Bay Area Parent articles

Bay Area Parent, October 2001

All Aboard For Junior Engineer Day

By Max Millard

If there is one toy that keeps its appeal from early childhood to old age, it is the electric train. Infants are fascinated by their first glimpse of it under the Christmas tree, and seniors devote thousands of hours to creating miniature models that are precise duplicates of the originals.

The passion, craftsmanship, and artistry of model railroading live on at San Francisco's Golden Gate Model Railroad Club, which has met for more than 40 years in the basement of the Randall Museum.

Six times a year, on the third or sometimes the second Saturday of odd-numbered months, the Club holds a Junior Engineer Day, in which children get to operate the lever on the control box for an electric train pulling 8 to 10 cars. The child can make the train start, stop, slow down, or speed full-tilt at the equivalent of about 100 miles per hour.

The elaborate layout, surrounded by a transparent plastic shield, is about 20 by 60 feet in area, and is a vibrant time capsule of Middle America in 1959-1960, when it was built. It includes a medium-size city with hundreds of buildings, automobiles, pedestrians, street signs, gas stations, and other details of city life. Outside of town is a mountain area, with forests, canyons, bridges, streams, and tunnels that the train must navigate.

Large mirrors mounted on the room's walls provide glimpses of the train when it disappears from direct view. It finally returns to the rail yard, waiting for the next engineer to send it out again. Children are invited to run the train from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. The event is open to every child tall enough to reach the lever, with or without an adult's help.

Junior Engineer Day has been a regular attraction of the model railroad club for at least a decade. It typically draws 60 to 120 kids, who are given numbers so that everyone gets a turn. Alongside the layout is a raised platform where kids can stand to watch the trains whiz by. Different models are used throughout the year, including modern and steam locomotives. All events sponsored by the club are free.

For those who can't wait for Junior Engineer Day, the club is open to the public every Saturday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Visitors are welcome to watch as the members operate their trains by remote control.

"We run five or six trains at one time," says Mike Stokenger, the club president. "It requires some coordination for them to be able to pass each other, because the main lines are single-track. So one train goes into the siding to let the other one go by." Altogether there's about 600 feet of track, with four railroad yards, an urban switching area, and miles of electrical wiring underneath.

Each Wednesday from about 7 to 9:45 p.m., the club holds a maintenance and work night to repair and improve the layout, which requires constant care. Although no trains are running, visitors may come in to observe, talk to members, and get a tour of the premises.

Founded in 1950, the Golden Gate Model Railroad Club has about 35 members, from youngsters to retired people. The minimum age for joining is 13. There's an initiation fee of $20, and the dues are $80 per year.

After a brief training period, members get a key to the room, so that they can come in to run their trains whenever the Randall Museum is open. Most of the trains -- or rolling stock, as they are called -- are owned by individual members rather than the club itself.

Asked why model trains are so popular, Mike Stokenger responds: "It's almost like asking, why do you love music, or why does anybody love anything? I've speculated that it might be about the joy of traveling, of moving along. I think the love of model trains is an outgrowth of the love of the real ones. You go out as a child maybe with your parents and you see trains and you love them, and pretty soon that sparks your interest in models.

"Some people think railroading is a thing of the past and it's gone, but it really hasn't. Passengers are just one small part of the overall railroad industry, and the freight railroads are just as vital and robust as they've ever been.... My guess is that there's always been a lot of rail fans and there always will be."

To find out more about Junior Engineer Day, check the club's Web site at

The Randall Museum, which also has a large collection of live California animals, is located at 199 Museum Way, near Buena Vista Park, in San Francisco. Hours are Tuesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., admission is free, and donations are welcome. Tel.: 415-554-9600. Web site:


Bay Area Parent, December 2001

USS Hornet: 41,000 Tons of Fun

By Max Millard

Watch almost any highlight film of World War II and you're likely to see the huge steel-gray V-shaped USS Hornet rising high out of the water. Launched in 1943, it sank more tonnage of enemy ships and shot down more enemy planes than any other aircraft carrier in the Pacific campaign. The Hornet was under attack by bombs and torpedoes 59 times, but never hit. It returned to the world's spotlight in 1969, when it was used as the recovery ship for the astronauts of Apollo 11, the first men to walk on the moon.

