National Christmas Tree RailRoad (NCTRR) 1994-2020
by Clem Clement, TCA# 64-987 (Honor Roll)
Time moves on
All good things must end
The NCTRR ( https://www.facebook.com/National-Christmas-Tree-Railroad-284698638227767) has officially completed its mission. As of this winter season it’s existence is shut down. Assets are being dispersed and only the warm and proud memories last that “we done good” for hundreds of thousands of visitors to Washington DC’s President’s Park. Located behind the White House during the Decembers of the last 26 years, were it that we could have done more? During the last administration, The President’s Park contract company levied charges to the not-for-profit NCTRR for storage of the rolling stock, trackage, platforms, accessories, boxes, crates, storage shed and other paraphernalia for the 11 months between the NCT displays at the National Christmas Tree.
Additionally, the grey hair and perms of the workers were becoming thinner and “Putting down the displays, operating, servicing them and supporting them” should be performed by members in younger folk’s clothing. Not to say or ignore the strong help Scout groups, friends of, offspring of, associates of and, on occasion Santa his self. Santa fell victim to $$ shortage years earlier. Just the other day, I mentioned to several associates about the loss of the programs, and they commented that they had enjoyed the activities of the NCTRR. Our leaders spent a massive amount of time and effort trying to recruit new and younger members and to find more $$. They could not have tried any harder. What a great group team we assembled! We will all miss… On the bright side, we will have such fond memories of the fellowship with the team, the President’s Park, the crowds of visitors and the tree(s) itself. (and the squirrels and mouses!)
Do you know why the tree(s) tended to die young? Years ago, a model Train enthusiast friend of mine, who was an agronomist for the Park Service, was asked to bring a team to the tree and figure out why the tree had trouble surviving. So, I ask you: what happened in/to the White House in 1812? The dastardly British burned the White House; that’s what! All the debris, ashes and trash and reconstruction trash was moved to the low land behind the White House. So, when the Agronomist team started digging around the tree base, they found charred lumber, plaster, empty wooden beer kegs, stones and rubbish. Better and proper soil was brought in, the tree-root area was raised considerably inside the stone wall and irrigation was brought into the Park. (How’s that for a bit of history!)
To old Clem personally, there are so many events, highlights, occasions in my life that “ring my bell”; “tickle my fancy’’; “set me on fire’’, etc., to make my chest stick out with pride… Proud I am, to have had the honor to have been invited to serve the NCTRR over more than 15 years of the program’s existence.
In my life, #1 Priority was showing up. Next it was defeating the health problems I had as a baby. Next (it took) schooling, in which I showed my towering academic skills I had: NOT. Marriage and kids were of the prime importance and accomplishment. Next, the shivers in my spine upon every flight takeoff I made as an aviator, particularly as the dawn is breaking, the dew, snow, sun, darkness falling, gave me a jolt… I have the same number of aircraft takeoffs as landings as an aircrew member. (:>)
Somewhere high on the list is the excitement I feel that surrounds and engulfs me, as successfully, I pass thru the security gates of Presidents Park, leave my windows down to hear the sounds of the City and go about tending the affairs of the National Christmas Tree Railroad in the presence of the National Christmas Tree and President’s Park. The Tree shared her magic differently on every visit and I thank her. All types of weather, notably the morning snow swirling around the Tree, stinging our faces as we labored, showered by the sunlight filtering down thru the mini blizzard and rattling every one of the 150,000 balls and lights on the TREE. Then, there was the nut case who felt he needed to climb the tree thru the lighting-net…; always the music both live and recorded, praised the LORD and the season, The Menorah standing so proudly nearby for her 8 days of celebrations, the facades of the D.A.R., Red Cross, art museum, Treasury, Ag, and the little red marker light from the top of the Washington Monument winking “I got this” at us. We were in the most powerful spot the world, with the back drops for the National Christmas Tree, our trains, and the world, for a month each Christmas season.
Did I mention the little school kids, each holding onto a loop in a long rope tether lead by Teach as they jostled along, tossing pennies as the passing trains and under the love of Teach? When the action stopped if/when the MAN took off in his huge Marine 1 helio, everything was halted and we watched Marine 1 helio flying off on the mission at hand.
Every year we made improvements into the scene: different rail routes, more and better bridges and raised tracks, the operating intermodal terminal, the lit C-130 aircraft (donated by Andy Dubill of Overland- Park, Kansas,) flying high cover over the military loop, Thomas and friends in action, the fire station, flashing lights of modal police cars, Parked B-17 aircraft on the military loop’ s parade ground, Hope’s citizens scurrying about the Christmas villages, Ice on the tracks, trains in the mud, Fellow NCTRR members and friends working maintenance on the railroad and grounds, the sounds of the music, the crowds and the City.
Did I mention the Christmas choir who had performed someplace in town and afterwards serenaded us all at the Tree? I cried with joy. Job? NO. Work? NO. Mega-thrill always: YES! Love was in the scene and the special air: it is the spirit of what Christmas means to me. One New Year’s Eve, Sandy and I had the night duty and were asked by the Park Service to stay until midnight. At 11:30 PM, the Temperature was 6 deg. F, there were six visitors, one Park Ranger and a park maintenance man, Security and us, and the Black Horse. When asked: our answer was “This is where we belong.” I felt even more close to Sandy than I do at all times.
How sweet Punkin pie and ice cream tastes at the METRO diner, after tucking in the trains on the tracks for the night.
Stand tall ‘O National Christmas Tree, you have much more living to do, and service to the world to share.
Sandy and Clem
I forgot to mention the night the White House was attacked. The President’s Park power was cut off instantly, and everything went dark. Sandy’s nephew’s wife and their late dog Duke were outside the park while he did some business. We all had to quickly leave the Park in the dark and we found each other later on Constitution Ave.
Several times friends would meet us down town at the Tree. Our Family doctor and Mrs. would take a offsite breather, stay at the Mayflower Hotel, and greet us Saturday night on scene at the Tree. I put as many of the visitors as I could, to work at the Tree. The toughest task was the constant cleaning of the train tracks. The trains stood outside 24/7 in all kinds of weather. (In the last years the locomotives sought shelter in custom-made short snow sheds mounted over the tracks.) Oil from the bearings, dew/rain and dust mixed together left the tracks gooey. We use a Swiffe-like pad on a applicator and elbow grease to keep the tracks clean and shiny. Sometimes, birds, thrown candy and trash added to the job. (I cry as I think about the fun and thrill to be personally experienced no more.)
Christmas Day 2021 we gathered at our son and daughter-in-law’s new home in McLean, VA. Last spring, they returned to America from working for 7 years in Norway and Whales. Sandy’s nephew and wife drove down from Phila for a couple of days. After a scrumptious dinner, we opened presents around their tall Christmas Tree. As part of the closing of the NCTRR, train pieces had been dispersed. My piece was a nice Shell thank car with runtime around the tree. This was very special us as 5 of the six family members there, had worked at the tree. Thanks very much to the NCTRR Organization.
May we all play on in the future.