Holiday Tracks

imagesLong before the Polar Express, there was a sturdy steam train that my father would exhume on the first day following Thanksgiving. It was a shiny talisman – an iron holiday crocus indicating the oncoming yuletide season.  It was indestructible, black and made by Lionel.  The HO scale engine had three flat cars for transporting goods and a caboose.  The train set was mounted on a three by four rectangle of green painted plywood, overshadowed by a snow capped peak fashioned out of chicken wire and paper mâché.  The two rail track snaked in and out of snow-dusted pines and ran parallel to an  indigo alpine lake fed by ribbons of melting glacial waters cascading from the great blue icefall that toured silently over the valley. The ebony engine would faithfully orbit the lake each year for 30 days, coursing through the mountain’s tunnel spewing artificial smoke, navigating the dark passage like an ancient cyclops with a determined, illuminated eye.

There was a single station in this winter wilderness.  A high alpine village filled with fathers who loved the snow, children who never attended school and mothers who would glance out the window after dusting the flour off their hands – laughing at the site of permanent play.  My older brothers and I spent countless hours imagining that this Shangri-La was nestled in the deep foothills of some undiscovered European country.

Yet things did not always go well here in this imaginary wonderland.  The town was overrun more times than Poland.  Perhaps like the Hessians at Trenton, the gentle residents were too busy celebrating Christmas year-round to divine the imminent attack by Airfix German paratroopers or Marx Japanese toy soldiers.  You would think they would have at least posted a sentry. Gratefully, the occupied town would eventually be liberated by Allied soldiers frozen in action positions.  There was the crouching sniper, the grenade thrower, the bazooka man, the flamethrower, the machine gunner and my favorite, the guy standing up with a nickel plated .45 in one hand, shouting and waving to the troops with the other, ” Do you boys want to live forever? There are only two kinds of soldiers on this beach – those who are dead and those who are gonna be dead.  Now follow me!!” Television shows like Battleground and Garrison’s Guerillas taught us that Americans always made the world a safer place.

“We must get this ammunition to Bastogne to relieve General McAuliffe”

” Right away sir!  Will there be much trouble up the track, Captain? ”

“Just some 88’s, a few Tiger Tanks and a regiment of SS troops fresh from the Russian Front.  Nothing you can’t handle, Sergeant.” I would agree to this certain suicide mission.  What was on the other side of that mountain tunnel only the Germans and my maker knew for certain but I would be ready to hit them back hard.  It was one six year old boy leading a train filled with commandos against Hitler’s best.

Occasionally, like a maniacal Gomez Addams, we turned the tracks into a scene of terrible carnage by staging a massive train wreck.  As the cars derailed, the huge black engine would slide on its side like a fallen Cape Buffalo brought done by a .416 Remington Magnum elephant gun.  Like so many toys of yesteryear, the Lionel train was probably unsafe on many levels.  Aside from an electrical transformer and tracks, the train probably had enough lead to stunt the growth of an entire city of children and I’m sure the artificial smoke pellets, if consumed, had the same effect on kids that they did on the train, a few puffs then a very bad smell.  However, this was the first taste of freedom in our infant adolescence.  To drive the train with its surging invisible electricity was to taste the first feelings of being an adult – control, freedom and power.  While the locomotive only circled an oval track, it seemed to be moving in every direction, each lap a new adventure with new perils and new responsibilities.

My favorite car was the caboose.  It looked a lot like the one that James West and Artemus Gordon occupied in the Wild, Wild West.  While my vision inside the brick and green carriage was obscured, I was certain it was tastefully decorated with paneled walls, gas lamps and ornate fixtures.  It was the last chance car — the one you chase after to catch your future.  It was the opportunity to escape your one-horse town and see the world.  You could grab the rail with your right hand and swing your suitcase over on to the platform.

