The train circles a suburban swimming pool and chugs on a track right through a new backyard patio, but the engineer who shovels coal into the tiny engine as he rides imagines the "good ol' days."
Mike Parker of Yorba Linda hankers for an era when hard-working train engineers proudly polished engines on a Sunday afternoon. It's a world he enters on evenings and weekends, when he leaves his job as a police captain for the City of Orange to feed his bug for toy trains.
"You can just kind of forget yourself. Law enforcement is not a pretty business, and it is nice to forget with something like this. I am a conservative, old-time guy, and steam engines and old trains are just part of what I think this country was all about," he said.
Parker's hobby started 20 years ago, when the father of three got a train to whiz around the Christmas tree. With encouragement from train-buff in-laws, Parker, 45, graduated to bigger toy trains that can carry passengers around his backyard track.
His four-horsepower diesel engine has the most power, but the 16-inch-tall replica of the Atlantic live-steam engine is his favorite. With the help of a metal-shop teacher, it took 12 years to assemble, depending on the ebb and flow of spare money. (Parker said he and his father-in-law have spent about $15,000 on Parker's hobby over two decades.)
But it isn't the puttering he likes. "The fun for me is running it. It is very rewarding. You build this little fire, and the next thing you know, you have this powerful engine you are sitting on," he said.
The diesel engine starts up like a lawn mower for an instant ride, but it takes an hour to get the steam engine roaring. He breaks up small, horseshoer's coal to fit into the firebox door and waits for the pressure to rise in the copper boiler. The 175-pound engine runs at roughly 105 pounds of steam pressure and will blow up if the engineer doesn't tend the water with the coal.
"Basically you are riding on a giant tea kettle," Parker said. "The sound of the fire roars in the box, you can smell the coal smoke, and then I remember those trains when I was growing up."