South Carolina’s model for fans of model trains

The Model Trains Station in South Carolina’s Upstate is regarded as one of the best in the Southeast. What makes it so?

Author’s Note: An edited version of this story appeared in the November/December 2021 issue of South Carolina Living magazine.

If one was to kneel down at just the correct height and vantage point, you could soon forget you were standing in an old cotton mill in South Carolina’s Upstate. Instead, you’d hear, then see, the steam locomotive as it emerged from the mountain tunnel, its metal wheels chugging along the tracks, the engine’s massive smokebox looming larger and larger as it hurtled toward you.

The trains at the Model Trains Station in Taylors, S.C. (Video by Michael Banks)

That act of space and time travel is one of the main attractions of what’s billed as the best multi-scale interactive train display in the Southeast. With the simple push of a button, electric current, creativity and century’s old toymaking, visitors to the Model Trains Station in Taylors, S.C., are transported to a simpler time. 

Scott Doelling, of Greenville, S.C., who is a customer of Laurens Electric Cooperative, first started playing with trains as a 7-year-old. One of his old trains is featured in a layout at the station and he volunteers two to three days a week.

It’s a hobby that you never really outgrow.

Scott Doelling, volunteer at Model Trains Station
Volunteers are shown working on one of the displays at the Model Trains Station in Taylors, S.C., in this May 2021 photo. (Photo by Michael Banks)

“It’s a hobby that you never really outgrow,” said Doelling, who spent 31 years in the corrugated paper business and specializes in creating scenery, such as the mountains and forests lining the tracks. “Your imagination can go wild. You can do anything.”

There are hidden gems among the many layouts and visitors are encouraged to take part in a scavenger hunt. Look closely and you’ll see a group of Boy Scouts around a campfire. Look closer and you’ll see a bear attack right around the bend.

There are push buttons that control different parts of a layout. Children can not only control some of the trains that run on the tracks, but also give power to a saw mill or take delight when a conductor steps out from his station.

Model trains are constantly running at the Model Trains Station in Taylors, S.C. (Video by Michael Banks)

“We try to put us much interaction for the kids as we can,” said Doelling, who is one of about 20 volunteers.

There are plenty of vintage trains, including some from the 1920s, that still run along the tracks. But there are plenty of advancements, including digital programs that now allow you to control the train from your mobile phone. There is a train repair shop where people can bring in a faulty engine and the group also allows visitors to bring a train from home and run on the tracks.

Bob Rayle is chairman of the board of directors for the Model Trains Station in Taylors, S.C. (Photo by Michael Banks)

The trains and the nine massive displays spread out over 16,000 square feet of space at the historic Taylors Mill mean different things to different people, said Bob Rayle, chairman of the station’s board of directors. Rayle, who still owns the first train set he got when he was 6 years old, said the station is more than just about model trains.

It’s the little things and the detail. They make the picture, they tell the story.

Bob Rayle, chairman of board of directors for Model Trains Station
Some of the displays at the Model Trains Station in Taylors, S.C. (Photos by Michael Banks)

“It’s the little things and the detail. They make the picture, they tell the story.”

Rayle points to the wooden bench where Erna Liebrandt likes to come and sit and watch the trains run on a 600-square-foot display modeled after the town of Schonweiler in southern Germany near the Austrian border. Erna and her husband, Gunnar, were born in Germany and she donated her husband’s prized display after his death. The volunteers at the station helped to build and triple its size, adding a church, mountain backdrop and tunnel for the trains to pass through.

“She just sits there and looks at that German city,” Rayle said, “and what she sees… is her husband. And she’ll sit there and cry.”

Nearly all of the items at the station, which opened in December 2017, have been donated, Rayle said. He tells of another lady who brings her grandchildren at Christmas and they watch Grandpa’s trains run. For years, the tracks he’d built had sat silent under blankets in his double-car garage. Now, they bring enjoyment to others.

Bob Rayle assists a visitor at the Model Trains Station in Taylors, S.C., during a May 2021 visit. (Photo by Michael Banks)

Brittany Kujawa, of Simpsonville, S.C., spent a summer day visiting with her three children, ages 7, 5 and 2, as part of a home school group. She said they were shocked when they walked in and saw so many trains and so many sets.

