His doctor told him if he didn't pick up a hobby, his heart would kill him in a matter of years.
Two decades later, David Elliott, 53, spends more time building, designing and fiddling with his model train sets than he does worrying about his health.
Elliott, a mechanic, stores his custom-built track in a 26-foot race car trailer outside his Oklahoma City home; he doesn't think twice about dropping $500 on a new locomotive engine; and he takes considerable pride in the foot-long trestle bridge — built of basswood — that carries his Union Pacific coal cars from the mountains to the depot in town.
“I'm a single man; I can spend my money any way I want to,” he said, talking trains Saturday with visitors young and old at the Oklahoma City Train Show.
Presented by the Oklahoma Railway Museum, the train show is part sales market, part exhibition, and part meet-and-greet.
Elliott said it takes three men more than seven hours to erect his set for this show — one of four he participates in each year.
Combining carpentry, electronics and computer talents, his 45-foot looped track sits atop a heavy wooden platform about four feet off the ground. He and some friends custom built and painted it.
Four trains — each radio-controlled by a computer chip in the locomotives and guided by voltage that surges through the tracks — travel the tunnels, bridges and curves in the setup.
Elliott's miniature town includes a fire department, pool hall, general store and barbershop.
Tiny plastic people watch the trains pass and a functioning signal keeps miniature cars at bay.
“There are people who when they see trains, ‘They're just stupid toys,' but I don't see it like that,” he said. “It's a hobby, it's fun. To be able to build something like this — oh my gosh!”
Packed inside the Travel and Transportation Building at State Fair Park, enthusiasts moved from booth to booth marveling at displays and buying hard-to-find items.
Available parts, all train-themed or geared toward model trains, include lighting circuits, electronic decoders, smoke generators and tools. Set pieces include items like locomotives, cabooses, miniature water towers, and even oil derricks.
Also for sale are train art, train movies, train books, train puzzles and train decorations.
Eddie Birch Jr., the show's director, said at least 15,000 people were expected to visit during the weekend.
“You're seeing people who grew up with a train under the Christmas tree and now later in life they want to get back into it,” he said. “It's that ‘King of the Road' thing — it's 200 tons of merchandise, and he's got it all under control with one little lever.”
Interest has surged in the past 15 years with the advent of radio and digital controls, Birch said.
Ethan Tietz, 10, and his dad, Erik, spent $250 Saturday on a new train set and some cars.
With mom, Melissa, and his sister, Abby, 5, in tow, Ethan persuaded them to drive from Claremore just to see what the show was all about.
Ethan and his father have hundreds of trains, in corners, boxes and on display in the room over the family garage, Melissa Tietz said.
“He pays for them himself, through allowance, buttering up grandma and grandpa, doing chores for them,” she said. “He's played with them since he was a baby, and he's got a pretty good collection.
The show continues from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday. Admission is $10 and free for children 12 and under. Call 842-4846 for details.