Retired in 1970 and mothballed in Bremerton, Washington, the Hornet was brought to Alameda in 1995 as an exhibit for the closing of the U.S. Naval Air Station. Thanks to the fund-raising efforts of former crew members and others who wanted to preserve it as a floating museum, the Hornet was rescued from the scrap heap and opened to the public in 1998. It is the only aircraft carrier museum on the West Coast, and has become a magnet for visitors from around the world, but especially for local children.

At 892 feet, the Hornet is 12 feet longer than the Titanic, and is large portion of it is open to exploration, including the flight deck; the navigation bridge; the engine room; the hangar bay, which once held more than 100 planes; and the lower deck, where most of the 3500 men on board slept and dined.

While most of the ship is being preserved in its original condition, it has a few new features, such the Apollo exhibit, with a full-size NASA space capsule. There's also a giant Airstream trailer used for quarantining the crew of Apollo 14 after they returned from the moon, and many other historical items.

One Saturday each month is Living Ship Day, in which visitors can experience what it was like to be a sailor on board during wartime. The radar tower turns, the loudspeakers blare, the staff are all in uniform, and throughout the day, planes are towed from the hangar bay to the elevator -- which can lift 68,000 pounds -- and raised to the deck. The first 100 kids to arrive get a free sailor's hat. Kids are allowed to enter three of the aircraft on board.

For most kids, the ship's ultimate thrill is its overnights, which are open to boys and girls age 7 to 18.

The activities start at 1 p.m. with a ride on the flight simulator, a five-minute adventure that replicates the sights, sounds, and motions of a combat flight during the Gulf War. Ten to 12 people at a time enter a long silver tube that's designed like the cockpit of an F/A-18 jet fighter. An audio track plays a voice recording made during an actual mission. Passengers feel the sensation of being whipped off the deck by a giant hydraulic catapult, flying over various landscapes, engaging in an aerial dogfight, then staggering back to the carrier and landing safely.

Next for the kids comes a tour of the ship, guest speakers, a fire drill, a chicken dinner in the officers' wardroom, history films, games and ghost stories before bedding down on triple-layer bunks where the real Navy crew once slept. Breakfast is served in the morning, and the kids depart at 9 a.m.

The ship can accommodate overnight groups from 20 to 200 people. Most participants are between 9 and 11 years old, and surprisingly, the largest groups so far have been girl scouts.

Keith LaDue, the live-aboard program officer, says that the biggest impression made on the kids is the sheer size of the ship. It is so huge that some adult visitors come in the morning and spend the entire day on board, walking through this living piece of history and viewing all the exhibits, starting with the World War II scoreboard.

Entering by a long gangplank, visitors initially arrive in the anchor bay, which is as spacious as a cathedral. Just below is the second deck, with its neatly kept berths, mess halls, kitchens, medical facilities and other rooms depicting everyday life at sea, with the original equipment in place. This deck is compartmentalized like a honeycomb, filled with doorways, ladders and thick, ever-present bundles of wiring, which runs through the ship like a network of blood vessels.

The Hornet has an ongoing series of special events, such as children's entertainers, live bands, and the commemorative flight of a replica Curtiss Pusher aircraft scheduled for October. The ship's permanent attractions are continuing to expand. Coming this year are a new gallery of naval and aviation art and a Gemini space capsule where kids can sit inside.