“My kids love trains,” Kujawa said. “The staff here is so involved with the kids and I like the freedom they let them have. I was nervous coming here, ‘Model trains, you can’t touch them.’ But they’ve done such a great job of making them available for the kids to interact with, as well as giving them a place they can run off energy. One of the staff said, ‘They can go wild here.’ And that’s really appealing to a home school mom. There’s something for everyone.”


One of the displays that fill the Model Trains Station in Taylors, S.C. (Photo by Michael Banks)

Get There

The Model Trains Station is located at Taylors Mill, 250 Mill St., Suite BL 1250, in Taylors, S.C.

Hours: Wednesday-Saturday: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sunday: 1 to 5 p.m.

Admission: Adults: $8; seniors and military: $7; children (age 2 to 12): $5; children under 2: free. Special rates available for groups and birthday parties are welcomed.

Details: They are always looking for donations and volunteers. For more information, visit www.modeltrainsstation.com , email modeltrainsstation@gmail.com or call (864) 605-7979.

Visitors are shown at the front entrance to Model Trains Station in Taylors, S.C. (Photo by Michael Banks)

South Carolina’s top dog? It’s Cliff Daley and his tasty treats

He’s the King of Corn Dogs and his dogs are known at festivals throughout the Southeast.

It was the winter of 1975 and Cliff Daley faced a life-changing moment.

He and his wife, Kim, had just married. They’d met while working in a snow cone wagon and playing co-ed soccer. She was a geologist, he an executive at a multinational conglomerate. But in January, his father, Zanelle, died of a heart attack. His mother, Dorothy, was caught in Alzheimer’s, in need of constant care.

The couple considered the bright yellow concession trailer Cliff had helped his father build in 1962 and one where he still worked weekends, serving corn dogs and funnel cakes.

“We said, ‘Hey, we’ve got to commit to it or go on and get out,’” Cliff recalls. “We decided to commit.”

Cliff Daley and family in front of one of his concession trailers in October 2003.
(Photo provided by the Daley family.)

The Daleys left their jobs, landed fair contracts and invested in equipment. And now, Daley’s Concessions is a food services business embarking on a third generation with four trailers seen at festivals throughout the Southeast.

“This concession has held my family together. We’ve been able to grow as a family and work together,” Daley said of Kim and their four children, two of whom plan to continue Daley’s Dogs. “They grew up in these wagons. They learned people skills. They learned to do math and make change. They learned how to serve a good product and take care of customers.”

Many of the workers at Daley’s Dogs throughout the years have been family members and friends. (Photo provided by the Daley family)

Cliff’s the Betty Crocker of Corn Dogs, touting the homemade batter and peanut oil that sears the outside, resulting in “great flavor and an ungreasy” corn dog that’s won numerous blue ribbons. Daly’s personal favorite remains the traditional dipped in mustard and there’s another one wrapped with a pickle and the now-popular jalapeno. 

“We’ve done it all,” he said, pointing to the Elvis corn dog dipped in a banana-flavored mix and slathered in peanut butter that won the Most Creative award at the North Georgia State Fair.          

2020 was the most challenging year for his business as COVID spread and fairs and festivals were cancelled.

“We went through all our savings,” Daley said. “We were very fortunate to stay afloat.”

He credits their religious faith, as well as a small business loan and generous friends.

“One thing about COVID, we tried to find something good in it, and it was people helping people and our faith in the Lord. Every time we prayed at night, there was hope.”

The Gun and Knife Show at the SC State Fairgrounds in March was their first event in almost a year. While costs have doubled for their hot dogs and cooking oil, he remains confident of the future.

“All of our events have started coming back,” he said. “People tend to be a lot nicer to one another now. Their income is flowing and everything is very positive.”

Cliff Daley and his Daley’s Dogs.
(Photo provided by the Daley family)

Getting to know Cliff Daley

CLAIM TO FAME: The owner of Daley’s Concessions has been called the King of Corn Dogs as his family has been dipping and serving Daley’s Dogs for nearly 60 years now.

HOMETOWN: Columbia, S.C.

JUST FOR KICKS: Daley received an athletic scholarship and starred on the pitch for the University of Alabama in Huntsville soccer team. He tried out for the U.S. national team before the 1976 Olympics and made it to one of the final rounds before being cut. “If it hadn’t been for that scholarship, I’d have probably joined the service and gone into Vietnam.”

