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Positive Feedback ISSUE 10
october/november 2003


From Clark Johnsen's Diaries: BSSME! Bessame Mucho!
by Clark Johnsen


 johnsen_typewriter_web.jpg (4673 bytes)

One fine, cool Saturday afternoon finds me heading from my happy home in Boston's Jamaica Plain, some miles down Centre Street to a destination I've had in mind for several years, in newly-trendy Roslindale Square, the Bay State Society of Model Engineers (BSSME).

Have these guys ever got it together! They own a 4000 s/f two-story building (renting out the lower floor) and have erected an engineering model of some consequence, one recognized by every authority in the field.

Not only that, the Boston Globe and the Boston Herald both regularly highlight their annual Open House, which indicates a fairly decent PR capability. Hence I've intended for years to go there, but am just now getting around to it, even though theirs was my own pursuit as well throughout early boyhood.

Not to claim I ever produced results like these guys. No, I became far more intrigued by my later avocation, audio. Still, as a young geek I was interested in every builders' hobby of the time, including model airplanes and shortwave radios, darkrooms and, yes, rocketry. October Sky! Shot off a few myself.

Potassium perchlorate, anyone?... Goddam Sputnik circling in the sky, a fellow had to get practical.

But my early interest in model trains had sprung from my first ride on the rails—so smooth, yet not without auditory interest—the famous click-clack, click-clack. That ride was from Sioux City down to Tekamah, Nebraska, back when trains ran everywhere, it seemed, and my Aunt Lola met us, my mother and me, at the station and drove us back, to her wide-lawned home for a memorable week's stay that included a great-grandmother living upstairs.

Come to think, Mom left the next day... Maybe I was too big a handful... Or maybe she and Dad...

A train had got me there, however, so trains became, in my perhaps hallucinatory childish mind (which good friends say I still retain) the vehicle to an extended family. And beyond, on the Nebraska side, further south, lay the Big City, Omaha! HQ of the Union Pacific RR.

Also when I left the Midwest for college in the east, I eagerly climbed aboard the Hiawatha to Chicago, with the same "murky yellow cars of the Milwaukeee Road" that Nick Carroway likewise rode on his journey to Long Island in The Great Gatsby.

Hence my first visit to BSSME, the Bay State Society of Model Engineers, is fraught with possibilities of happy and real and imagined railroading memories, for here be the premier club for model railroading in New England.

(An aside: Where does our audio hobby have such a viewable public face, or visitable premises? Where does one go, whether seasoned practitioner or acolyte, to hear music reproduced at its finest? Where are there any Sound Standards? For the sake of comparison, to show what can be done? I have been asking these questions for over twenty years...)

So here I am, in Roslindale Square, surrounded by four huge layouts. Trains scooting everywhere. Mountains, plains, cities, they chug around the delicate scale-model scenery, with elaborate control panels located under the tables. These babies don't run by themselves. And controller-hobbyists galore! Some in elevated booths, others free-roaming. And all of them wear radio headsets to maintain contact. All exercise some degree of local control. All look amused and many are talking animatedly with each other, and some with the guests. It's a beautiful thing.

Often have I thought (an aside, again) that audio suffers as a hobby because it disallows any discussion during its proper pursuit. Socializing verboten. Silence, please! Comes with the territory. Unlike when other hobbyists get together for colloquy. Stamp and coin and book and doll collectors. Bonsai growers. Kayakers. People in any hobby other than audio get to share their enthusiasm vocally, during the pursuit. Audiophiles must maintain silence: Whoever chatters through listening sessions, truly is a shallow person.

Which is why audio sucks, socially. Its adherents, a bunch of loners, mostly men, derive enjoyment, and indeed, spiritual sustenance, from the very sound of music. All right, from music, and from sound, both. The true aesthetic is situated in the former, while the latter location, sound, propels the hobby. Why that combination should attract just men, mostly, God only knows. Singers, both classical and pop, are evenly divided between the genders, although instrumentalists are more likely to be male. Instrument makers, however, are almost entirely male. Aha!

