Holidays on track: Model trains take the spotlight in Long Islanders’ displays

For many baby boomers, and some younger folks as well, the December holidays are synonymous with model trains.

Many in the postwar generation grew up with Lionel or American Flyer rolling stock running around their basements or attics year-round. For other toy train fans, the miniatures only made an appearance during the holidays: Either portable layouts with a winter/holiday theme or trains that ran under their Christmas trees surrounded by plastic buildings and accessories.

Either way, many fathers — and occasionally both parents — took their sons (and sometimes daughters) to local department stores or hobby shops to pick out holiday presents. And some postwar children fondly remember traveling into Manhattan with their families to visit the Lionel showroom or the famous dealer Madison Hardware to see the latest offerings in hopes they might reappear, gift-wrapped, in late December.

And while the hobby has waned in recent years, model railroading aficionados remain a committed bunch. On Long Island there are still an estimated 2,500 model railroaders, several hundred of them members in about a half-dozen clubs with their own large layouts.

Many cherish their original sets, running them year-round in basements or spare rooms; others unearth model trains only for holiday fun. Many have reconnected with the hobby as adults (sharing it with their own children or grandchildren) after childhood sets were given away by parents who assumed their kids had lost interest in them.

Newsday visited some of these model railroad buffs as they gear up for another holiday season. Here are their stories.

A moment in time

“I’ve been into trains ever since I can remember, probably around 7 or 8,” recalled Edward Surbeck, 77, of Bohemia. “Christmas, birthdays, everybody knew what to get me — something from Lionel,” said Surbeck, who retired from a career in brick paving.

“My parents got married in 1936, and my mother bought my father a Lionel train set because he never had a train set when he was growing up,” Surbeck said. “He said ‘Wouldn’t it be nice to put it around the tree and maybe we should get a few figures.’ ” His father bought lead figures at a discount store to paint and made houses of wood recycled from shipping crates, and his mother decorated them.

When he was growing up in Islip, he said, “We used to go to Sears in Bay Shore and they always had a big layout.” There, Surbeck would pick out what he wanted for Christmas.

After he started college, the trains remained in storage in the basement. “Then in 1998 my wife said ‘Why don’t you put up the trains this year for Christmas. So I said, ‘Why not.’ I resurrected everything and put new snow on top of the buildings and doilies behind the windows as curtains.”

About five years ago Surbeck upgraded his father’s

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Long lines for Miami’s grocery gift card giveaway shows need — but why only Publix?

Miami’s city government has spent about $2.3 million of federal COVID-19 relief funds on grocery gift cards to give to residents, part of a series of financial assistance programs meant to help those hurting in the pandemic — but some commissioners are questioning the administration’s decision to only purchase from Publix.

Long lines seen at distribution locations across each of the city of Miami’s five districts this week show a great need among residents. At an event this week, Mayor Francis Suarez noted the difficulty with serving a limited number of people with available funds.

“We were able to help 500 people in our community get much needed support and help for their groceries during this difficult time,” Suarez said on Wednesday. “It’s very sad to see how many people came and the fact that we had to limit people.”

The limitations created by only distributing Publix gift cards are also resonating in some districts where people shop at stores that are more affordable and closer to their homes, such as Sedano’s Supermarket, Presidente Supermarket, Fresco y Más and Milam’s Market.

“For most of the elderly we have, Publix is just too far and more expensive,” said Commissioner Joe Carollo, who represents Little Havana, the Roads and part of Shenandoah.

The city chose Publix as the sole vendor for the first bulk purchase, which came with a 5% discount on each card, according to administrators. On 10,000 cards worth $250 each, Publix discounted $12.50 per card. John Heffernan, the city’s deputy director of communications, said the city initially bought the first batch of cards from Publix “because of their ability to meet the tight time constraints required to quickly implement the programs.”

The money for the gift cards came after Miami-Dade County disbursed federal CARES Act relief funds in November. The city has until Dec. 31 to spend the money, under federal rules. With about $1.2 million out of $3.55 million left to purchase cards, the city might make some changes.

Commissioner Alex Díaz de la Portilla is sponsoring a resolution on the Dec. 10 commission agenda that would give the city flexibility to purchase VISA cash cards of different amounts that would allow people to go to their preferred market, or perhaps to purchase medicine.

By providing cards of $100 to $125, Díaz de la Portilla said the money could be stretched farther to reach more households.

“The residents are the ones that should have the choice of where to shop and what they need to buy. Not government,” Díaz de la Portilla told the Miami Herald. “This should only be about what’s best for our residents.”

The commissioner said residents in his district, which includes Allapattah and Grapeland Heights, would be better served if they could take gift cards to their local preferred markets — especially those without cars who walk to the nearest market.

