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The Life and Times of a Berkeley Kid By MINA EDELSTON

Tuesday December 27, 2005

Even after 50 years of practice he still enjoys cutting away excess material to reveal the finished part inside a rough chunk of metal. “Each part is inside the piece of metal,” he tells me, “Just cut away everything that is not the part.” 

During most of World War II, his family lived in an apartment across the street from Sather Gate in an upstairs flat on Bancroft Avenue. His maternal grandparents lived with the family for many years. In the 1920s and 1930s, grandpa worked for the Santa Fe Railroad. On e of the stories told about grandma is how her daughters teased that she baked only pies to share at Sunday gatherings instead of cakes because she would never turn the oven dial to anything less than 500 degrees. 

In 1946 a house on Grove Street near Ber ryman became home. General Steamship company in San Francisco employed his dad and mom worked in downtown Berkeley at Shattuck Avenue and Center Street in the old American Trust (Wells Fargo) building. The era of electric trolley cars on Berkeley city str eets was coming to an end. The electric Key System (F) train was still around. As a teenager in the 1950s, he could pay 25 cents and ride to downtown Berkeley or San Francisco. 

He remembers back to a day when he was a boy of 8 and 9 years old, when there was something in the neighborhood hobby shop window that looked interesting. He saw all kinds of kits from which ships, trains, airplanes and buildings could be built. Back then, models were made from paper, metals, and wood. Parts could be cut out, glue d together and painted. First came the wedged shape model of a building called a roundhouse where steam locomotives were stored. Models of a cable car and a fleet of foot-long navy ships would decorate the shelves in his mother’s living room library for m any years to come. 

Classes in wood shop and metal shop at both Garfield (Martin Luther King) Jr. High School and Berkeley High School were his favorite. Everyone made the requisite sugar scoop in the class at Garfield. This is where he learned how to cut, bend, and solder sheet tin. By 13 or 14, his laminated wood bowls and vases joined the model collection already on the shelves. His attic bedroom was becoming the location of an emerging HO gauge railroad.  

Vacation meant a ride on Western Pacific Rail road’s California Zephyr to Salt Lake City; the Santa Fe’s Super Chief to Enid, Oklahoma and Los Angeles; or Southern Pacific’s Sunshine Special to Santa Cruz. There were no freeways in the late l940s and early 1950s. Long car trips could be arduous. Travel by airplane was not yet common.  

On the way to Big Sur, the family stopped by the Watsonville Junction yard of the Southern Pacific Railroad. Trains were assembled and disassembled here. Locomotives such as Switch Engines (0-6-0), the Pacifics (4-6-2), the Daylights (4-8-4), and the Cab-Aheads (4-8-8-2) went there to be serviced.  

Thunderous sounds of the exhaust from a steam locomotive as it started a fully loaded freight train from a stop were music to his ears. Standing at one edge of the railroad yard, the young enthusiast eagerly watched as the gigantic steam 

locomotives chuffed and clanked around the yard not knowing that in only a few years this would all disappear.  

For the 15-year-old and his dad the show in 1955 at the Oakland Center (now the Calvin Simmons Theater) near the Oakland Museum must have been fascination at first sight. A local group of model makers were exhibiting small scale working locomotives. Before too long the duo were visiting the Golden Gate Live Steamers’ club where t hey operated their own model steam engines-big enough to ride behind! A three-fourths inch scale Daylight in particular made a big impression on this 10th grader. He began reading a series of construction articles published in the magazine Miniature Locom otive. Somewhere along the line, he decided to build a Daylight model of his own. 

The full sized, Art Deco styled Daylight trains made regular stops at the foot of University Avenue in Berkeley on their way to either Los Angeles or Portland. These were s ome of the last steam locomotives built in America and were retired in the 1950s. 

In the process of building a model locomotive, he learned the basics of drafting and machining. Working out mechanical details to turn problematic ideas into practical rea lity helped him develop his problem solving skills. Today he still uses the same skills aided by computer driven machines. Model steam locomotives #11 and #12 are nearing completion. John Lisherness is the name of this Berkeley born model maker. 


Writer’s note: Interviewing someone you know well and admire may be challenging. However, it can be a great opportunity to know more about him/her and gain a deeper understanding.S