The Christmas Train
By Dan Eskeldson Winter 2016
John walked into the office on the Christmas Eve of 1947 and found his boss, Walter, waiting for him. “Hey John, I bought a trainset for Christmas for my kids a couple of years ago. It’s a great little set, but they’ve had their fun with it, and now my wife wants it gone. It’s yours for five dollars.”
John couldn’t answer right away. Growing up, times had been tough. His family spent little money on Christmas gifts, and five dollars for a mere toy felt decadent. “Can I get back to you later?”
As John thumbed through papers back at his desk he thought back on the glum Christmases he experienced as a child and knew he was in danger of passing his familiar holiday angst on to his children. That night his family would celebrate Christmas, and if he took up Walter on his offer shopping for his kids would be done. He smiled as he pictured himself putting it up that night while his kids ate dinner. It was also sensibly second-hand. The next time Walter walked by, John caught his eye and nodded. He drove home from work with the trainset packed inside an old green crate next to him.
That night John excused himself from the dinner table. “I have a few Christmas presents to wrap,” he muttered. He left the kitchen and busied himself with setting up the trainset in the living-room as his wife, Lucille, labored to keep their four children at the table. The children grew rebellious, and the mysterious sounds emanating from the living room made matters worse. But the atmosphere was a tantalizing departure from previous Christmas Eves, and John got the trainset working before the kitchen erupted into unpleasantries. The engine pulled the cars with ease, and the whistle grew stronger with continued use. Feeling satisfied, he signaled Lucille.
Jack and Dave quickly forgot the injustice at the dinner table and elbowed each other as the four children lined up at the kitchen door. Bobby, frailer than his brothers, stayed behind with his younger sister, Marilyn.
When Lucille allowed the children to pass, they rushed into the living room to see what Christmas brought them. Upon seeing the trainset, Jack raced Dave to the controls. Bobby and Marilyn approached the strange item more cautiously, but as the evening progressed. Bobby vied to take turns at running the train while Marilyn stared at the magic procession.
The arrival of the old train made that Christmas stand out, and for several Christmases thereafter it regularly navigated the small oval of track. It became a favorite of Bobby’s, and the train was quite active when he was too sick to go to school. But as time passed, Jack and Dave moved on to other things. Bobby died, and Marilyn’s pursuits grew more feminine. The old trainset again sat unused in its green crate.
Seventeen years after the arrival of her first son, Lucille found herself pregnant again with her last child, Danny, and on Danny’s sixth Christmas, John discussed tuition payments with Dave. His familiar financial predicament for the holidays felt worse than ever. Jack had just graduated from college, gotten married and moved far away. John hadn’t recovered from putting Jack through school and now Dave needed help. “Money’s tight,” admitted John. “We won’t get much for Danny for Christmas.” John felt trapped and helpless, just like other numerous holiday seasons.
“Why don’t you give Danny the old trainset?” asked Dave.
John stared at his son, somewhat confused. “Do we still have it? Does it even run?”
Dave nodded. “I think so. The green crate is still in the loft.”
John remained unsure. “I don’t have the time to mess with it,” he muttered to Dave. He found the thought of tinkering with the old trainset alluring, but that night he had two meetings to attend. The last time he had seen it was after coming home from a frustrating day at the office. The set lay abandoned and in disarray. He cringed as he remembered haphazardly tossing the different pieces into the green crate before heaving it into the loft. “It probably doesn’t work anyway,” he told himself at the time. Now it seemed his only hope for saving Christmas.
“I’ll take care of it,” said Dave.
The next night during Christmas Eve the rest of the family kept Danny engaged in the kitchen while Dave slipped out and assembled the old trainset under the tree. Danny wanted to follow his older brother and sulked upon being denied. When Danny finally sprinted to the living room, he found the old train rounding the corners. At first he just watched, but Dave coaxed him to the controls.
John looked at Dave with gratitude and relief. “I see it still runs.” Dave shrugged. “Sometimes it won’t change from forward to reverse, one of the couplers on the boxcar doesn’t always stay closed, and the whistle doesn’t work. But, considering its age it’s doing pretty well.”
That is how the old trainset came to me, and I remember how that Christmas seemed the most magical ever, but it wasn’t long before sometimes the engine only ran forwards and sometimes only backward. Gradually the boxcar became unusable leaving only the gondola and caboose behind the engine and tender. To offset this, Dave introduced more items the following years. One Christmas he added a crossing guard and the next year a trestle set, but the following year Dave graduated from college, got married and also moved far away. Shortly thereafter, Marilyn got married, and for much of the time the trainset remained the only thing left of my siblings.
But time had caught up with the old engine – its motion grew even more erratic, and then it stopped completely. When my father, John, attempted to repair it, it proved beyond his ability. That might have been the end of the old trainset, because at thirteen years of age my family assumed my childhood love affair with the old train would soon end. Instead, I saved allowances, mowed lawns, and returned bottles, enabling me to buy a new trainset, but the old trainset remained nearby in a sad, nostalgic sort of way.
The newer train was nice, but it wasn’t the same, and as luck would have it my father met someone who could fix it. The repairs were minor. Besides lubrication and a good cleaning, the old boxcar coupler was permanently glued closed to make it usable again. The old engine returned to duty, pulling the cars of the old set along with the new.
Shortly thereafter, my brother Jack moved closer with his family, and his wife’s old trainset emerged from the shadows. Unfortunately, time and neglect had taken their toll on her engine too, but when faced with the same issues my sister-in-law had a different solution. “You’re growing up, Dan, it’s time you passed your old train down to your nephews.”
Because the discussion left me insecure, the old engine and tender went with me to college in a shoebox. After I married, the shoebox returned to the green crate and moved with us from apartment to apartment and eventually house to house. Unused for an extended period of time, the old engine lurched and sputtered. As it had been for much of its existence, the ugly green crate and its contents were for the most part forgotten.
Marriage bloomed into family, and a new, innocent generation hungered for Christmas, eager to learn new traditions but also susceptible to absorbing old attitudes. As I averted my attention from the holiday season as my father had done, my two year old son watched in awe as our neighborhood transformed itself with Christmas lights. Jonathan needed something to make it special, and I needed something to make it special for him. In a foul mood I stood in line to buy Christmas lights when a small, inexpensive trainset caught my eye, half the size I had known as a child.
I set up the new set under the tree to Jonathan’s delight. With the transformer plugged into the Christmas lights, every time the lights illuminated the little train softly glided around the tree. But as much as the new train did for my son, it did even more for me. It held the torch of that one magical Christmas. Slowly the feelings of burden waned as long forgotten embers of a more healthy Christmas spirit burst forth with new flame.
The next year a new tradition began at our house. Thanksgiving morning the train board went down with the Christmas tree placed in the center the next day. Thereafter, Christmas season started with a trip to the local hobby shop where both Jonathan and his sister, Amy, picked out a new railroad car. Jonathan grew proficient at running the new little train, and Amy couldn’t wait to get her hands on the controls. The new train proved to be a favorite part of the holiday season.
But something was missing. I extracted the shoe box with the engine and tender from the ugly green crate and took it to a local hobby shop. The owner looked at its contents and stroked his chin.
“Leave it here. I know someone who can help it.” A few days later he called as I worked out the required changes for the Christmas layout. “The whistle needs replacing, and it needs a good cleaning.” “How much?” I asked even though cost didn’t matter.
That Christmas the new train joined a much older companion. The small train moved quietly on its own track. Beside it the old engine clattered, occasionally blaring a whistle commanded by fingers, young and old alike. Trailing behind were the original cars, looking much the same as they had fifty years prior.
It was making Christmas special again and hopefully would for many long years to come.