If you grew up in a small town in the 70s, 80s or early 90s — before technology changed a lot of what we did to how it is now — you might be able to relate to the tale I am about to tell.
This is my story of someone you grow up knowing in many different ways.
In January, a long-time and well-known member of our community, Bill Cash died. He lived an amazingly long life as he was 94 at the time of his death.
He died after a battle with cancer. And he fought. Oh did he fight. But as the time drew nearer, he was seen less and less, which for those of us who have known him for so many years, was a sad thing. He was always out and about. Whether it was doing one of many things he did, walking a neighbor’s dog or just out chatting with somebody, he was always out and about.
Bill’s memorial service came a few weeks after his death. The service showed what kind of person he was. The church was filled and words spoken about him were glowing.
He was quite the man, especially to the thousands of kids who came through his house over the past 20 years to see the trains. More on that in a moment.
His retirement, which was almost as long as his working years, wasn’t spent in a rocking chair on the porch. Far from it. He mowed lawns in the spring, summer and fall. He removed snow in the winter (as well as in the spring and fall — we are in upstate New York, after all). He was often seen with his red wagon, taking this or that to somewhere. Or, you could visit him in his workshop, where Bill made all sorts of wood trinkets and useful items.
Most of us in the younger generation knew him as one of the friendliest people you’d ever meet.
As the days of him dealing with his riding mower (he used an old-school non motorized mower on his own lawn, however) or snow removing equipment ended, he was often out walking a neighbor’s dog. He had to add a cane in his later years, which I heard him say a few times how much he wasn’t a fan of using it.
If you were lucky enough, each year at Christmas time, you’d get some of his scrumptious caramel popcorn balls. Mmmmm…. so good.
But for people who might not have lived around him or dealt with him on a regular basis, there’s something else he’ll really be remembered for.
His basement was a toy store for fans of electric trains. Hundreds of them. Tracks all over. The basement was turned into a virtual railroad station. Homemade landscapes were all over. Matchbox cars. Buildings. Everything. Some of the buildings were ones that you could buy and put together. Some were made in his workshop out of wood. Others were created from other items — such as an old aerosol can being turned into a building.
It was a town in Bill’s basement.
And the trains would go all over. All these tracks. So many different trains. He even dug out part of the basement wall to make another set of tracks. Incredible.
For those of you who had the chance to see these trains in the glory days, I’m sure you can relate with me how amazing they were.
I had the chance to see them often as a kid. I lived across the street and one of his grandsons was one of my close friends. So we got the show often.
Walking into that basement was like a different world.
The stone steps leading into the basement was a quick excitement. When you got into the basement? Trains!
Hundreds of model trains were in his basement. Big, small, historic. Almost any type of electric train you can picture was somewhere in that basement.
The tracks were probably about four feet off the ground, however. So for little ones, it’s tough to see. No problem. Bill had small step stools — probably a dozen of them — scattered throughout the basement. You climbed up and went wide-eyed as the trains zipped all over. In and out of sight. You could climb down and go to another spot and watch them.
Some of the trains even had lights, so the darker parts of the basement were no problem!
Now, kids weren’t there to touch things. We knew it, too. But it didn’t matter. I never cared that I couldn’t touch the trains. Or the cars. Or the things in the “towns.” It was easy to watch it for a long time.
In my youth, there wasn’t all the things of today — computers, crazy video games etc. We were always looking for little things to do. This was something that could captivate attention for a long time.
And Bill never grew tired of showing these trains off.
Over the years, school classes would come and visit Bill and his trains. Elementary schools. Pre-schools. Everybody. The kids were there very often. Marching in and out of the house seeing those trains.
It’s a shame that future kids won’t have that chance.
He had drawers and drawers full of letters from classes thanking him for letting kids come see the trains, too. His impact went far beyond that basement.
The trains are starting to dwindle now as the family cleans the house. There aren’t as many left, but a few were remaining. I had the chance to get a last look and see the trains. I wanted to get some photos. Check things out one last time.
Even now, it was still amazing to see the trains. It brought back the feel of childhood. And I couldn’t help but smile knowing how many kids walked through that basement to see Bill’s trains and left as happy little tykes knowing they saw something so cool.
And to also know how much that made Bill happy is something to remember, too.
Those of us who grew up knowing Bill will definitely miss him. Those in the community who knew him for many things will miss him as well. That list goes well beyond, too. To those thousands of kids and more who only knew him for his trains. He’ll be missed there, too.
The day he died, one of his sons told me he boarded the Heaven Express. As long as there are more trains at the end, I’m sure Bill will still be smiling. That train might have been leaving at his memorial service when his other son blew a train whistle at the beginning and at the end of the service.
It was a fitting remembrance and one I’m sure made most people smile as they remembered Bill.
To see all the rest of the photos I took, check out the set on Flickr.
Here’s a quick look at some of the trains when I was there taking photos:
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