Here's another approach to an explanation. Music affects almost everyone. Yes, but... some more than others. Give it a beat and the girls are on their feet. Give it words and the guys will belt it out. Give it structure… then, who... what... Who appreciates musical architecture?

Beat is easy to portray in reproduced music—"one-note bass." Rhythm, less easy. Intelligible words, even harder. Structure... well, that's a challenge! As music becomes more difficult, denser, less decorative, the women just seem to drop out (although you have to love the ladies for how they are able to play with very young children). Take two examples from the classics: How many females rave over Mahler's Ninth? The Rite of Spring?

Or, jazz: Coltrane? Sun Ra?

Or, heavy metal: Krak Haus? Fekal Matterr?

(Just kidding!... Maybe...)

Anyway, how many women even have hobbies? Besides redecorating? Maybe it's just not a ladylike thing... to escape into the basement... the garage... into one's mind, or one's hands... OK, sewing and knitting... And writing, some great women writers, and piano, I think women have been the greatest pianists... Maybe I should rethink this...

All right, women tend to conduct themselves more openly. In the kitchen, for instance. Or in the bedroom: Porcelain doll collections, canopied beds, pillows upon pillows upon... Or in the living room, which they also own entirely. God forbid a man should try to command some space in the living room... and therein lies the married audiophile's main predicament, the topic of much conversation: How little the wives allow us to get away with in our own homes.

Once I visited a fellow in New York whose wife was implacably hostile to me just for being there, because her husband would, if only for a couple hours, wheel his speakers out (literally!) into her living room. Yes they sounded like crap hut I was so sorry for the man I never told him so; but then, I rarely do.

Sometimes a wife will further complain to hubby that he's spending way too much on audio and put her foot down on future expenditures. When that happens I recommend the following procedure. Take her out to an expensive restaurant, the sort where, classically, couples will break up but no one creates a scene because it's such an expensive restaurant. Let the topic of your audio spending come up. Let her speak, and listen attentively. Then go like this:

"Honey, I never knew you felt so strongly. I mean, after all, you spend so much money on your hobby..."

"My hobby? I don't have a hobby!"

"Honey, sure you do! You have the house..."

"The house! That's not a hobby! That's where we live."

"Well, yes... But don't you remember that place where I was staying when we met? I think ‘pigsty' was your term? And granted, us guys were kinda casual, but it was OK by me! I could live in a freakin' tent, ya know? All the decoration—don't get me wrong, it's beautiful, really beautiful, and I'm proud of your work—but, that isn't to please me, is it? It's for you! So I've always thought of that as your hobby. And never objected when you spent lots of money on it. Was that so wrong?"

Best be careful here, that's my advice. But it's a beginning.

Back on track... As I was saying, the train engineering hobby is a beautiful thing. Guys can socialize during the pursuit, and today their layouts are on full public display. Four large layouts. Although as one passes through the curvilinear aisles, as a first-timer one is somewhat unsure which table may hold which train. Which is all to the good. Nor do the controller/hobbyists give one any clue as to what portion they are controlling. Even though they call out:

"Got any trolleys running?"

"Refrigerator train coming!"

"Still some dirty spots on the track..."

The latter was shouted after a derailment. Yes, just like real railroadlife. Only, in this case there's an easy fix: H.O.G. A hand reaches down and replaces the train on the track. In model railroading it's a powerful force, known as the Hand of God.

"What do you think of the sound?" an elderly hobbyist asks me, of his train's whistle and choo-choo effects, never suspecting my own hobby. "It's a new sound card." What to say? "Well... It's fine... But I'd say that what this place needs is subwoofers... and surround sound!" He grins.

Hey! Not a bad idea! Maybe I should join...

But, "sound card"? For a locomotive? Gadzooks!

Further snatches of overheard conversation:

"32-060 switches coming in next."

"SP diesel switches will be going out!"

"Charlie," this into the headset, "I think I've stalled the SP mountain."

"We had real bad loose wire syndrome Wednesday night."

Just like audio. Love these guys!

And like the theatre actors they mildly resemble, there's a green room they retire to. Coffee, Coke, cake and cookies. Bent shelves, decrepit sofas. A TV. And on the TV, train videos.


