By Joyce Bonds
My childhood memories of Christmas are probably a lot different than for most people. While others remember the fragrance of pine boughs and cookies baking, my memories are of cigar smoke and solder fumes. Other families laid out beautiful holiday decorations, nativity sets and poinsettia plants. But our house was decorated with an odd assortment of steam engines that wouldn’t steam and diesels that wouldn’t go, each with their accompanying manila tag with the owner’s name on it. You see, my father was an authorized Lionel® repair man.
I guess I should introduce my father, now deceased. He was Paul N. Wagner, a TCA Life Member (65-1176). By day he worked for New Jersey Bell Telephone. But as soon as supper was done, out came the skeleton key which opened the door to the “Hobby House”. The Hobby House was little more than an enclosed sun-porch. Inside were shelves displaying rolling stock and a double looped layout for O-gauge.
Underneath the train platform were cases of track, switches and plastic houses. Shelves held many dozens of cigar boxes which had been carefully re-labeled to announce their new contents: lock-ons, track pins, smoke pellets, people, telephone poles, drivers, trucks, and so on. There seemed to be an endless supply of parts.
As a young girl who wasn’t particularly popular with the boys, they all sought me out soon after Thanksgiving to see if I’d bring them the new Lionel train catalog. I’d ask Daddy, who would of course give me the number of catalogs that I needed to appease the boys.
And I soon learned not to get into my pj’s too early because the boys and their fathers would start showing up on our porch just about dark. They would buy new cars or smoke pellets or Plasticville® buildings as they got ready for the trains to be running under their Christmas trees.
We never had trains under our tree. I’m not sure if it was my mother’s way of rebelling, or if Daddy simply never had the time. But I got to run the trains in the Hobby House. I could make them go forward and backward, blow the whistle, uncouple cars or drop their load. I could even run two trains at the same time. I could really impress the boys!
Of course I had my jobs too. When my father repaired a locomotive, if it only made it half-way around the loop, it was my job to tip-toe around the buildings on the layout, and push the locomotive back to him. Or if a train derailed, my little hands carefully put each set of wheels back on the track. I also got good with a flashlight and magnet, as I hunted little screws and springs that escaped from Daddy’s hands and fell on the floor. We made a pretty good team.
My father has been deceased now for the past twenty years. But as luck would have it, I married another train-nut. My husband will have his thirtieth anniversary as a member of TCA next year, during TCA’s fiftieth anniversary. So needless to say, my husband has carried on the toy train tradition in the family. We still have a lot of those White Owl Perfecto™ parts boxes. But our trains are beautifully displayed on Trainshelf and RailRax aluminum shelving instead of 2×4’s, and our toy train collection is inventoried on a computer program.
And sometimes at Christmas-time, the old memories will return with the smell of solder as my husband makes a repair. But sometimes I still miss the smell of those cigars.