As he played in his front yard on Saturdays, Nathan King would look across the street where, as he saw it, the grown-ups were having all the fun.
It was spring 1998 and a dozen volunteers had begun to reverse the decades of neglect that nearly turned the Hampstead train station into a pile of rotting timber.
By the fall, Nathan was 10, and he got up the courage to walk over to Wayne Thomas, chairman of the Hampstead Train Station Committee.
"I asked how old you had to be to help," said Nathan, who turns 12 next month. "He said, `Old enough to swing a hammer.' "
Since then, Nathan has been swinging hammers, placing tar paper on the roof, toting tools for other volunteers, scraping and painting walls and having the time of his life. A choice between riding his bike and helping at the train station is no contest. The train station beats all, he said.
For his dedication, Nathan won a J. C. Penney Golden Rule Award for volunteer service to a community, a prize given to 21 Marylanders this year. He received a $500 scholarship, and his beloved train station project received $500 -- which Thomas said will go toward lumber to repair the clapboard exterior.
The train station is an important symbol for Hampstead -- it is depicted on the town seal as a small gray and red building -- the way it looked when it was built in 1913, and as it served as a depot for shoppers going to Baltimore or farmers who loaded their crops or daily milking onto the train.
But passenger service stopped decades ago, and the station fell into disrepair as it was rented as a warehouse. Volunteers have been working regularly during the past two years to restore it as a visitor center and museum, and hope to be done by June 2001.
Between now and then, they're hoping for a few preservation grants for things such as replacing the slate roof. Donations have amounted to $18,000.
The volunteers turn out to work two to three Saturdays a month. New people continue to show up to contribute everything from nails to sweat. Workers have put a temporary roof on half the building to stop water damage, and have replaced clapboard and painted one end of the exterior in the original gray and red. Some of those who work are professionals but most are not, Thomas said. About a dozen people make up the core of regulars.
Nathan, he said, is first among them.
"Nathan usually gets there shortly after I do, at 7 or 7: 30 in the morning, and he's always the last one to leave," Thomas said. "He has been there every single day since he started except for one day when he went on vacation with his family. There have been days when it was just him and me. He's been a real help to me."
Joan Prall, who chairs the train station historical committee, nominated Nathan for the J. C. Penney award. Like Thomas and most of the other volunteers, she was struck by his hard work and faithfulness.
"Nathan is a dedicated little guy," Prall said. "Not only does this boy help out at the train station, but he helps people in their gardens, he helps senior citizens with their groceries and he helps people clean out basements.
"He likes to do good things," she said.
One such good deed was that Nathan discovered and restored to the train station committee what turned out to be the only known surviving sign from the exterior of the station. It is a long wooden plaque that says "Hampstead." Nathan's family members found it in the basement of their rented house when they moved in. When Nathan saw pictures around town of the train station in its prime, he recognized the sign and took it over to Thomas.
Sandra King said she and her husband, John, a construction foreman, have always encouraged their three sons to help people, such as an elderly neighbor.
"But Nathan just came to do things on his own," his mother said. "He would take out [the neighbor's] trash, help her lift things."
She's not surprised to see Nathan, her middle son, take to the real-life work of construction. He loves to watch his father work, and his favorite toys have always been his four sets of building blocks, Lincoln Logs and Legos.
"All his toys, he would take them apart and put them back together," his mother said. "He's very good at drawing. Maybe he'll be an architect."
"I'd like to build houses," Nathan said. "I like doing the construction, to see what it's like so I can do it when I get older. I do everything everybody else does except I don't run a saw."