And on one shelf sits a whole row of train videos, and on the sofas several men are slumping. Again, the audio parallel. So I join them for a few minutes.

On-screen it's the Florida Auto-Train, fairly fascinating stuff actually, how its immensity glides along, thirty cars long, making few stops on its journey up to DC, bearing mostly senior travelers and their Cadillacs. Amtrak must profit handsomely on this run.

I haul myself up and return to the main floor for a final pass through the layouts. Never a serious model railroad illusionist myself (I was a Lionel man), I appreciate what these guys have accomplished. The mountains! All that scenery! The complexity! The sociability!

One tall, stout smiling fellow whom I hadn't noticed before now appears before me, guiding a lady guest through the complexities. "Some cars come right out of the box," he explains, "and others we model. Look at these! Aren't they hideous? But they're real. ‘Century Green,' they called it, on the old New York Central. Hired some designer who told them to do it. Back in the Forties. Hideous! We're the only club that presents the truth here. A nice conversation piece too."

The gentleman proves to be Ian Kempf, PR guy for the BSSME, although I don't know that yet. He's charming and outgoing, whereas the other guys, much as I enjoy their presence, seem to stick to each other, young and old alike. I ask Ian Kempf some questions about the electric controls, which he answers fully. I remark, "Just think: If you had total computer control like the real world, you wouldn't need any of this headset nonsense." He looks at me sidewise, not a direct glare... Hey! Just kidding! We both smile.

And then I pop The Question: "Got any women in the club?"

"Well, a couple of members..."

The Question reigns eternal throughout the male hobbyist sphere. Whether the Three Gunmen in X-Files, or stamp and coin collectors, or audiophiles, or Furries, The Question arises.

"Well, my fiancée likes trains, but she isn't interested in running them. She does really like to construct scenery, though... And she's great at it! A professional architect…"

So there you have it.

Structure, hobby, and a fun ride with the girl friend and lots of other friends.

BSSME! Bessame mucho!

Note: The following piece was written and published several years ago in Positive Feedback, just before the fame of the referenced expedition spread throughout the media. The author feels it is still well worth reading, as it packs a punch towards the end.


Today I'm at the Peabody Museum in Salem, Massachusetts. "Witch City" it's called, although Salem was in fact the first shipbuilding capital of America, bolstering the great China trade that made New England prosperous. In a state that boasts the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and the MassMOCA and the Fogg and the Gardner and the Clark, the Peabody is a maritime museum par excellence.

Recently the Peabody modernized its exhibition practice with what it calls The Art Odyssey. The unawares visitor seeking a seagoing experience passes through silently-unfolding double doors, to be greeted by a huge rear-projection video screen displaying color filigrees, the hidden sound system playing, in close rotation, excerpts from the music of Mozart, Africa, Kiss... and more. The Art odyssey encompasses areas of all three floors; and on the third a babble of voices is heard upon entering, as if from invisible space, people chattering about art and life and what-not, with different chat groups as one walks along. Overhead one espies multiple clear-acrylic 16-inch-wide hanging domes with odd contrivances inside. These prove to be our spectral sound sources, each unit focused on the space directly beneath.

The taped conversations are relentlessly trivial, however, and largely female too, alas—a twitter of high-pitched voices adding nothing significant to appreciation of art on the wall. It's an "installation", as they say, but worse than docents in explicating or enlarging upon what we view, and considerably more irritating.

Maybe it's all a joke? Hey, the art's not so hot either.

Before long I take refuge in what I have come here for, an exhibit of dazzling new prints struck from the original glass negatives of the Endurance expedition. What a story! Perhaps you haven't heard it?... In the mostly British campaign to discover the south pole, Robert Scott won, leaving Sir Edward Shakelton, explorer extraordinaire, only one way to triumph in the historic antipodean race: the first crossing of the Antarctic continent, which he set out to do in 1914 aboard the yacht Endurance, christened from his family motto, which prophetically consisted of that single word. Reaching South George Island, a Norwegian whaling outpost, he sailed on with thirty-five intrepid men (including one stowaway) through thick ice floes into the Waddell Sea until being blocked, at which point they were all—stranded! The ship became their landlocked home for nine months, while the men amused themselves and kept their sled dogs in shape. Then came the dramatic ice heaves that listed the Endurance thirty degrees to port, then crushed her like a toy.

