When I was 8 I made two discoveries that led to a project, years in the making, that became the dominant thread of my childhood. The first was a box containing several model Medieval European villages my dad had assembled—as sets for toy soldier battles, with armies numbering in the hundreds, each soldier meticulously hand-painted—and haphazardly thrown into boxes when we moved to our new house, a spacious former VFW post my parents acquired as a fixer-upper when it was still possible to buy a building in Brooklyn for less than a hundred thousand dollars. (This story takes place quite some time ago.)
There was only one box with any buildings that weren't shattered in pieces from the move, that when arranged looked passably like a small Bavarian town. A small Bavarian town with approximately five cars for every resident, as to my young mind my vast collection of Matchbox cars were essential, to be moved around with a delicacy befitting the architecture and “vroom vroom”ed with a similar politeness.
There was still something missing, which problem was solved by my second discovery: a library book about model trains. It spent a few chapters talking about track gauges and the kinds of electrical devices necessary to power model trains, but what captivated me were the later chapters, with illustrations of model train villages, whose streets were lined with trees made of lichen, and which had papier mache mountains through which tunnels carried model trains in one end and out the other.
My dad was initially reluctant to let me build a model train village but was quickly persuaded out of his misgivings about electricity and expense, and we soon set about acquiring tracks and trains. We designed a town map, complete with an old part of town where all the quaint Bavarian architecture and narrow streets pervaded, as well as an opposing side of town where all the new buildings we acquired like schools and fire houses were (all of which were decidedly 20th century North American). The hill with the train tunnel, being the most labor-intensive aspect of the town, was (eternally, as it turned out) TBA, but after meticulously arranging the buildings according to the blueprint, with improvisation where necessary, the town was otherwise complete.
It was, however, nameless. This didn't trouble me until one day a friend of my dad's was over to the house to drink beer, smoke weed, and talk about Steely Dan—not with me, of course, it was still some time before I took up these highly cultured habits—and happened into the room to take a look at the town. After having a healthy laugh at the astonishing number of cars in the town, he asked me what I realized was an obvious question: “What's the town called?” There was something in his tone that made replying “I don't know” unthinkable, so I nervously stammered out the first sounds that popped into my head: “He . . . co . . . berg . . . ville?”
“Hecobergville?” Dad's friend laughed.
“Yeah, Hecobergville,” I said, not brooking any disrespect for my people.
“So how is it a 'berg' and a 'ville?'” he asked, clearly believing himself to have cornered me in some failure of kid logic.
Entirely out of my ass, I replied “Well, you see the old part of town? That's Hecoberg, and it's called 'berg' because it's German, as you can see from the architecture. Then when it expanded and there was the new part of town, that's, like, post-German, they needed to indicate that, so they added a 'ville.' Hecobergville.” QED, motherfucker.
The “as you can see from the architecture” bit had truly touched my dad's heart, so he got really serious with his friend and told him “A lot of thought went into this.” And the friend, chastened, sort of gestured in apology, and I nodded maturely to show that I was above being angered by such petty slights, and that was that.
Hecobergville and its doings occupied a considerable amount of my time in the next couple years. Certain imaginary people had specific Matchbox cars that were theirs, and the pairings had great significance. I maintained a record of goings-on in Hecobergville. There was a huge zoning controversy at one point because some asshole yuppies—inspired by real events—wanted to bulldoze the Bavarian ruins and put up condos, but the town legislature voted unanimously to have the yuppies face a firing squad, giving my dad's toy soldiers something to do. Thus did peace return to Hecobergville.
Until my parents got divorced, and it turned out that all the money that had bought things like the house and all our possessions actually belonged to the bank and not us, so my mom moved us to a much smaller apartment and my dad moved in with his longtime girlfriend so Hecobergville had to be carefully disassembled and put into boxes. Despite the amount of time and care I'd put into it, I still recognized Hecobergville and its component parts to be less essential than things like furniture and clothes, so the boxes that held all the buildings, cars, trains, rails, and electrical infrastructure were the last ones remaining in the old house, and after a long day of moving my mom and I decided to go back for them the next day. At which time we discovered those boxes had been stolen by friends of our neighbors. I had a brief fantasy of tracking everything down and recovering it, but was—as gently as my junkie ex-con neighbor was capable—told that everything would have been long since sold, and it was a lost cause.
I'm tempted, being only human, to make a big thing out of this whole affair as a metaphor for childhood and its hopeless battle against the cruelty of the world, and about how the hopelessness of innocence in the face of cynicism is a microcosm for the inevitability of mortality, but really, thinking back on this my main takeaway is how funny it is that the town ended up being called “Hecobergville.” And how well it fit.