Friday, September 11, 2015

The First Trip to Chicago, Part One

It was a birthday present.

It was also the first time I had ever been on a vacation by myself, without the company of friends, family or schoolmates. I had fantasized about going to Model Horse Congress for years: prior to BreyerFest, Model Horse Congress was THE MODEL HORSE EVENT of the year.

But the most important part was that it was a vacation by myself: many of our previous family trips had me questioning the entire notion of vacations being “enjoyable”, and I wanted to see if it could be.

I had a driver’s license, but I lived at school at the time, and barely drove. I had too much stuff to fly, so I had to go by train.

We arrived 28 minutes before the scheduled departure time, at the Amtrak station in Dearborn. I remember this vividly, because apparently you had to arrive at least 30 minutes ahead of time to allow for the loading of your luggage. The person at the ticket counter was adamant that they weren’t going to let me check my bags and boxes – because I was two minutes “late”.

I was speechless. Dad was not: he made a fuss, in the polite but slightly snarky way that he could, and my bags and boxes were loaded.

The trip there was otherwise uneventful. I brought along a book to read – Mary Stewart’s The Last Enchantment – and when I wasn’t reading that, I watched the southern Michigan countryside roll by. For lunch I went to the food car, and bought a hot dog and a chocolate Danish. Two little boys across the aisle were playing with their Masters of the Universe figurines, including (I could smell him!) the notorious Stinkor.

There was a brief bit of panic when I entered Chicago, finally: how on Earth was I going to get to the hotel, which was a Holiday Inn in Rolling Meadows?

I had to find a way to get to the commuter train, obviously.

The people at the station in Chicago told me I that that station was a couple blocks away. I could hoof it, or take a cab. Since I had too many boxes to lug, a cab it was.

That was… probably not the world’s best first experience with a cab. I won’t elaborate, because I honestly can’t remember: at the end of it, the driver basically left me and all my stuff in the middle of the street. Somehow I managed to get myself and all my stuff situated on the train and on my way to Palatine, the closest station to the hotel.

The second experience by cab was a more pleasant one. While I don’t remember this cabdriver’s name, unlike Ahmad he was talkative and cheerful. When I told him what my plans were – a toy horse convention, and we showed them just like real horses! – he made a few affirmative noises, as if he actually understood what I was talking about. Marney had made sure that the hobby had gotten enough press in the Chicago area that it might have actually been the case.

He then motioned to our right. “You see that big black cloud over there?” It was indeed huge; it took up most of the sky. “That’s Arlington Park, burning to the ground.” I mentally crossed that off the list of non-Congress things I thought I might get a chance to do.

The Holiday Inn was a Holiday Inn, nothing terribly noteworthy about it. I walked into my room – on the third floor, of course – and before I had a chance to open or unload anything, the phone rang. It was Dad.

“Did you get there alright? Your mother is worried.”

“I’m fine. I just got here.” I wondered how he had managed to get the phone number of the hotel and time the call just so; I suspected he had called the hotel earlier and told them to call back when I checked in. You know, to check in on the daughter taking her first big trip out of town, by herself.

“You be careful, now. Versta?” Ever since I was very, very small, Dad had always punctuated our little talks with that word. I had assumed, back then, that it meant I love you.

It was only later that I learned what this word was, and what it really meant: it was a Flemish word he had probably picked up from his Belgian grandfather.

Do you understand/do you hear me? 


I went out on the small balcony, and noticed an unopened can of Old Milwaukee beer sitting on the ledge, which I thought was an odd but not unwelcome gift. Looking down, I noticed two fellow Michigan hobbyists – Sue Maxwell and Linda Leach – unloading their car. Their room was just down the hall from mine.

After they had settled in, they invited me to go visit Marney Walerius – the showholder and the hobby legend! – with them. She had a room on the first floor, near the show hall. When we arrived, the room was full of other hobbyists as well, some of them I had only heard of in my newsletters, or Just About Horses.

They were swapping stories and pictures, and gossip. Even though I considered myself a relative unknown then, I never felt unwelcome; in fact, I finally felt as though I had finally found my home. I even managed to sell someone my spare Calico Kitten, which I had just recently upgraded via the local flea market.

I was showing Novice the next day, and my table was next to the Bentley Sales Company’s table. The biggest fuss was about the Congress Special Run, a beautiful light flaxen chestnut Proud Arabian Mare. There were plenty of her to go around, though (288 of them, in a giant cardboard bin, no less) so my attention turned to the mixed boxes of models, loosely wrapped in bags, fresh from the recent cleanout of the Chicago factory. I dove in, pulling out a couple of Test Colors, some oddities, and some unpainted things.

These were my first genuine Test Colors and oddities, and I have them still. No model in those bins cost me more than six dollars, but this was also back when Traditionals cost less than twenty. The Special Run Proud Arabian Mare was only 11.99, herself.

Later that day, Marney asked me if I could accommodate a roommate who was arriving that afternoon by bus, and of course I said yes. Aside from leaving me with more money to spend, why wouldn’t I want to help a fellow hobbyist?

We ended up spending the night talking comic books: Batman, Jonah Hex, the Legion of Super-heroes. It was strange and wonderful, and we got along perfectly. Michelle is the reason why, even today, I tend to believe that even hobbyists who are strangers to me can and will be good roommates. We share more in common than we do with a lot of our family members, so why shouldn’t we?

I did only modestly well at the show; contrary to some reports you might hear elsewhere, I was not raking in the awards. My Collector’s Class entry did garner some attention from Peter Stone himself, who chuckled and pointed at my Modernistic Gold Doe; apparently there had been a funny story about how Breyer acquired those molds, but I only caught a few fragments of that conversation, none of which made any sense until years later, when I finally did the follow up research.

It may have also been that day – I can’t remember which, specifically – that Peter had brought a box of the latest Just About Horses, fresh from the printer. We all excitedly leafed through them, and I nearly fell over when I noticed that it was the issue where they published my very first article: “The Ethics of Repainting”.

I was my first real experience with being model-horse-famous!

The show wrapped up early that day – very unusual, then as now – and at the end of the day there were just a handful of us in the now cavernous show hall. I was talking to Michelle and made a comment about how my penpal – and fellow hobbyist – Erica said she might be here, but I hadn’t gotten the latest letter from her before I left.

One girl behind us turned around and said “Are you talking about me?” It was her!


LostInAn80sFog said...

Your story left me in tears of nostalgia. I remember that show very vividly. Sure wish I'd known you then. We would have had a blast.

Corky said...

Wow, this is awesome to read! This is the sort of thingI really enjoy hearing--personal experiences of the hobby. I'll eagerly look forward to more installments!