“Maybe it’s easier to go to one vendor and buy everything, but why not go to local vendors in our community?” Díaz

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Women in ‘Birth Tourism’ Ring Had 119 Babies on Long Island, Officials Say

The Facebook post advertised a tantalizing offer for pregnant women in Turkey. “If you believe your baby should be born in the USA and become an American citizen,” the ad said in Turkish, “then you are at the right place.”

In exchange for payments between $7,500 and $10,000 each, the women received transportation, medical care and lodging at a so-called birth house on Long Island, federal prosecutors said — allowing them to travel to New York on tourist visas and return to Turkey with babies who were American citizens.

On Wednesday, prosecutors charged six people with running the “birth tourism” operation on Long Island, which facilitated the births of an estimated 119 babies to Turkish women since at least 2017.

The costs of the births were fraudulently billed to the state, causing New York’s Medicaid program to lose more than $2.1 million, prosecutors said.

“The defendants cashed in on the desire for birthright citizenship, and the American taxpayer ultimately got stuck with the $2.1 million bill,” said Seth DuCharme, the acting U.S. attorney in Brooklyn. “The indictment unsealed today reinforces the principle that American citizenship is not for sale, and that our benefits programs are not piggy banks for criminals to plunder.”

In total, the defendants received about $750,000 in payments from pregnant women, prosecutors said.

Birth tourism is a longstanding phenomenon. In recent years, it has drawn mostly well-off mothers from China, Korea, Russia, Turkey, Egypt and Nigeria to the U.S. for birthright citizenship. A 2018 case involving the stabbing of three babies at a maternity center in Queens exposed the risks of the unregulated practice.

Earlier this year, the State Department gave visa officers more power to stop pregnant women from visiting the United States if the women were suspected of traveling to give birth. The new rule described giving birth as “an impermissible basis” for visiting the United States.

After children who are U.S. citizens turn 21, they can sponsor a parent for a green card.

The State Department has estimated that thousands of babies are born to tourists from abroad every year, but there are no official numbers. In 2018, there were about 3.8 million total births in the United States, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.

The defendants on Wednesday were charged with fraud conspiracy and money laundering conspiracy. Four of them are Turkish nationals accused of advertising the scheme and of facilitating the women’s lodging and transportation. The other two are U.S. citizens who are suspected of helping to file the fraudulent Medicaid applications.

The mothers were not criminally charged and are not targets of the investigation. Prosecutors said it would be unlikely for the children to lose their U.S. citizenship.

The federal investigation on Long Island, which took more than a year, involved surveillance photographs, wiretapped conversations, search warrants for iCloud accounts and even an undercover agent.

Ibrahim Aksakal — an accused leader of the scheme — said in a recorded conversation in May 2019 that the women needed to apply

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New MIT COVID Model Shows How Long People May Really Be Safe Indoors

An interactive model created by researchers at MIT aims to create a more complex understanding of how safe people are from coronavirus while indoors that takes into account factors beyond how far apart people are.

a large green field in front of a building: People stand on the lawn outside Building 10 on the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) campus in Cambridge, Massachusetts, U.S., on Monday, April 20, 2020. College financial aid offices are bracing for a spike in appeals from students finding that the aid packages they were offered for next year are no longer enough after the coronavirus pandemic cost their parents jobs or income. Photographer: Adam Glanzman/Bloomberg via Getty Images

© Bloomberg via Getty Images

People stand on the lawn outside Building 10 on the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) campus in Cambridge, Massachusetts, U.S., on Monday, April 20, 2020. College financial aid offices are bracing for a spike in appeals from students finding that the aid packages they were offered for next year are no longer enough after the coronavirus pandemic cost their parents jobs or income. Photographer: Adam Glanzman/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The researchers, Kasim Khan, John W. M. Bush and Martin Z. Bazant, say that evidence suggests staying at least six feet apart in social settings may not be completely effective in protecting against airborne transmission of coronavirus, especially as time goes by.


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Their model calculates “safe exposure times and occupancy levels for indoor spaces” based on a series of other factors, like time, room size, humidity and the behavior of those inside it.

For example, in a restaurant, the model projects that 50 occupants would be safe for two hours, while 100 people would be safe for only 64 minutes. Current general social distancing guidelines suggest 138 people would be safe in the same size of space for an indefinite amount of time, the research notes.

Similarly, the model suggests that two people would be safe for eight days in a church, 25 occupants would be protected for four hours, and 100 people would be safe for only two hours. However, guidelines for merely staying six feet apart indicate 52 people would be safe in that setting for an unlimited period of time.

The model cites a July article in the journal Nature that governments’ advice for the coronavirus hadn’t adapted to new understanding that the virus is airborne.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have since confirmed that the virus can be spread through aerosols, which “can linger in the air for minutes to hours” and travel farther than six feet.