My cocoon of gentle play and imagination was always short lived.  More often than not, a large horrible smelling humanoid would appear.  Attracted to the noise and movement, my younger brother would stumble in like a drunken sailor. As I yelled “‘nooooo…” in slow motion, the infant Godzilla would step into the winter forest, crushing trees, derailing the train, knocking over every carefully placed enemy soldier killing my commandos in the process.  The carnage and smell of his dirty diaper were too much.  Instead of putting my face in my hands and crying uncontrollably at my losses, I dropped the big one and slugged him. Reprisals came swiftly from SHAEF (Supreme Headquarters of the Allied Expeditionary Force).  I would be court-marshaled to my room, which quickly transformed into Schofield Barracks, with me pretending to be Maggio in From Here To Eternity.

As with so many of my childhood memories, I try to recreate these treasured experiences for my children.  I decided to purchase a train set and built (by myself) an upscale diorama, replete with an opaque alpine lake, buttressed by frosted maples and pines  – -all underneath the shadow of a great mountain made from plaster and cheese cloth. It was indeed a glorious monument to my childhood… and it was immediately declared as boring.  “All it does is go ’round and ’round” complained my nine year old.  “Let’s play Railroad Tycoon on the XBox”.

While the kids went into the other room, I sat alone, defeated and staring at the plywood train board.    Carefully, I got out the soldiers and began planning the ambush.   A few minutes later, the noise died down in the other room.  I heard the door open behind me and I knew I was being watched.  I kept setting up the Germans and talking in the low voices of imaginary combatants. “Vee vil stop da allies here or you vil all be sent back to da Russian front.”  I sounded like SS Maj. Wolfgang Hochstetter on “Hogan’s Heroes.”

The presence drew closer to me and I could hear his breathing. An interested voice whispered, “What are you doing dad?”

Snow Man

Snow Man

 

“ The sun is shining, the grass is green.  The orange and palm trees sway.

There’s never been such a day, in Beverly Hills LA

But it’s December twenty fourth

And I am longing to be…… up north”

 

Mel Torme, Musical intro to Irving Berlin’s White Christmas

 

No one feels much sympathy for Southern Californians at Christmas.  While east coast temperatures hover just above freezing, a massive perennial winter high pressure system builds above the Great Salt Lake Basin creating a jet stream of warm winds known as  Santa Anas.  This holiday mistral swirls through  the high deserts of Antelope Valley and sweeps down through narrow canyon passes, inland valleys and suburbs tumbling down to the shores of the Pacific ocean.  In its aftermath the waves of wind leave LA basin residents with crystal clear vistas up to 100 miles, breathtaking days of 80 degree weather and tinder dry hills that predictably erupt into unpredictable wild fires.  If you live in LA long enough, you also associate this weather pattern with the heightened potential for earthquakes. We referred to this double whammy period as “shake and bake time”.  Yet, despite the threat of the ground opening up underneath us or a conflagration of epic proportions taking out half of the hillside neighborhoods, most Angelinos still stubbornly maintain a belief that Heaven’s phone number is prefaced with a 310, 714 or 213 area code. 

If you are a surfer or an acolyte of George Hamilton, this weather pattern was made for you.  However, if you were nine years old and dreaming of a white Christmas, you really felt like you drew the short candy cane.  I recall listening intently to traditional holiday carols that waxed nostalgically of deep snow, candles in frosted windows, roaring fires (in fireplaces, not on the brush covered slope behind your house) and lush pine scented evergreens.  I kept closing my eyes and wishing I would wake up in a river rock and log cabin with wood floors cushioned with animal skin rugs.  When I opened my eyes, I disappointedly had not been transported from my Spanish style home with red tile floors.  I would have traded ten sand castles for one snowman.

 

The build up to New Years with its annual celebrations of The Rose Parade and Rose Bowl did more for the economy of Southern California than any chamber of commerce advertising.  As alabaster Big 10 fans spilled out of their motor homes from Columbus, Ohio to watch their team play the Pac 10 champs, they would rub their eyes in disbelief at the palms, citrus and eucalyptus swaying against aqua blue skies and the purple San Gabriel Mountains.  Yes, this was the land of milk and honey, and when combined with wheat germ and yogurt, it was the birthplace of the first protein shake. 


