BILLINGS, MT—Though he insists he can handle it, Leon Gehr's model-train pastime has crossed the line from hobby to habit, Gehr family sources reported Monday.
"Leon just isn't the same person anymore," said Penny Gehr, 48, Leon's wife of 21 years. "All he ever thinks about is where he's going to get his next few feet of nickel silver snap-together track. It's all-consuming. I want my husband back."
"I'd been dabbling in die-cast metal cars for years, and then one day, about three years ago, I thought to myself, 'Boy, it sure would be fun if these cars could run,'" said a glassy-eyed Gehr, his arms covered with railroad-track marks. "The fella at the hobby store said to me, 'What you want is a model railroad.' From that day forward, I was hooked. Now, I'm a big railhead."
When Gehr first began dabbling in model trains, his family wasn't terribly concerned, confident he could handle it.
"Dad experimented for years with cars and even model airplanes, so I didn't think a whole lot of it," said Cory, his 19-year-old son. "It was always a weekend thing, something he did for kicks. If I'd only known what the model trains would do to him, how addictive they are, I would have organized an intervention long ago."
For the first two and a half years, Gehr's model-railroad use appeared to be under control. Eventually, however, the trains began to take over.
"At first, Leon would buy just a flatbed here or a tanker there. But then, it started to pick up," Penny said. "Before long, he was doubling the number of cars he was bringing home, then tripling. Without us knowing it, he'd crossed the Rock Island line."
"Leon and I used to grab a beer or watch a ballgame together," friend Jason Gammon said. "At some point, he gave all that up and just withdrew into his own world—one on a 1:48 scale."
Last winter, Gehr converted his family's basement rec room into a maze of twisting tracks and miniature houses. He began to stay up until all hours of the night gluing branches onto miniature trees. On more than one occasion, he was late to work because of his habit, sleeping through his ringing alarm clock after staying up until 2 a.m. on a bridge-painting binge.
The breaking point came two weekends ago, when Gehr drove six hours to the Montana Model Railroad Association convention in Missoula.
"I begged him not to go, but he wouldn't listen," Penny said. "He said he had to find a Lionel Pennsylvania Flyer Train Set Model 6-3191 and that he'd do anything for it. He slipped out when I was still asleep and left a note saying he wanted to 'get an early start.'"
The back of the note, however, painted an even more disturbing picture. In the frenzied scrawl of a man possessed were written the words, "Precision can motor / Transformer controlled forward / Neutral and reverse / Operating headlight and puffing smoke unit / Detailed molded tender body with stamped metal frame and operating air whistle. Must get 40-WATT TRANSFORMER!!!"
The night after he left, Penny received a call from her husband, who said he'd decided to stay the night in Missoula. When he finally got home 36 hours later, his eyes were bloodshot and he'd blown more than $600 on Bachmann O-scale Cityscenes building kits.
"I finally gave him an ultimatum," Penny said. "I said, 'Either the model trains go or I go.'"
Even when threatened with losing his wife, Leon continued to deny he has a problem.
"Penny likes to give me the business about how much money I spend on these trains, but what she doesn't realize is that they're an investment," Gehr said. "I could make some real money someday if I ever decided to turn around and start selling."
"I just know he's going to do something stupid and get in way over his head. He's going to throw away everything he's worked so hard for," Penny said. "That Sam Gilchrist is the one I blame for this."
Gilchrist, who works at the East Towne Mall's Hobby Haven, introduced Gehr to model railroading.
"Sam and the others who hang out at the hobby shop all day have dragged Leon down into the dirt with them," Penny said. "Now, my husband is a train careening out of control."
Unbeknownst to Penny, Gilchrist recently informed Gehr that he has a job waiting for him at Hobby Haven if he ever wants it.
"If I worked at the Hobby Haven, I could just hang out and talk to people about trains all day," Gehr said. "I know it sounds crazy, but I could make a lot of money working on commission. Plus, I'd get the employee discount. And if I ever did get tired of it, I know I could quit any time."