How I Got In To Toy Trains: Part 1, Frank Martin Ventura
TCA #17-72816 Winter e*Train 2022
From the Bronx to Beantown, my life with toy trains.
First things, first… I still play with toy trains and love it.
So where did it all start? I was born in 1972 in the Bronx, New York, which is properly pronounced “da Bronx”. Yes, I was quite literally born at home. I was the middle kid born between two sisters of my Navy veteran dad and my New York City school teacher mom. As with most of us life takes its up turns and its down turns. When I was three my father left us for parts unknown on Christmas evening. 70s era economics and mental illness were taking its toll on him. That left my mother to provide and care for us kids and her aging parents. Despite these challenges we had our good times.
Some of the best were taking the number 6 I.R.T. New York City Subway downtown to Manhattan. For a young kid from the Bronx that 6 train was a magical experience. The Bronx in the 70s was hit hard by recession era urban decay. Many landlords favored burning their buildings for insurance revenue rather than maintaining them.
But the 6 train took us away from all of that into “Downtown” as we called it. You probably call it Manhattan. The home of wealth, empire, and opulence. For those of you who are fans of the very talented Jennifer Lopez who grew up in my hood; one of her albums is entitled “On the 6”. That is a reference of how taking the 6-train downtown for us Bronx kids was an escape ticket to the land of Oz.
When I was 5 life took another tragic turn. We lost my younger sister. After that we moved into a basement apartment of the 3 story walk up that my grandparents lived in. This added expense necessitated my mother to take a night job. No longer was she there to tuck me in when it was bedtime, but as she said I was a big boy now and didn’t need it. Shortly after that a Christmas present arrived from my father who was in Ohio, or was it California, or maybe Arizona; but it was definitely from dad.
OK guys this is what you came for! Yes, it was a set of 3 rail Lionel trains. A diesel loco and three plastic freight cars, track, and transformer. Wow, what amazing fun. I was hooked. That joy lasted for about 2 years. I then noticed my mother spending most of her home time upstairs in my grandparents’ apartment. One day when I snuck up there, I saw my grandmother, my mother and another woman dressed in white standing around a hospital style bed which my grandfather was in. My sister used the word stroke. Even though I had never heard that word before somehow, I knew what was happening. Shortly after we buried grandpa, I noticed that my train set was missing. My sister told me that mom sold it. At the time I couldn’t understand how she could have done that so easily. Now, four decades later, I know that it must have killed her to do that. That was April of 1980.
A few months later on a very hot summer day my mother had to go downtown to visit some government social services office. I think it had something to do with child support from the VA, but I can’t be certain of that. So, we had another of our beloved rides on the 6-train downtown. I remember sitting on a very hard wooden bench in an unairconditioned waiting room for hours while mom took care of business. After she finished, I thought she was going to take us right back onto the train back up to the Bronx. But instead, she walked around with me for a while until we got to a store called FAO Schwarz.
I had no idea what that was, but she took me in with her. Almost the instant we got in I was amazed. I saw things in there that I couldn’t have even imagined existed. Lego building sets the size of a dining room table, stuffed animals that moved and made sounds, and even toy cars that kids could sit in and they actually drove. What was going through my mind must have been the same as what was going through Howard Carter’s mind when he first peered into King Tutt’s tomb. That was a religious experience in its own right, but the best was yet to come. We went upstairs.
OK boys and girls, you know what was up there. Yes, there they were. It was the train room. Not just counters of trains to buy but a permanent operating layout. What a concept for a kid whose only train was quickly setup into an oval on the kitchen floor. I tried as hard as any 8-year-old kid could not say a word or show any emotion on my face as it may cause mom to put an end to this living fantasy. Eventually, mom said it was time to go. We boarded the 6 back uptown home, with my head still spinning.
Again, things were pretty good at home, and they were about to get better. The next spring, a few weeks before my birthday, my mother brought home a big box. To my shock it was a LGB starter set with a loco and two passenger cars, some track, and a transformer. Evidently, my youthful attempt at a poker face when we were at FAO Schwarz failed. I was on cloud nine. This wasn’t something used bought from a church rummage sale, Goodwill shop, or handed down from a friend of the family. It was brand new, and it was mine. If this article were a Donna Summer song, right now the tempo would be rising, and we would all be dancing in the aisles.
That LGB starter set was my prized possession and was granted the honor of running around our annual Christmas tree. Many years passed and life again was very good to me. I had a good job as a shop foreman at a high-end car dealership and owned my own home in a Connecticut town just over the New York line. But all good things must come to an end. One day when test driving a new car, I hit another car that I never saw. After some visits to ophthalmologists and retina specialists, I was diagnosed with Retinitis Pigmentosa. This was a few months short of my 29th birthday. By the time I was 30, I was totally blind. With my job and ex-wife gone things took another turn in the road. I needed to learn some new skills to live independently without vision. I went up to Massachusetts to take a few classes in braille, cooking, white cane using, etc.
While there I got involved in a competitive sailing program for blind folks. It was a good time and again another chance for an upturn happened. One of the volunteers in the program organized a recreational sailing trip to the Virgin Islands. There were eight of us on a 47-foot sailboat for a week. After dinner I spent almost every night on deck under the Caribbean moon with a young lady who is now the love of my life. Around the same time my mother’s health turned very bad. She was wheelchair bound and her kidneys had failed. She could not care for herself. I was now living full time here in Boston and together we made the decision that I would take her in with me and care for her 24/7.
That was the hardest thing I ever had to do emotionally, and my wife Nina was here to support me. After mom passed, I went back to work full time and Nina moved in with me here in Boston. But there is a part of that story that I rarely tell folks. Shortly before mon’s passing, she bought me a birthday present. This was the first present she bought me in decades. Polo shirt, necktie, jacket, of course not. She Bought me a MTH “Blue Comet” with a reproduction 384e and passenger cars. Life with my wife Nina has been wonderful. With her love of Mickey Mouse toys and my love of toy trains, our home is decorated in the style of early American toy store.
Earlier this year I was diagnosed with chronic kidney disease. That is what ultimately took my mother’s life. My wife convinced me to get genetic testing done and it was found that the same gene that caused me to go blind is also associated with kidney failure. I can’t say what the future holds, be it one day or ten years. But it makes me appreciated every time Nina and I wake up together, hold each other’s hand or sneak a smooch. When my day ultimately comes, I’ll look forward to seeing mom again and to thank her for all the good times, and of course the choochoo trains.
‘Happy rails to you!
EDITOR’S NOTE: This series is designed to share the inquiries of how TCA members got into toy trains. We all have a story to share. Send your story and pictures to the TCA e*Train editor [email protected] for a future edition.