A view from under the tree
My neighbor Joe recently posted a photo of himself in his Lawnsmith shirt, wearing a red bandana and his train engineer’s hat, admiring a display of Lionel trains running under his Christmas tree. It was a scene I know too well: I could see the smoke from old black engine number 707 puffing away and imagine Joe tooting his wooden train whistle as it rolled by.
Our love of model trains date back to the early 1900s, when Lionel first produced the first of a long line of model trains. Anyone who has owned a set knows these are not toys, but rather well-built heavy machines of steel. When I was a kid, Dad would set up the sheet of plywood in the corner of our basement and my brother Mike and I would play throughout the holidays.
We were cautioned not to add to much liquid smoke to the stack on the engine and to be sure to slow down around the curves. Of course, Mike and I would always speed things up when Dad was not around. This usually got us in trouble when we got caught. We would stand our green Army men along the tracks, or on the flatbed rail car, making all sorts of configurations of train cars. Most of the time, the red caboose would be on the end of the line of trains, but it was fun every now and then to put it behind the coal car for a change. These were simpler times during the not too simple times of the 1960s. There was no 24/7 cable news—my parents would listen to the evening news with Walter Cronkite. Once my brother Ken went to serve in Vietnam with the Marines, the news became a glum reminder of the peril all our boys faced and became hard to watch, so Mom would change the channel. We were usually allowed to watch the tube more during the holidays.
I remember much more snow back then. It seems just about every year was a white Christmas, much like the one this year here in Glen Spey. When my younger brother, sister and I would get too rambunctious in the house, Mom would call us all together to get our coats, hats scarfs, gloves and galoshes. We always thought we were going to the store, excited that maybe we were headed across Cortelyou Road to the candy store in our Brooklyn neighborhood, or to the Bohack grocery store next to Jerry’s candy shop. We would get all geared up and waddle out to the front door, only to hear Mom shut the door behind us, followed by the click of the double-bolt locks. Slam, click, click—we were outside to play in the snow, whether we wanted to or not. We always fell for it.
This was my mom’s time alone in the house to regain her sanity. After a few hours she would call us back in, where we would undress our snow-soaked clothes and be treated to hot cocoa and grilled-cheese sandwiches. I loved retreating to the basement then, for some alone time with the train set. My imagination would run wild, back when a view from the train was a great holiday treat. The train set carefully wrapped in newspaper to be good as new for next year. Once the New Year starts, it’s back to the old grind, maybe with a new conductor or two on the Port Jervis line.