I can still smell the special smoke from the Lionel 027 Gage locomotive as it wound around the tracks under our Christmas tree! My father was the engineer but he let me command the whistle, which was an orange switch pushed left to right and back. The beacon flashed from green to red, village people frozen in place for another Christmas season until I rearranged them when my imagination immersed me into this Plasticville town.
There was a cattle shute with rubbery black steer to push through the gates, a pair of folks sitting on benches reading newspapers while a nearby paperboy shouted out his sales pitch. I shuffled 1950’s vehicles, ladies with baskets near the 5 & 10, ministers, railroad workers, road signs and my favorite little girl clutching a toy behind her back as she stood in the Frosty Bar ice cream store. It was a wonderful world to become lost in, and the train and trolley were the amazing focal points. Everyone loved to see our train display. Even a priest at our church got to play conductor every year when my mother cooked his pot roast favorite. Father McKiernan was his name. He was a nice man except for the little cheek tweeks he was prone to giving me as a greeting.
But best of all, the Lionel train and villages forged a special bond between my father and I. He probably had held out secret hope that I’d be a boy when I surprisingly entered the family mix almost nine years after my middle sister was born. He was fifty-three and my mother was forty. So while I wasn’t a boy, I enjoyed watching sports with him and especially loved our train set.
Back then I suppose, sixty-three was considered old because suddenly my mother announced there’d be no more trains under the tree as it was too much work for my dad. I was only ten, and it came as a huge blow to my soul. I exaggerate not. Mom sent the train and trolley off to my oldest sister, her husband and baby girl. They lived in Illinois, and as we were in New York, visiting wasn’t realistic. Despite retaining the villages which she allowed me to set up on the big bay window sill, Christmas felt empty from that time on. While I think my father was given to agreement with this “no more train under the tree”, he’d probably have made it work somehow or way had it not been for my mother’s decisive “we are done”.
Flash forward eleven years when it was just Dad and I left. With secret giddiness, I surprised him with a Lionel train I’d seen in the store. He was hooked just that quickly, immersing himself in the booklets. We had fun running the train again after all those years without its rightful place under the tree. And altough this particular version of train was not up to 50’s standards, we made it magical. Dad then drove us out to Brooklyn to the nearest Lionel store and proudly purchased an Amtrak set, more track, and a whistle. The little boy inside him emerged as we ran two trains and watched entranced, bonding over our mutual love affair with all things Lionel.
A year and a half later, a few months after he passed away, I purchased a 1948 027 gage train set with smoking locomotive at a swap meet. Dad would have loved it. As I moved out west, married and had children, trains became part of my world and theirs. The trains are waiting now to be revamped, and I miss them. My son will eventually take over as conductor because he’s inherited the Lionel gene from his grandfather and me. I’ll be looking forward to seeing them all set up under a fresh cut tree once again. I know it will fill my heart with sweet memories and a connection among my father, myself and my son.