FAVORITE FESTIVAL? For more than 50 years, there’s been a Daley’s Concessions at the SC State Fair. “Most everyone comes and sees us and they see a lot of their old friends from school,” said the graduate of nearby Dreher High School. “It’s like a big family reunion.”

HIS GO-TO MEAL? “It’s hard to beat a good hot dog, especially with homemade chili and onions and a little slaw.”

FAMOUS FANS: The Monday After the Masters golf tourney hosted by Hootie and the Blowfish is a favorite event. Those who’ve praised his dogs? NFL quarterbacks Dan Marino and Brett Favre and rocker Alice Cooper.


Editor’s Note: version of this SC Stories profile was featured in the October 2021 issue of South Carolina Living, a magazine that is distributed 11 times a year to more than 1 million South Carolinians by The Electric Cooperatives of South Carolina.

Preacher man since he was a boy

He preached his first sermon when he was 9 years old. Now, some 60 years later, he’s still at the pulpit of his home church in West Columbia, SC.

West Columbia’s Jackson wonders why God chose him

It’s fitting one of the Rev. Charles Jackson’s favorite Bible stories has to do with the boy who offers his lunch of a few fishes and slices of bread to Christ, who multiplies the offering and feeds thousands.

Ever since he was just a child some six decades ago, Jackson has been bringing the word of God to thousands of South Carolinians and building his church into one of the Midlands’ largest. 

He’s often wondered why God chose him? 

“It’s a tremendous mystery. I didn’t choose it. It chose me.”

What makes his story even more special is that all 50 years have come at Brookland Baptist, the church in West Columbia where he grew up.

Jackson got his start presiding over funerals for his neighbors’ dogs and cats. He preached his first sermon when he was just 9 years old. He was licensed to preach a year later and eventually became pastor at Brookland at 18.

“Maybe, like Jeremiah, God called me from my mother’s womb.”

His mother, Ezella Rumph Jackson, died of cancer when he was just 16. Jackson admits her death caused him to question his faith.

“I couldn’t understand why God would take my mother, a devout Christian. That was very painful. God disappointed me greatly.”

Jackson made peace studying the story of Job.

“Even though Job wrestled and struggled with the inexplicable mystery of God, he never gave up. Because he did not give up on God, God did not give up on him.” 

Jackson believes God’s kept him in West Columbia to raise the next generation of believers and build bridges between those of different races and beliefs. He recently delivered a message of love to 75 high school seniors and juniors representing the 17 electric cooperatives across South Carolina.

Jackson downplays his story.

“May the service I give speak for me,” he says, repeating a favorite gospel hymn. “That’s all. May I rest in my grave and nothing be said. May the work I’ve done speak for me.”


The Rev. Charles Jackson. (Photo from Brookland Baptist Church website.)

Getting to know the Rev. Charles Jackson

If not a pastor? After graduating from Benedict College, Jackson was supposed to be a physician, receiving a full scholarship to medical school. “I love the sciences. I worked in biology for two years, caring for rats and mice.” However, the college’s minister steered him to Morehouse School of Religion in Atlanta, where he received his master of divinity degree.

All in the family: Jackson’s son, the Rev. Charles Jackson Jr., is pastor of the New Laurel Street Baptist Church in Columbia. “I’m happier and more excited in pastoral ministry than I’ve ever been. Much of that can be contributed to young pastors. They’ve kept me vibrant and relevant.”

Favorite Old Testament scripture: Proverbs 3:5-6: Trust in the Lord with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding. In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths.


Editor’s Note: version of this SC Stories profile was featured in the September 2021 issue of South Carolina Living, a magazine that is distributed 11 times a year to more than 1 million South Carolinians by The Electric Cooperatives of South Carolina.

Here where the rain falls

Twelve messy thoughts create one lovely idea.

The rain falls here down near where the South Fork and Catawba meet.

            The branches of the tea olive outside my window hang heavy with water, lime green offshoots reach up, seeking sunlight, but instead it’s a cloud-filled sky. Tiny yellow clusters of bloom emit the sweet scent, but my window stays closed and I fear more rain.

            I think of my great aunt Catherine, she gone nearly 15 years now, and how she’d tug my ear and say, “Michael B. You’re gonna do great things.”

            But this morning, my mind remains muddied of the dream that lingers from the night before – me going from room to room, opening doors, only to find four blank walls and empty spaces. The only sound being that of the click of the latch and slam of the door. A constant opening and closing. Click, slam. Click, slam. 

