The silver train chugging through the North Carolina countryside came to a halt on the railroad track outside the town of Old Fort. It was stuck.
But engineer Larry Clark was not worried. He calmly raised his hand above the villages dotting the lush valleys, reached over the mountain tops, lifted the diesel cars off the track and pulled them apart.
"It kind of croaked on me," said Clark, a longtime railroad buff. He swiftly repaired the cars because six freight and passenger trains were close behind, whirling over bridges and through tunnels.
This is the world of model railroading -- where bridges and towns are one eighty-seventh the size of "Ever since I was 8 years old I've played with trains, taken pictures of them and watched them."
-- Jim Kress
the real thing (it is called HO scale) and where Clark and other engineers can hold shiny black locomotives in the palms of their hands. It is a world where about 150 miles of the Western North Carolina Railroad can be represented by 2,000 feet of track in a 50-by-25-foot room.
Hundreds of curious kids, big and little, jammed into the former Washington and Old Dominion Railroad Station at Dominion Road and Ayr-Hill Avenue in Vienna Saturday and Sunday to watch a group of model railroad aficionados play. They were glad to oblige.
"Where's your train going?" yelled one engineer who was holding an electric device to control the speed and direction of his train.
"I have the Chessie train leaving Asheville now," another engineer shouted from the makeshift balcony above the seven-level track display.
All the "engineers" are members of the Northern Virginia Model Railroaders Inc., a nonprofit group that promotes the hobby of model railroading. The group, which includes teachers, mechanics, bureaucrats and machinists, holds a free open house four times a year and can operate up to 15 trains simultaneously through a replica of central North Carolina that runs from Spencer Yard in Salisbury up into the mountains near Asheville.
The aqua, yellow and orange cars wound through the plaster terrain, covered with shredded foam painted green to resemble the North Carolina hills.
Along one curving segment of track, a sign is posted in memory of the "34 people who perished on Sept. 4, 1984, when a coach plunged 608 feet" down the make-believe mountain.
The first station where the trains stopped is Statesville, a miniature town of matchbox houses, a dry goods store, a barbershop and Delmonico Restaurant. Little people wave and hug each other goodbye outside the station, and a flashing signal rings a warning.
"I have a train set, but it's nothing like this," said Brad Donnelly, a Boy Scout from Chantilly who was watching the trains with other troop members. "I wish I had one," Lee Oppenheim, a 37-year-old chemist from Burke, said with a sigh.
The railroaders group, which has about 55 members, all male, meets once a week to work on the railroad. Construction began about 10 years ago. "This is therapy," said Clark.
"It allows you to concentrate on something where you can see tangible results," Clark said. "We have an Army captain who spends hours putting in the tiny ballast rocks you see in between the rail bed."
Many model railroaders have loved trains since they were boys.
"Ever since I was 8 years old I've played with trains, taken pictures of them and watched them," said Jim Kress, president of the group. "My granddaddy used to take me downtown in Mobile, Ala., and I stood up on the seat to watch the trains go by."
Sunday, a new generation of children were sitting atop their parents' shoulders, giggling and pointing at the trains whizzing by.
At least one parent may have regretted the afternoon outing.
"It's great," said Andrew Oppenheim, 6, from Burke. "I want my dad to build the same."