LEWISTOWN – Outside a small red house, a woman beats a rug to remove the winter dust likely collected while hauling loads of firewood for the home’s wood stove. Her husband sits on the front porch, watching their son tend to the flowers along the sidewalk. A tire swing hangs from the limb of a nearby tree, reminding passers-by of times when they too spent hours spinning to and fro on such a swing.
It’s a peaceful place, but it can’t be found on any map. At the present time, it’s sitting on Don Wertz’s kitchen counter in Lewistown, waiting to be added to a model railroad display.
Wertz, 75, has been interested in trains since he was a young boy.
“My dad used to say God misunderstood him when he asked him to give me brains – he thought he said ‘trains!'” Wertz said.
He got his first Lionel train set when he was 5 or 6, and during his career in banking, the decor in his office was always train-themed. He was a member of the Mifflin County Model Railroad Club for years, until his health got in the way of attending shows.
Wertz is living with terminal pancreatic and liver cancer. He is losing the use of his legs and has difficulty standing or walking for long periods of time. Three years ago, his doctors told him he had two to five years left to live – but Wertz doesn’t let that bother him.
“Even cancer is not an excuse to sit around and pity yourself,” he said. “Every day you do this is a day out of your life you will never get back.”
In 1999, Wertz had emergency surgery to remove a bleeding tumor after becoming extremely dizzy at work. During that procedure, the surgeon found cancer masses and took out a large section of Wertz’s intestine as well. The doctors determined he needed no further treatment and gave him a clean bill of health, but the dizziness continued. He ended up having two slow-growing tumors in his head, which required a shunt be run to his stomach to drain fluid. Life returned to normal.
Several years later, he noticed pain in his back and chest. His doctor told him he was overweight and needed to exercise. Eventually, that doctor was replaced by another doctor who took Wertz’s concerns seriously. He was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, but it had spread to his liver and a team of doctors that reviewed Wertz’s case said it was too far gone to operate.
He received a shot once a month to help control the cancer, and it was working, but it was expensive. The copay alone was $195 per shot and that increased to $425 per shot at the beginning of this year. His savings exhausted, on a fixed income and faced with the choice between paying for the medicine or buying food, he opted to stop the treatments – at least temporarily – in March.
“I could continue to have the shots and run the bill up,” he said, but he’s not willing to leave that sort of debt behind for his friend and caretaker, Anne Steele, with whom he owns a home which could be seized in recompense for unpaid medical bills, if there were any. Holding firmly to his belief that money should be earned, Wertz now seeks to offset his medical expenses with the income he gets from selling his train layouts.
He sold his first set in 1985 in Florida. Now, he models primarily in HO and N scale. The difference between the two is the size of the models; N-scale models are about half the size of HO-scale models. Wertz can make a layout of any size in either scale, but on an N-scale layout, the trees would be smaller than in HO-scale, as would the train, the tracks, the people and any other elements of the design.
Wertz builds the layouts from high-quality materials. The buildings are real wood, made from laser-cut kits or constructed by hand. People for the layouts can be custom ordered if a specific activity like fishing is to be portrayed. Wertz also paints figurines by hand, creating customized layouts according to specific requests. He gave an example in which he created an Amish-themed layout, using one bristle of a paintbrush to create suspenders for men who were cutting timber on a mountainside.
He gathers other materials from the world around him. The tops of plants can be trees. Small stones can be mountain boulders. To make flowers, he makes a mixture of water and white glue, applies it with a cotton swab to the material he’s using for the bushes and adds a colored powder to the top with tweezers.
“I don’t consider myself an artist,” he said, “but I am very particular.”
Wertz is taking holiday orders now.
“It could take up to six months, depending on what they want,” he said. The more detail, the longer it takes. Wertz also helps those who want to build their own layouts, offering advice and assistance as needed.
His words to the wise aren’t limited to trains, either. He encourages people to find a doctor who takes their complaints seriously. He urges people who are having trouble coping to talk to others, even offering his own ear if needed; enjoy life; laugh a lot; and help others.
“I’m 75 and I’m going down swinging,” he said.
Wertz can be reached at 242-1930.