            I sip the cold water from the glass and wait for the coolness to make its way down my throat and spread across my chest. I hope it brings energy. A spark to beat back my malaise. The bed, the warm covers, they beckon.

            Gloom, gloom, gloom.

            The Rolling Stones sing of “Wild Horses” and how “faith has been broken, tears must be cried, let’s do some living, after we die.”

            I’ve done some living and never really thought of others. Things I should have said, but didn’t. Thought my silence an easy salve, not realizing the pain left behind.

            It is still Tuesday morn here and the rain still falls.

            Each day another red X on the calendar and another day closer to when breath will come no more.

            Until then, these words will be written and songs will be sung. Her smile and laugh and love as constant as the reappearing sun.

NOTE: The above work came from a writing prompt presented during a recent Pen to Paper Live session hosted by the Charlotte Lit organization. You can register here. In the session, presenter Kathie Collins offered a writing prompt taken from a recent workshop led by poet Ada Limon.

The Messy Now

Prompt created by Ada Limón

1.         Describe where you are.

2.         Add something you see.

3.         Mention a friend and something that friend says.

4.         Include a dream.

5.         Add something from the natural world.

6.         Say something you need.

7.         Repeat a word or a line three times.

8.         Add a line of a song you love.

9.         Apologize for something.

10.       Give the date or the day.

11.       Tell us something you’re scared of.

12.       Tell us something you love.

An early morning in Vegas

Some of the sights and sounds of a fantasy football draft.

            

It’s an early Saturday in Vegas, the sun climbing above the Valley of Fire only a few hours earlier, and a pack of Pakistanis behind me are chittering like hyenas surrounding a fresh kill.

            “Adreeeen Peterson, Aaaadddreeen Peterson, Ayyydreeeen Peterson,” they chant, clapping and hopping from one foot to another, their target one of their own – he apparently shell-shocked, face dazed, finger still hovering over his laptop.

            Moments earlier, he’d kicked off their fantasy football draft by making the first overall selection. Only problem was that he’d selected the wrong Adrian Peterson. Instead of drafting fantasy stud Adrian Peterson, the future Hall of Famer and bellcow for fantasy championship squads, our Pakistani had instead selected the Chicago Bears’ Adrian Peterson, he of few yards and even fewer championships.

            And still they clap and chant. “Ayyydreeen Peterson, Ayyydreeen Peterson, Aydreen Peterson.”

            The wayward Pakistani sinks his head to his table, accepting his fate and knowing his season is over before it starts

            I turn back to my table and stare across at H-Diddy. He’s wearing his Bears jersey, arms folded across his chest, and he’s alternating between taking puffs of a Monte Cristal he’s kept stashed away from his wife over the past nine months, while popping green, yellow and orange M&Ms 

            “Things happen,” Diddy says, his facial features temporarily clouded in puff of Cristal. The smoke rises and he smiles. “Vegas, baby.”

Where do we go from here, Major Tom?

A tiny love story from a night when the rain fell in Charlotte, NC, on a late June night in 2014.

At the Fillmore, musicians emerge from thick curtains and fingers pluck at strings and eyes turn upward and ears fill with rhythms and rhymes. Shafts of red and blue sneak from hidden banks, falling upon sweaty faces whispering of desires and regrets. I’d come for Ziggy Stardust and instead found her. She danced in a pool of emerald. A pert nose, dark eyes emerging from a mass of chocolate curls. We discovered “Modern Love” and she laughed and my heart leaped. I emerged, her number in my pocket and I sang of “Starman” and life was good again. 

David Bowie’s “StarMan”

NOTE: The above work came from a writing prompt presented during a recent Pen to Paper Live session hosted by the Charlotte Lit organization. You can register here. In the session, presenter Paul Reali challenged us to write our very own tiny love story of less than 100 words. “They try to capture in a very small space something that is very important,” he said.

Sharing the story

Read of one woman’s push to chart a path for those wishing to discover their heritage in South Carolina.

As a child, Dawn Dawson-House learned plenty about this country’s founding fathers. Missing were the exploits of South Carolina civil rights leader the Rev. Joseph Delaine and Robert Smalls, a former slave who represented the Palmetto State for five terms in Congress. 

Those lessons were learned at the family dinner table as well as at church and other social gatherings around her hometown along the coast.