After that calamity the men camped out with three upturned lifeboats, wood salvaged from the ship and a fortunate two tons of provisions, ekeing out a meagre existence for several months more, during what proved to be the worst winter in the Norwegians' memory, with precious little summer either. Recognizing that they must move on, Shakelton had the men build sleds for the lifeboats. With all the dogs already slaughtered for meat, they hauled the load themselves for a couple hundred miles to what seemed to be the coast and pitched tents again. Soon, however, Mr. Wild reported feeling inexplicably seasick and it was discovered that they were camped on a thin layer of ice floating over 2000 fathoms of roiling black water.

To reach actual land, Shakelton led the party onwards to Elephant Island. There the men regrouped, living off penguins and the occasional fat seal. Apprehending that their only hope of rescue was to send a small party in the sturdiest sailing dingy back to South George Island, Shakelton chose his minimal crew shrewdly and shoved off.

Five hundred miles of open sea under a mostly overcast sky were covered with only a sextant for guidance, at no-one-knows-what cost to the human spirit. Yet the little party managed to reach the island, although heavy storms forced a landing on the south coast opposite the outpost. Shakelton, accompanied by just one man, two axes and ninety feet of rope (think: Survivor: Antarctica), set out across the interior mountains to reach civilization. Three times they ascended thousands of feet, only to find sheer drops on the other side. Finally they straggled, desperately, raggedly, into the whaling village.

"Who the hell are you?!" was the greeting they no doubt were accorded. One can well imagine the Norwegians' astonishment. "Shakelton here," he replied, the record shows.

After quickly retrieving the three men left on the south shore, successive attempts were made in different ships to reach Elephant Island, the fourth one finally succeeding. Shakelton by this time had given up hope of finding his compatriots alive, but as it happened, the men were at lunch in their primitive hut when the vessel was first espied by one who had stepped outside. "I say," he called back to the group, "have we any means of making smoke? I see a ship..."

Amidst general blubbering, and who can blame them, the expedition was reunited. Not one man had been lost in the two-year ordeal! They sailed back to Chile, thence triumphantly to England and to the Great War which was just commencing, and in which several of the party's lives were later sacrificed. But all was not lost: Their prodigious achievement had been documented the entire way by staff photographer Frank Hurley. In addition to dozens of exposed glass plates (which he judiciously soldered into a tin box after the going got rough), Hurley had three rolls of film to use in a Brownie, which thereafter were shot very sparingly. He had also brought along the very latest in photographic technology: color plates. The Peabody exhibit I am at today therefore includes a set of backlit color transparencies of fairly astonishing vividness.

Not only that, Hurley shot motion pictures. Yes! The Endurance expedition can be seen in full cinematography, including the brutal moment when the ice finally crushes their ship and her masts and rigging topple. And here we see it, captured for posterity, the same sight those seamen saw of their unhappy prospects back in 1914. Lucky for us, they had that solder!

But of all Hurley's excellent portraits of individuals and of their work and pastimes, and of the stark Antarctic scenery, the picture I shall remember best is the one entitled, "A Gramophone Evening in the Ritz". The Ritz was their name for the social cabin in the landlocked Endurance. In this shot we see people seated around a windup gramophone and a pile of perhaps sixty discs (how many more in the cabinet below?), everyone listening intently. Although the photograph was probably posed, one must wonder, what was that music?

Whatever, we do know that the men saved the gramophone and the records, trekking them along during their overland escape; beyond that, no information is given. One must suppose that the rig was played until the very end, as it had become the intrepid expeditioners' only physical connection to home and hearth back in England. What music they heard, would be interesting to learn, but that the men savored those recorded concerts, besides playing much whist and chess, cannot be contested.

Primitive as the technology was, can any of us living in comfortable homes today claim to enjoy our time with exotic high-fidelity, high-end audio systems, any the more?