusted steel plate where, if one looks closely, the name “Pere Marquette Railroad” can still be seen.

Steam locomotives carried war material throughout the United States during World War II. Soon after the war was over, diesel locomotives began replacing steam. “Although they had been expected to last for 50 years, the 39 locomotives of the three Pere Marquette Berkshire classes were retired after only 7-14 years of service. Most spent the 1950s forlorn and rusting in isolated yards in western Michigan, waiting for the inevitable scrapper’s torch.” (Gaffney/Pyers, p. 35)

In 1957, the 1225 was spared from being dismantled and sold for scrap by Michigan State University. The president of the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad, which had acquired the Pere Marquette, contacted MSU and suggested one of the Berkshire locomotives be given to the university engineering deparment as a teaching tool. The 1225 was taken from the end of the scrap line and towed to MSU. (Gaffney/Pyers, p. 67). The MSU Railroad Club worked on the locomotive for many years. Finally, in October of 1975, the 1225 was fired for the first time in 24 years. (Gaffney/Pyers, p. 83)

In 1976, work by the MSU Railroad Club ended with the donation of the locomotive to the Michigan State Trust for Railway Preservation. Track was added to the short segment of rail holding the locomotive to connect with an active rail line. In February of 1983, the 1225 was towed to the old Ann Arbor Railroad complex in Owosso, Michigan. After another two years of hard work by volunteers of the MSTRP, the 1225 moved under its own power for the first time since it was left at the scrap yard. (Gaffney/Pyers, p.91)

Over several years, the 1225 pulled trains filled with steam locomotive enthusiasts on trips across the State of Michigan and beyond. “Trips to the North Pole” offered forty-minute rides to Chesaning, Michigan during the Christmas season. In 2004, Warner Brothers came to Owosso to record audio of the 1225 under operation for use in the new animated film, “The Polar Express,” starring Tom Hanks. Since then, the 1225 has been incredibly popular, offering trips on the Polar Express to Ashley, Michigan, also known as Christmas Town.

If you’re a Coffee State of Mind reader, you know about my love of trains. Model railroading has been a part of my life for over sixty years. I have spent years building HO scale railroads and am just as excited about trains now as I was at the beginning. There is nothing, however, in model railroading that comes close to the thrill of watching a live steam locomotive like the Berkshire 1225. We are fortunate to live within an hour’s drive of the Steam Railroading Institute, in Owosso, Michigan, where the 1225 lives.

We have been privileged to ride the Polar Express train twice. A few weeks ago, I drove to Owosso just to chase and film the 1225 at the Steam Railroading Institute and as it chugged to Christmas Town. I was not surprised to see lots of people standing around taking photos of the amazing locomotive. I waited on the siding by the 1225 and took lots of pictures. I stood across Washington Street as the train pulled out of the station. When the engine passed I was swallowed by smoke and got soot in my eyes. I laughed as I rubbed my eyes and ran for the car.

I had previously mapped out my trip, marking all of the places where the 1225 rails would intersect the road. I soon discovered many people were doing the same thing and a caravan of vehicles left the scene each time the engine passed.

I love watching trains. I am never disappointed when I have to wait at crossing gates for a train to pass. Watching the 1225 with it’s incredible power, steam and smoke exploding into the sky, makes me love trains even more. I think I was born at least ten years too late. I would love to have seen these giants pulling freight and passengers across fields and through towns. I know I’m not alone in my love for the 1225 and all other operating steam locomotives. More and more locos are being restored by clubs across the nation. It’s a love and fascination that is passing on to younger train enthusiasts.