We had passed the closed sign now for four days in a row. The only thing that had changed was the coconut we had left on a rock by the front gate on Sunday. It had been removed. “That’s nothing,” commented my friend and world-renowned avian biologist Adrian Del Nevo. “I have been driving past this place for over a decade and have never seen it open.”
The facility in question was the Aruba Model Trains Museum located on an obscure back road. It is far from the bustle of the J.E. Irasquin Boulevard where under-clothed tourists flock to the endless white sand beaches and high rise hotels that rival Miami. Rather, the museum is on the Koolbaaibergstraat. Dutch translation? The Cabbage Bay Mountain Street. It can be found in the quiet neighborhood of Lago Heights, just outside of San Nicolas best known for its refinery, savory Columbian restaurants and ladies of the night.
The reason we passed by here so often is that it is the road to Rodgers Beach, our kayak launch point to reach the San Nicolas Bay Islands. They are home to thousands of terns this time of year, and I was on assignment to get their story and take pictures. Not a bad gig.
This was on my last full day on island, and as we round the curve of the Koolbaaibergstraat for the last time, we spot a man changing the sign in front of the Aruba Model Trains Museum from open to closed.
“Damn! We’re just seconds too late,” yells out Adrian.
“No, pull over,” I plead. “Let me talk to this guy.”
Before I go further, please be assured that neither Adrian nor I have much interest as adults in model trains. For me, that all ended in the 1950s when my beat up Lionel train set finally smoked off into the sunset. It finally succumbed to too many kid-inspired derailments. After all, what better than to run the train off a bridge after having watched the damn thing circle the track endlessly for an entire afternoon. If we weren’t all crazy we would all go insane. No, it was the challenge of getting inside the Aruba Model Trains Museum that appealed to Adrian and I.
“I see you are just closing,” I call out as the man determinedly shoves the closed sign into its frame. “Is there any chance we can get inside for just a quick look?”
Jaap de Vries just smiles back at me with a bright twinkle in his eye. “Sure! Just park your car over there.”
Adrian and I looked at each other. This was too easy. Maybe we should just pull away now while we have a chance. But after a decade of waiting and disappointment, the draw is too strong for Adrian, “Let’s get inside before he changes his mind.”
We enter the air-conditioned cool of the Aruba Model Trains Museum. Jaap flips a switch and a large model train jumps to life on the upper track. Below is a village full of lights. The town scene even includes a mini Aruban flag. Jaap flips another switch and grins wider. A second train on the lower track begins its journey, albeit at a slower pace than the one above. These are serious, Model O series trains—one of the biggest. The two trains make so much noise with metal wheels on track that we cannot converse. Jaap reluctantly kills the switch. But his smile quickly returns. I am soon to find out that Jaap’s next favorite activity after model railroading is shooting the breeze.
We, of course, talk first about model trains. Each of us shares our childhood favorites with the maestro. Then I start to see another side of Adrian I didn’t previously know about. The more he talks to Jaap, it is apparent that he is a latent train nerd. Model railroading factoids come spewing out of his mouth. He uses terms like Bassett-Lowke, the GWR 111 Great Bear and Graham Farish. I am somewhat taken back and slightly frightened as these two adult men look at each other with slightly-crazed juvenile eyes. I quickly change the subject.
“Jaap, how long have you lived on Aruba?”
“I came here in the 1980s from Holland. I worked for a Dutch insurance company here for years, but they finally decided to fold their Caribbean operations. That was OK. It gave me more time for my trains.”
“And you worked for them in Holland too?”
“Oh, yeah. But previous to that, I worked 13 years for Pan American World Airways in Amsterdam and Germany. Those were great years. In fact, I have some Pan Am airplane models in this back room.”
Fortunately, we leave the trains behind. Jaap leads us into an even larger room, complete with airplane models hanging from the ceiling. This is where the nerd in me takes over. “A ME-262! Why that was the only jet ever used in WWII! The Nazis could have won the war if they had this plane from the beginning.”
We discuss the B-17 Flying Fortress, the resilient Ford Tri Motor, and Howard Hughes’s behemoth seaplane, The Spruce Goose. Jaap has plastic replicas of all these aviation icons hanging from above. I stare upwards as I did decades ago in my boyhood bedroom. It is now nearly five o’clock somewhere and Adrian starts to give me the evil eye. I see that he is becoming slightly uncomfortable, perhaps even concerned over the exchange between Jaap and I. The tables have turned. I take the cue and begin to move toward the door while Jaap continues talking. We are nearly out of the second train room when I spot a map of the US criss-crossed by a web of lines. I know I should ride with the momentum of the exit, but curiosity overpowers me. “And what is this, Jaap?”“Glad you asked. In July 1963, I took my first trip to America. Greyhound had a promotion—99 days for $99. I took them up on it. Saw the whole country. Even traveled a bit down into Mexico and Canada. I love buses too, along with trains and planes. That’s why I have so many Greyhound bus models in the museum. I had a great time. I even have my old ticket up there, posted on the map.”
With Jaap busy with old memories of his bus trip of a lifetime, we again edge closer to the door. Outside, I start to think about having a margarita on the beach when we get back to hotel. Then Adrian stops suddenly in his tracks. Oh, no. The world-renowned avian biologist points to a rather enormous glass and metal structure sitting in the middle of the yard and eloquently asks the obvious, “Jaap, what is that?”
Jaap explains that the object in question is the Fresnel lens of the California Lighthouse that still graces the far west point of Aruba. The device was replaced by modern electronics and Jaap found the lens carelessly discarded in the local garbage dump. Adrian is astonished claiming that the Fresnel with its thick brass mounting is easily worth thousands dollars. Jaap just smiles as we make our way to the car.
“Come back anytime when you return to Aruba,” says Jaap.
“But you always have the closed sign out,” reminds Adrian.
“Here is my business card. Just call or e-mail me and we can set up a time to meet.”We bid adieu. As we drive away I look back at the Aruba Model Trains Museum. Jaap waves goodbye from the gate. The choo choo man stands there smiling with a faraway twinkle in his eyes. If I ever return, I am sure the gleam will still be there.