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Christmas Train Memories

rsz_istock_000004980756smallby Ray Weaver

‘Old Toy Trains’ is the title of a great Roger Miller song. It is also probably the first image that pops into my mind whenever someone says the word ‘Christmas.’

My dad made sure that we had a Christmas garden every year. Now, we’re not talking about some elaborate male vanity project with working waterfalls and self-propelled people that he worked on all year here.

Our Christmas village was a 4×6 piece of plywood that dad nailed to some two by sixes, painted green, put some holes in to stick big, screw-in Christmas lights through to light the houses, used some left over black paint to add a few roads, and screwed an oval of metal train tracks around the perimeter. It sat dormant, dusty and cobwebby in our basement until December rolled around and it was time for Christmas to work its’ yearly magic. Hit the rust on the tracks with some steel wool, add a few plastic houses from Kresge’s, some plastic people, cars, trucks and animals from various play sets, an old mirror for a lake, some fake snow from a spray can…

Like I said, man…magic.

My sisters loved setting up the garden, but the trains were the most important thing to me.
Lionel trains. Big trains. I never learned all the gauges and stuff, but these were the big guys. Some of them came from my dad’s childhood, and he polished and cherished them the way a person does when they came up hard and know the value of things. That crisp, dusty, almost dangerous smell of electricity when he plugged in the big transformer and hooked the wires to the track is as much of my sensory Christmas memories as the scent of pine, tangerines and turkey.

Dad set the speed on the transformer so the locomotive and the freight cars would make their way smoothly around the oval; behind the engine and the coal car there was a Baby Ruth car, a B&O railroad car, a ESSO (not EXXON) tanker car, a few others and, of course, the caboose. They rumbled around the track, past the village where the big old-fashioned Christmas lights were warping and melting the plastic houses, were the figurines from the different play sets were creating scale issues resulting in sheep being bigger than the houses and ducks on the mirror pond the size of the Buicks on the street next door, where the sticky spray on snow was getting dusty and gray…

God…it was beautiful…

I have been to any number of elaborate firehouse holiday displays over the years – I love trains – and I have never seen one that was anywhere near as cool as dad’s knotty, peeling, plywood township. And don’t even get me started on theme Christmas trees and gardens where everything matches and the bows and boughs are all perfectly hung…bah, humbug!

Like any boy, I experimented with how fast I could get the trains to go before they’d jump the track – usually behind the tree which resulted in another adventure trying to climb back and get the locomotive without tipping the whole business over onto the living room floor.

I also staged spectacular train wrecks involving toy cars and the giant, mutant farm animals. Dad was not thrilled. Remember, this was a very delicately balanced enterprise. Our ‘Christmas tree stand’ was a Maxwell House coffee can covered in wrapping paper and filled with sand. It was a safe bet that before the whole beautiful mess came down after New Year’s that the tree would be wired to the year-round nail up in the corner and the Christmas garden would be littered with shards of glass from fallen ornaments.

I’d love to tell you that I continued the train garden tradition with my own kids, but I didn’t. I tried, but I guess there are some things that are so hardwired to someone that you love that when they are no longer there; well, to go on without them just seems wrong somehow.

I guess everyone has their misty-eyed Christmas moments; watching ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’, hanging an ornament from someone that has moved on, reading an old card…for me, when I hear the nylon strings of Roger Miller’s guitar and the opening lines,

‘Old toy trains, little toy tracks,
Little boy toys, comin’ from a sack…’

Well, you’re gonna have to give me a moment…

Love you, dad. Miss you…everyday…

Happy holidays…

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