CDC guidance now notes that the virus can “spread through exposure to those virus-containing respiratory droplets comprised of smaller droplets and particles that can remain suspended in the air over long distances (usually greater than 6 feet) and time (typically hours).”

Asher Klein contributed to this report.

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Vietnam veteran gets long overdue recognition with gift of free new car in Richardson

For his service to his country in the Vietnam War, retired U.S. Coast Guard officer Gilbert “Frenchy” Benoit received many awards, among them a Purple Heart and a Vietnam Service Medal with two Bronze Stars.

But like many other veterans of that war, he did not receive a hero’s welcome when he returned home.

Benoit, who lives in Plano, on Monday received a free 2020 Nissan compact cargo van, donated by Wells Fargo in partnership with Courtesy Nissan of Richardson through the Military Warriors Support Foundation Transportation4Heroes program.

His public thank you was long overdue: 52 years and 29 days, to be exact, WFAA-TV (Channel 8) reported.

“Even though we busted our asses, nobody should have to go through the crap that we went through when we came back,” Benoit told the TV station.

Benoit arrived to receive his new van wearing a black leather jacket with a large U.S. flag across the back and the letters “USA,” TV footage showed.

During an operation with other U.S. Coast Guard crew near Cambodia during the Vietnam War, his small boat was ambushed and Benoit was injured by an AK-47 round that shattered his left hip. He endured years of rehabilitation, six hip replacements and ultimately an infection that cost Benoit both of his legs about 10 years ago, WFAA-TV reported.

His new white van will feature hand controls and a lift to get his wheelchair into the vehicle.

Benoit grew up in Louisiana and joined the Coast Guard in 1965, according to a biography provided by organizers. By 1968, he was deployed to Vietnam and served as an Officer of the Deck on the Point Banks.

A water tower near High Mesa Drive, as viewed from a helicopter on Wednesday, January 4, 2017 in Plano, Texas.

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Long Beach State vs. UCLA odds, line: 2020 college basketball picks, Nov. 30 predictions from proven model

The Long Beach State 49ers will take on the No. 22 UCLA Bruins at 9:30 p.m. ET on Monday at Pauley Pavilion. UCLA is 1-1 on the season, while Long Beach State is set to make its season debut on Monday night. The Bruins have dominated the 49ers over the years, winning each of the last nine meetings against Long Beach State. 

The Bruins are favored by 17.5-points in the latest UCLA vs. Long Beach State odds from William Hill Sportsbook, and the over-under is set at 142.5. Before entering any Long Beach State vs. UCLA picks, you’ll want to see the college basketball predictions from the advanced computer model at SportsLine.

The SportsLine Projection Model simulates every Division I college basketball game 10,000 times. Over the past four years, the proprietary computer model has generated an impressive profit of $2,400 for $100 players on its top-rated college basketball picks against the spread. Anyone who has followed it has seen huge returns.

Now, the model has set its sights on UCLA vs. Long Beach State. You can head to SportsLine to see its picks. Here are several college basketball odds for UCLA vs. Long Beach State:

  • UCLA vs. Long Beach State spread: UCLA -17.5
  • UCLA vs. Long Beach State over-under: 142.5 points
  • UCLA vs. Long Beach State money line: UCLA -2800, Long Beach State +1200

Latest Odds:


What you need to know about UCLA

The Bruins were 19-12 last season and are coming off of a 107-98 win against the Pepperdine Waves this past Friday. It may have taken overtime, but UCLA eventually got the job done against Pepperdine. The Bruins were led by guard Chris Smith, who finished with 26 points, 12 rebounds and six assists. Smith is averaging 18.0 points, six rebounds and 4.5 assists per game through his first two outings of the season. 

UCLA will enter Monday’s matchup confident it can secure a big win. That’s because the Bruins are 7-0 in their last seven home games. In addition, UCLA is 6-3 against the spread in its last nine games against an opponent from the Big West conference. 

What you need to know about Long Beach State

Long Beach State struggled last year, ending up 11-21. However, the 49ers bring back a lot of talent this year, including the dynamic duo of Chance Hunter and Michael Carter III. 

Hunter finished the 2019-20 season averaging 13.9 points and 5.0 rebounds per game. Smith was also lethal from behind the arc last season, knocking down over 41 percent of his three-point attempts. Carter, meanwhile, averaged over 12 points per game last season and made 81.2 percent of his shots from the charity stripe. 

How to make UCLA vs. Long Beach State picks

The model has simulated UCLA vs. Long Beach State 10,000 times and the results are in. We can tell you that the model is leaning over, and it’s also generated a point-spread pick that is hitting in well over 60 percent of simulations. You

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