“The community of Beaufort won’t let you forget that African-American history is important,” Dawson-House said. “Our teachers, our families, our festivals and events, you were surrounded by African-American heritage. I found it interesting because it spoke to us.”

Since January 2021, Dawson-House has been the executive director of the WeGOJA Foundation. Pronounced we-GO-juh, the name is a fusion of three languages spoken by people of African descent who were brought to America as slaves.

WeGOJA works to document and promote African-American heritage sites in South Carolina. That work is done through historical markers, listings on the National Register of Historic Places and the Green Book of South Carolina. Teacher guides are provided for classrooms and there are plans to provide toolkits for the large number of African-American families who gather here each year for reunions.

Dawson-House, who spent nearly 25 years in public relations for the SC Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism, believes there’s no time like the present to embrace the stories of our past.

“The more we can share the story, the more we can build interest into advocacy, into action, we can start creating our authentic story better,” she said. “It’s not just for tourism, but for the public’s full understanding of our history and our full story so it’s easier to make wiser choices when we talk about public decisions.”


Getting to know Dawn Dawson-House

Claim to fame: She recently accepted the job of executive director at the WeGOJA Foundation after a long career in communications with South Carolina Parks, Recreation and Tourism.

Alma mater: Graduated from the University of South Carolina in 1985 with a degree in journalism. “I thought I was going to be the next Oprah Winfrey, but got out into the real world and realized I couldn’t pay rent.”

Favorite state park: Landsford Canal State Park in Catawba with its “gentle tumble” whitewater and colorful rocky shoals spider lilies. “It’s a beautiful sight.”

Time to unwind: When she’s not enjoying Mexican food, you can often find Dawson-House on her treadmill. She and her husband of 25 years, William House, an investigator with the S.C. Attorney General’s office, are planning a train trip through the Canadian wilderness.

Editor’s Note: A version of this SC Stories profile was featured in the July 2021 issue of South Carolina Living, a magazine that is distributed 11 times a year to more than 1 million South Carolinians by The Electric Cooperatives of South Carolina.

I dreamed of you and your biscuits

Seeing Carl was not unusual. Hearing from Carl was quite unusual.

“I dreamed of you in spectacular color.”

            Carl clutched his backpack to his chest with both hands. He took a step forward. Maybe he was aware of the others. Maybe not.

            “I dreamed of you in this very moment.”

            She raised her eyebrow. Seeing Carl was not unusual. Hearing from Carl was quite unusual.

            “You were making me a biscuit. One of those hot buttered rounds where the strawberry jelly is so thick it leaks and stains the sides. Heavens.”

            Jasmine put a slice of cheese and a wedge of ham between the folds of biscuit and wrapped it in yellow wax paper. She stepped to her left, in front of the pail of potatoes, and Carl followed.

            “You want hash browns,” she asked.

            Carl leaned forward to whisper. “Can you not see?”

            Jasmine sighed. “I don’t have time, Carl. You want hash browns or not?”

            Carl turned and looked at those who stood waiting. The couples with their eyes glued to their cell phones, their hands in a constant scroll. The girl who pulled the string of pink bubblegum from her mouth, wrapped it around her finger in a loop of three and stared at him.

            “You are in my dreams. And, yet, you are here before me, now in this presence, serving me a feast upon which I shall savor and accept with the greatest of gratitude.”

            Jasmine walked to the register and her fingers punched the numbers. Her feet hurt. She’d been making biscuits since 5 a.m. and her baby needed more formula.

            “Three twenty five, Carl.”

            He stood before as he does nearly every morning. He wears the same long coat with the holes in the sleeve. His pants are still dirty and his shoes covered in dirt. His hair is thin on top, greasy and unwashed. He smiles and she sees his teeth stained yellow, one missing, completing the homeless ensemble.

            “I see you every night,” Carl says, reaching his hand inside his pocket, where he digs and digs and digs.

            “Hey buddy,” says the man with the cell phone. “Can you pick it up?”

            Jasmine smells him and she wonders if he joins the others under the overpass by the interstate. She sees them when she drives to pick up her daughter from her mother. Carl is here every morning and he’ll shyly slide a quarter across the counter and ask for a cup of coffee. Never before has he asked for a biscuit.

            He pulls his hand from his trousers and his palm is empty. He raises his eyes and she notices they are brown, as brown as her baby girl’s.

