93: The Train

93: The Train

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: It's Christmas!

The Train

Just because everything is different doesn’t mean anything has changed.

~Irene Peter

As I raced for the Christmas presents under the tree, Dad spun me around and tugged me into the dining room. “Nope. This way, buddy!” On the table a shiny 1957 Santa Fe “O” gauge Lionel train clicked around an oval track. Dad sat close to teach me how to blow the horn, accelerate, stop, uncouple cars, and reverse. A barrel loader vibrated wood barrels up a ramp and dumped them in a gondola car, and a horse car vibrated black rubber horses out a door, down a ramp and into a corral where they moved through chutes, and then back into the horse car. It was the beginning of an empire, one larger and more wonderful than I could possibly have imagined at the time.

With my newspaper delivery earnings, I bought a model of a station and a set of fake trees. For my birthday I asked for a new boxcar and a bag of figurines to inhabit my town. I waited anxiously for Christmas so I could try them out. The second Christmas, Mom had me set up around the tree so she could have the table for holiday dinners. That meant bumping Dad’s old train from its place of honor ringing the tree. His was a giant train from the 1930s, each car eight inches high and a foot long, but it showered sparks, and Dad was afraid they’d set the tree needles on fire, so he retired it to the attic, and gave me his train’s oversized metal tunnel, bridge and signal towers.

When we moved, I set my train on an old table in the basement. I painted in roads, lawns, and a lake, and the train stayed up year-round. But when the town was complete, I lost interest. Perhaps, like Christmas or birthdays, once a year is more exciting. I was also a teenager with better things to do — high school girls aren’t impressed with Lionel trains. Eventually I packed the set away.

The family changed. My grandparents died, I moved away for a career, married and started a family. Dad died too. But with children, it didn’t seem right to have Christmas without the clickety-click and whistle of a train. I dug the set out of Mom’s basement closet and set it up around the tree for my daughter. Cindy was only three, but I taught her what my father taught me. Not too fast around the curves, go slow through the tunnel and over the bridge until you’re sure nothing hits. As I whispered in her ear, I could hear Dad once again whispering in mine.

But it wasn’t the same. For one thing, Cindy didn’t want the plastic engineer on the caboose where he’d always ridden. She insisted on having that place taken by a squiggly, rubber crab she’d gotten on a beach vacation. “Crabbie” had to sit with its legs shaking atop the caboose. To her the train was primarily Crabbie’s taxi. For another thing, I had cats. Our big orange male, Pow-wow, lay atop my dad’s huge tunnel to whack the train as it emerged, the children shrieking with delight. Once he charged into the tunnel as the train entered from the other end and a snarling, thunking rumble ensued. I.Q.-challenged Tulip followed the caboose cautiously, not aware that the engine would sneak up behind her. It goosed her, sending her yowling and clawing up the tree. Eventually these and other cats passed away too, but their stories as well as my own memories of Dad popped out of the train boxes each December.

Our new kittens’ characters were judged by how they reacted to the train. And three more children learned to take the throttle. Each ran the train at least once every Christmas. Even as teenagers, the three girls took a slightly embarrassed turn, but if I suggested not setting it up, there were always groans. “You have to, Dad!” The clickety-click, smell of oil and the nasal horn were as much a part of Christmas as sugar cookies and elves. Over the years our children threw things into the train box — Jeremy’s baseball players mingled with my firemen and my dad’s old Dick Tracy figurine. Somebody tossed in a few monsters and metal Monopoly tokens that had to be set up on the station platform. All the mismatched stuff belonged, and everyone grabbed for special items when the train boxes emerged. To Cindy’s disappointment, Crabbie disappeared, but ten years later it was rediscovered inside a boxcar. You’d think the prodigal son had returned.

Four spouses and five grandchildren now swell our holiday gatherings. All — even two-year-old Silas, with his parents whispering instructions — take a turn at the throttle and make the barrels and rubber horses inch along. Everybody learns to fiddle with the horse car door to prevent the horses from jamming up, and everybody learns that tinsel across the track is one of the dozen reasons the train won’t run. Lately, we added an electronic crossing gate and threw away a freight station that had been broken, glued, and taped so often it could no longer stand upright, but no matter how the train set grows or crumbles, it’s always complete, just like us.

The engine has lost power despite several tune-ups, much as its chief conductor has. The old horn is hoarse, and one coupler doesn’t hold the way it should, so the kid driving watches carefully so as not to ram a decoupled car from behind.

There’s still magic when the train appears each year. Just as each holiday the family magically assembles from four states to welcome a new baby or measure each other’s growth or wrinkles. We pile presents away from the tree now because the train and its village need all the underneath space. We fit the tracks together, add new cars to the old, plug it in and feel that the world is just fine when the old Santa Fe engine pulls the cars around the track and that familiar clickety-click mingles with the adults’ talk and children’s giggles. It’s not just plastic and metal, but the train of our lives that clicks around the track.

~Garrett Bauman

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