The USS Hornet is located at Pier 3, Alameda Point in Alameda, CA. It is closed each Tuesday and for Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Day, but otherwise open every day of the year from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tickets are $12 for adults; $10 for seniors, students and military; $5 for ages 5-18; and free for kids under 5. Group rates are available, and hot or cold lunches can be provided. For more information call 510-521-8448 or check the Web site at


Bay Area Parent, January 2002

`Lizard Lady' Teressa Killeen: A Lifelong Love for Reptiles

By Max Millard

Wearing snakeskin-patterned pants, reptilian jewelry and a safari-style jacket, a slender, wiry woman enters the North Beach branch of the San Francisco Public Library, pulling a little red wagon of cloth-covered cages. When they are all neatly stacked in a corner, she spreads a large piece of canvas on the floor before a crowd of children and adults, who quickly grab spots around the edges. It's showtime for the Lizard Lady.

Teressa Killeen, who shares her Pacifica home with a husband and 28 reptiles, has brought a dozen of them to the library this afternoon. "This is a petting program," she explains. None of her animals are poisonous, and all can be touched. Handling them fearlessly and with much affection, she delivers a story about each one, using an entertaining blend of science, geography and personal history.

One specimen today is Bobo, a 6-foot demeril boa constrictor from Madagascar. Wrapping him around her shoulders, she says: "You can pat him on his tail with two fingers. Not on the head." Like many of her animals, Bobo was a gift from another pet owner who couldn't keep him. "He was caught in the springs of someone's bed for six weeks," she recalls. "He obviously hadn't eaten in a while. We used a dead rat to bring him out partly. They had to cut the rest of the bed away. He kept recoiling back into the bed, so it was quite a process."

Also on the day's lineup card is a lizard named Scooter, a prehensil-tailed skink from the Solomon Islands, who clings to a large piece of wood. Teressa asks all the kids to wave, and Scooter waves back. "They will be extinct in the wild in three to five years without our help," she remarks somewhat sadly.

Others in her all-reptile show are an African ball python, a lavender-face king snake, a bearded dragon, a green iguana, and a hefty red-foot tortoise named Bob, whom she later confides is probably her favorite pet.

"He likes my laundry room. He'll sit next to the washer or drier because they vibrate and they're warm. They're attracted to that kind of thing, like little kids. When I do my laundry, I throw it on the floor and Bob carries it to my laundry basket.

"He's in my will," she continues. "I've had Bob for 20 years, and he's 55 years old. He will go with my grandchildren, and they can then decide what the best circumstance would be for him. He could easily live to be 100 years old, and I'm 50, so which of us will be still standing?" she laughs.

With her lithe form, long kinky hair and graceful movement, Teressa radiates an unmistakable reptilian aura. This is probably due to her other career, still ongoing, as a professional belly dancer and Middle Eastern dance instructor.

Her fascination with reptiles dates back to her girlhood in Stockton near the San Joaquin River. "In the spring we would go catch polliwogs and frogs, and I was the only girl that was really interested in these activities," she says. Not allowed to keep wild animals at home, she started a collection of snakes when she moved out, and since then, "I've pretty much always had them in my life."

In the mid-1980s, her best friend from childhood caught the "reptile bug" herself and started showing them at a preschool, which led to a successful small business. Teressa began doing a similar show, but with a more educational slant, and when her friend gave up the act in 1990, Teressa inherited the title of Lizard Lady. She now averages more than 200 shows per year, for schools, birthday parties, libraries, summer camps and corporate events. Each one features nine to 13 animals. The fee is $130 to $175, depending on location and venue.

In her home, the reptiles have their own room, which is divided into separate habitats for desert and rain forest creatures. "They all get along fine," she says. "We have an agricultural light that we run for them, so they have bright sunlight. Fortunately have their own bathroom as well. The tortoise and the iguana love to soak in water."

Besides her active reptiles, she has a few that are retired, and others that she is still taming so they can make public appearances. About half of her animals are from endangered species. She proudly tells of her success with prehensil tailed skinks. "I have two adults, and two that were born in my house. One of my happiest stories with endangered species is that we've been able to create this little family," she says.

The Lizard Lady will be appearing at the Anza Branch of the San Francisco Library, 550 37th Avenue, on Saturday, March 16, 2002 at 1:30 p.m. Admission is free. For more information about her shows, check her Web site at