            Jasmine pushes the biscuit across the counter to his waiting hands. And he smiles.

            “You do see. My dream angel.”  


NOTE: The above work of fiction came from a writing prompt presented during a recent Pen to Paper Live session hosted by the Charlotte Lit organization. You can register here. In the session, presenter Kathie Collins challenged us to think of synchronicity. As writers, we are always excavating something or using our writing to explore something inside us.

Why, how and when do I write? Now you know

Best writing advice? Well, there is a Hemingway quote that hangs on my wall: “Write drunk. Edit sober.”

I was recently asked to be a featured member of the Charlotte Writers’ Club. The feature, dubbed Meet A Member, runs in each monthly newsletter and is a great way to learn more about the fellow club members.

I’ve been a member of the Charlotte Writers’ Club for nearly two years now and have found it to be a great resource as I venture into the world of fiction writing and freelance work.

One of my favorite benefits of being a club member are the monthly programs by published authors taking on such topics as “Maintaining Suspense in Your Writing” and “Getting to Know Your Character.” The club holds several writing contests throughout the year and rewards the top submissions.

There are also opportunities to present your work during Open Mic Nights, as well as a Virtual Writing Salon. There is the supportive community of fellow writers tackling many of the same issues, as well as chances to share feedback as part of several critique groups.

All in all, I’ve found a very worthwhile organization and one that I’m happy to be a member of.

What follows are my responses to the questions asked each month of the featured club member.


Meet a Member for July 2021

Michael Banks

Bio:  A product of the western Kentucky coal and corn fields, I’ve spent most of my life documenting achievements and failings while working as a journalist at newspapers in Kentucky, Mississippi and North Carolina. I keep rowdy fans in check at Panthers games, write random features for magazines and enjoy the occasional sip of bourbon beneath my redbuds. All while pondering the first draft of my first novel.

When and Where Do I Write? I’ve found the Open Studio at Charlotte Lit to be a perfect place to get away and get my words down — morning, noon and night.

Favorite writing tool? I wish I could say I bang out my scenes via Hemingway’s Royal Quiet Deluxe typewriter. Instead, it’s the soft pitter-patter of my MacBook Pro that brings comfort.

A favorite writing resource? Notes taken from Charlotte Lit classes and CWC presentations are a great help, but I find that when I’m stuck I go in search of some of my favorite authors. Ron Rash and Jennifer Egan have helped get me back on track lately.

Best Writing advice you’ve received and actually taken? On my office wall hangs a supposed Hemingway quote: “Write drunk. Edit sober.” Claire Fullerton says, “For a writer, there is no there to get to, there is only the fulfilling, soul-driven act.” And that goes hand-in-hand with what I heard fellow CWC member Landis Wade say once: “Find joy in the process.” All good advice, I’d say.

One thing I would like help with? Now that the first draft is done, what’s next? How do we embrace revision? How do we query? The benefits of self-publishing? I’ve got quite the laundry list.


Membership in the Charlotte Writers Club entitles one to participate in workshops, critique groups, contests, and guest speaker programs. The cost is a modest $35 per year for individuals and $20 for students.

The organization welcomes all writers in all genres and forms to join our Charlotte-area literary community. A membership in the Charlotte Writers’ Club helps support writers, readers, and literacy at a critical time in our nation’s and our city’s history.

To join or renew a membership, click this Membership Link and follow the instructions.

Obsessed with RC Cola and baseball, and how it all went wrong

It was the summer of 1978 and I discovered RC Cola and baseball. My daddy? Well, he found Billy Beer.

In the summer of 1978, I discovered RC Cola and baseball.

I guess the soda that was a cheap knock-off of Coca-Cola had always been around, as was baseball, but that summer I consumed as much of both as humanly possible.

The reason? The collector cans that featured the RC logo and its slogan “Me and My RC” on one side and a photo of a Major League Baseball player on the other with his signature, stats and other pertinent information, such as was he right-handed or left-handed.

The collecting became an obsession and the stack of royal blue 12-ounce cans soon filled a wall of my bedroom. While I was always hopeful of an All-Star, such as Pete Rose or Reggie Jackson, it was multiple cans of little-known light-hitters like Freddie Patek and Bobby Grich that made up my shrine. 

