Wrote this a few years ago.
Christmas, Lionel Trains, and Dad
Right around Thanksgiving, my parents would get their copy of the Sears Christmas catalogue, and my brother and I ensured that the toy section of that book would be well worn weeks before the holidays. We also dog-eared every page of the yearly Lionel catalog which our Dad picked up from Tomaine’s Western Auto store on the corner of North Main Street and Salem Avenue. Freight sets featuring brawny, no nonsense steam locomotives with working headlights that puffed smoke and had whistling tenders; sleek, modern diesel locomotives heading up quartets of lighted, shiny, fluted aluminum-sided passenger cars; automatic barrel cars, operating sawmills and gantry cranes; and a host of other accessories that captured the imagination. Visions of sugar plums? Not in my head. I dreamed of operating milk cars where the doors opened and Lilliputian men tirelessly shoved stainless steel milk cans onto the waiting platforms. My brother and I were part of the lucky few who had a train set. Not every family could afford one.
Our Christmas layout was a 4 x 6 piece of homosote with a single loop of track punctuated by a short cutoff accessed by a pair of automatic switches. Our motive power and rolling stock consisted of a basic Lionel O27 starter set my Dad had won on a punch board (remember them?). The set included a steam locomotive with whistling tender, a short black gondola, a red Baby Ruth box car without opening doors, and a tuscan, lighted caboose. We thought we died and went to heaven the year our Dad came home with an operating horse car and corral that probably sold for the equivalent of a couple of day’s groceries back then. Ease that train up to the corral, line ‘er up just right, hit the button and watch those miniature equines exit from one side of the car, parade around the corral, and then enter the car on the other side. That was high tech entertainment. The platform, which was set up in our living room, sat on two, short, wooden sawhorses, and also served as the base for our Christmas tree which was bought each year from the Chambers family who owned a tree farm near Halstead and sold trees from their yard up the street from us. Icicles, we called it tinsel, were made of metal unlike the artificial plastic stuff sold today. Because the tinsel was metal, if a piece landed on the tracks and the train ran over it, a spark would occur. My brother and I liked to see the sparks fly early and often. We also had a Plasticville village which consisted of a couple of Cape Cod houses, a barn with silo, a log cabin and, the village’s crown jewel, a cathedral complete with plastic stained glass windows. All the buildings lit up at night thanks to a string of large Christmas bulbs which our Dad ingeniously attached underneath the platform before poking them through pre-drilled, one inch holes. We had to be careful where we placed the buildings though. Those bulbs burned hot, and, if we didn’t place the buildings just so, the heat would melt the plastic.
I’ve often wondered what our parents did without so we could have our train layout and presents under the tree each year. I remember one year in particular when things were really tight financially and there wasn’t the usual amount of goodies under the tree. I was disappointed and blurted out how we didn’t have a “good Christmas.” I can’t imagine how much that must have hurt my Dad. It’s the one thing in my life I’ve always wished I could take back. This November 16th marked the thirteenth anniversary of his passing, and not a day goes by that I don’t think of him. He always gave much more than he ever took.
"There are only two lasting bequests we can give our children - one is roots, and the other, wings." -- Hodding S. Carter
"You live as long as you are remembered." -- Russian proverb