LA did have seasons.  Two to be precise – – spring and summer.  You never saw Fall.  It happened out of the corner of your eye, like a night blooming Sirius. Usually around October 29th, the one deciduous tree in your neighborhood would have its leaves turn brown and then drop unceremoniously to the ground in the span of 12 minutes.  It was as if someone had sprayed the foliage with Agent Orange the previous evening.  Winter weather was an oxymoron.  There was a possibility for rain and its arrival would have TV stations preempting the Vatican releasing the secrets of Fatima.  As a storm approached, LA media would interrupt programming to warn of a “winter storm set to slam LA.“  The entire LA basin would be petrified at the thought of two inches of rain and an inch of snow above 4000 feet in the high mountains.  There were mudslides from burned hills, eroded beach front property and treacherous freeways made slick by oil unwilling to mix with rain.  It was Armageddon.   But, the chaos was short-lived.   The storms would move through quickly, teasing you like an advertisement whose fine print would read –
“All storms not guaranteed to last more than 24 hours.  Do not purchase sweaters, jackets or corduroy pants as it will never be cold enough to snow.”

I wanted it to snow.  Snow made everything possible and snow made Christmas possible.  Santa had a sleigh, not bicycle.  He wore boots, not flip flops.  I wanted to experience a White Christmas in the worst way.   I wanted the thrill of watching a charcoal curtain of clouds pregnant with flakes tumble right over my home like a wave crashing across the base of a lighthouse leaving a foot of heaven in its wake.   Snow purified everything.  It fueled my nostalgic vision of Christmas past – – simpler times of Currier & Ives with scenes of caroling, sleigh rides and ice skating.  Snow was the epicenter of every small town’s holiday celebration.  The snow would mask the blight and blemishes of our hard lives.  It brightened old buildings; it rejuvenated old towns and frosted tangled brown, denuded woods.  It inspired Robert Frost to stop in his sleigh and ponder the deeper meaning of his life and then travel the final miles before he could sleep. 

My meteorological prayers went unanswered for years with the occasional rain storm and cold snap as a pathetic tease.  When the odd storm would work its way through LA prior to Christmas, the mountains would be frosted white at elevations over 3000 feet.  I would beg my father to drive up to the snow — to explore, slide down steep, slick ravines and shudder with delight as cold winds bent pine boughs and blew diamond whisps across our faces. He would always balk.  He hated snow.  Growing up in the Midwest, he still harbored deep resentments of bitter, sub-zero days dressed in hair-shirt, woolen clothes and forced like a penitent pilgrim to navigate his way to middle school in Evanston, Illinois.  Snow meant black ice, sudden colds, cabin fever and transportation disruption.  I was in disbelief.  I could not find the scar indicating where his soul had been surgically removed but it was clear to me that we were not of like minds.  Perhaps I was adopted?

This fascination with snow and the holidays lasted well into my adulthood.  I finally moved to a colder climate and experienced my first snow storm on a mid-December night.  As the snow pounded Connecticut, I went out to buy a Christmas tree.  The fact that my car almost went off the road three times, or that I was the only fool at the Kiwanis tree lot, or that rock salt literally ate my best pair of loafers would not soil this first memory.  Even two weeks later as I was using disgusting week old kitty litter to throw under my stranded car in my icy driveway, the mood had yet to fade.  It was snow.  It was a foot deep and it was in my yard.  It was MY snow. It would be a white Christmas.  I was elated each night as I went to bed and gazed out like Good King Wenceslas on the blanketed woods.


It’s been four years since my rebirth as a New Englander.  Other than an entire room in my cellar filled with oil tanks and large humming machinery which I continue to avoid because I have no idea what it is or what it does, I am slowly assimilating to the land of four seasons.  I have also come to know the uglier side of Jack Frost and the reckless chaos he can wreak on my home and family. However, anything Old Man Winter dishes out before January 1 is a pardonable offense.  We are finally neighbors and we are making up for lost Christmases.  While some view winter as something to be endured, this romantic will take his children’s advice for ensuring a snow day by placing nine spoons under my pillow and wearing my pajamas inside out.  As far as I am concerned, “Let it snow!”