These ballplayers were the ones I heard Jack Buck talk about at night and on Sunday afternoons, his voice stretching from the St. Louis Arch out across the corn fields of Southern Illinois and the cliffs of the Shawnee National Forest, across the Ohio River and into our little pocket of western Kentucky.

We lived “out in the country” as they said back then and my momma said it was too far to drive into town for Little League baseball. So, one day, I took a can of black spray paint and drew out a square strike zone on the side of our new brick home. I picked up a rubber ball and stood 12 feet away and threw as hard as I could, over and over, aiming for perfection. My daddy came home, saw what I did, spanked me good and gave me a can of turpentine and told me to scrub. And I did, until my fingers ached, but that black box remained, now part of our home.

And, inside those brick walls, the monument of tin cans grew larger and larger as I drank more and more RC. And, as you can surmise, an 11-year-old boy hopped up on caffeinated soda is going be clumsy and careless and the temple would often come clanging down, oftentimes at night when I’d stumble making my way to the bathroom.

Maybe collecting the cans was a gene thing, like a widow’s peak hairline, passed down from generation to generation.

My dad cherished a can of unopened Billy Beer, a beverage known more for being endorsed by the beer-guzzling brother of then President Carter than for its taste. And he proudly displayed that single can of Billy Beer on our living room mantle next to the family Bible handed down by the teetotaling Robinsons on my mother’s side. I’m sure he saw fortune in his future and a day when that can of Billy Beer would be worth thousands of dollars.

But maybe it was more than that.

Billy Carter, the brother to former President Jimmy Carter, is shown with a can of Billy Beer that he endorsed and promoted in the late 1970s.

Eventually, my RC cans were dispatched to a grey, weathered barn that was starting to lean more than it was upright with a good part of its rusty tin roof curled back like the shavings from an apple’s peel.

That summer I remained true, continuing to drink RC and adding to the collection, the cans climbing the slats around a feed crib that contained more rats than healthy ears of corn. But the rains came, as they do, and the bottom of the cans began to rust. And I picked up football in the fall and then basketball in the winter and spring. There would be girls and then a driver’s license and the cans would topple and fall when the winter winds blew between the ever-widening planks of oak.

Eventually, the rust spread, covering the faces on the cans, and I could no longer see if I was looking at Freddie Patek or Pete Rose. One fall day, the cans were thrown into black plastic bags and tossed in the back corner of the corn crib, that darkest part down where the rats made their nest.

But the can of Billy Beer remained. For a while. 

More than 40 years later, the homeplace remains, as does my mom. She’s like the maples she planted in that western Kentucky dirt. Still strong and rooted in place. The old barn has long been torn down, replaced by a shiny red, two-story building built by the Amish from down Crittenden way that is more guest living quarters than it is a work shed. 

The RC Cola cans are also long gone, dispatched not soon after my father left when most of his blue jeans and those country western shirts with the pearl snap-on buttons were taken from the closet and dumped in the backyard, doused with lighter fluid and a match was struck.

I don’t know if I ever asked my mother if she took the cans to a recycling center or just simply put them in the burn barrel, their sides blackening, indistinct. Just another can in a smoldering mess of household garbage. Forgotten. 

Come to think of it, I don’t know if we’ve ever really discussed the divorce much.

The separation stung at first, but eventually as you get older and perhaps wiser and maybe forgiving, you learn to accept the betrayal and loneliness. Like the collector cans, the pronouncement of “till death do us part and forever and ever” was something that was just taking up space and needed to be thrown out. The connection gone.

Still, there are days, like today, when an overheard bit of conversation or a question about obsession takes me back to those cans of my childhood. It’s those memories that remain. Good and bad. 

It’s your mom going to the IGA, picking up a six-pack of RC Cola and there being two more Freddie Pateks in the bunch. You disappointed, but not saying anything as you pull the tab and drink the bland soda, hopeful for another day.

It’s spray painting a black square on the side of a brick wall. And bits of that square block still clinging to that sturdy brick, 40 years later.

It’s clinging to the past and hoping that what you hold will only become more precious as time goes on. But, more importantly, it’s realizing when it’s time to just take it out to the burn barrel, light a match and move on.

I do an Internet search and find that you can buy six of the RC Cola baseball collector cans for $20. Another seller is offering 53 of the used RC cans for $150.

A pristine can of Billy Beer, unopened, can be had for $21. 

But nobody’s buying.