It starts with snow. Almost always, the fine flakes falling-and hardly ever a whisper of the cold biting wind that came off the lakeshore and dropped temperatures regularly into the 20’s and teens. Below that, sometimes. Dad still says to me, “we left the east before you were an adult. Your memories of it don’t include shoveling a lot of snow, getting the car started at 6:00 in the morning when the temperature was below zero, the freezing slush….” I’m all about snow-days from school, hot cocoa and cartoons. He’s right, of course. But it’s a memory. And it’s mine.
Trains, Christmas trees and Rudolph, really. My earliest memories of Christmas are filled with trains. My father loved them, cherished them even. I remember knowing there were some that were special, we had probably 8-10 electric HO engines, and one in particular was dad’s. It was a black steam-engine and I don’t remember whether or not it actually gave off steam if the proper chemical was added. Remembrances of it still exist in my dad’s house. There’s a steam engine calendar and a painting of steam trains on a plaque. There’s one of those wooden whistles and a little model of a locomotive in his office in the house in Arizona–and every time I see them, I think of our basement in Chicago.
What I do remember is that the black engine was special. It was the King of trains, the one that marked all the others as living or present and if it wasn’t running, it was occasionally given its own piece of track to rest on, standing sentinel over the rest. It was brought out to test every new track we built. It wasn’t real until dad ran his engine on it and after that, the yellow and green one that looked like the real trains dad took to work from our suburban Chicago home. I remember their heft, they felt heavy to me and since then, I’ve often thought that the HO engines I’ve seen and had in years past are not as well made because they’re not as heavy. That, however, may be because I’m older.
We occasionally put them under the Christmas tree, but frankly–we got new ones almost every year and rather than set them up under the tree, they were the presents that were placed there. I can remember the old house on Pratt Ave. (dad took this picture of it recently when he was visiting his brother and sister in Wisconsin).
Christmas morning I would come downstairs and under the tinkling lights and ornaments were wrapped packages in multi-colored paper with snowmen or Santa. Outside, a blanket of soft snow covered all and the furnace rumbled to life as we put on robes and mom made breakfast. In the back of the tree, though, behind the wrapping and illuminated gently by the tree lights that mom turned on when she was the first downstairs, was a brand new Tyco HO train set. It included an engine and the requisite cars, some track, a crossing gate and other assorted goodies.
The first engine I remember getting was a red and grey GP-20 diesel. It was a thing of beauty and I kept that engine until I was in my teens. I see it still and I loved it dearly, but I remember always coveting others. Jerry had a green Penn Central F9A engine and that lime green color with its modern aero-dynamic look was awesome. Doug had the aforementioned yellow and green passenger hauler and there was, of course, dad’s steam train. Tracks, set-ups, were fluid matters that changed positions and were altered at our whim– cities, streams, tunnels, hills–even snow.
Raising a daughter has not afforded me the privilege of having too many trains in my home. Before I was married, my roommate Shawn and I had a game called Railroad Tycoon. It’s a computer game in which you build railroad empires that are animated. It’s virtual, not tangible and so not nearly as satisfying as coloring hillsides and adding cars to an already straining payload. But I’ve never had the trains I had in my youth. I miss them.
I fully intend to build another set of them when I get older but recently, I’ve been thinking I shouldn’t wait. The memory of trains is so strong in me. I can even remember their odor as the snaps of ozone wafted across the electricity pulsing through the tracks. I remember cleaning the wheels with a special eraser that took the black grit right off the tires.
On my way to work each morning, here in California where I now make my home, I cross the tracks that are part of the major north-south road in California. The tracks go all the way down to San Diego at the Mexican border and they continue north–all the way to Canada. It’s a busy road and I find myself looking at each train that passes with a kind of glee. I’ve ridden on a few of them–we’ve taken Peanut to San Diego and such, but still nothing really compares to those days of my youth where I built empires, drove engines, set schedules and repaired breakdowns on my own railroad line.
Still, even with all of it–it’s Christmas where the trains mean the most. For it is in Christmas-time that we share our deepest memories, not only of our faith in the Christ-child that comes to us anew each year–but in our families and in our memories as traditions and passions, loves and joys. If Christmas is anything to me, it’s a memory of trains and snow–of cold nights and dreams of what will be….
I remember a cold clear night with snow on the ground, standing outside the church with my brothers in Palatine waiting for mom and dad to take us home that Christmas eve. I remember blowing our breath until it crystallized in the frozen night air and looking skyward to see if we could see Rudolph’s nose. I remember bedtime and curling deep beneath heavy blankets at my feet and heavy eyelids lilting me into a whispering dream of sleep. I remember the thrum and rattle of electric train engines on freshly laid track, still loose and unfixed in its place like the dream that held it. And I remember dad making straight the path, putting down the bed for the rails and running his steam engine with its coal car along the tracks.
The night faded softly, coldly into day and we were up with the sun, chomping at the proverbial bit to welcome yet another Christmas day, carols on the radio, mom pouring orange juice and the three of us boys ripping and shredding paper. Those days fill my mind this time of year and they haunt me with a glow of my childhood and the quiet but persistent hum of an HO model train.