Long 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?”