Thursday, January 22, 2009

Dad Gum It, the Railroad's Coming Through Here!

We all have memories of special toys from our childhood, the ones we can still see in our mind’s eye with surprising clarity after so many years. For me, it’s my model trains. During the 1950’s, model railroading was probably at its height, and just about every boy I knew dreamed of finding a set of Lionel trains under the tree. One Christmas I got my trains, and although they were not Lionel, (they were made by Marx), I loved them and couldn't wait to set them up around the tree. (Louis Marx was a respected toy manufacturer whose trains are highly collectible today.)

My father Tony must have hit a daily double that year, because I not only got the basic train set with locomotive, cars and track, but the train station that went with it. I was beside myself when I saw it; the kind of pure joy that we rarely get to experience as adults. I have an old super 8 home movie of my son Michael absolutely flipping out one Christmas after getting a gift he really wanted. He jumped up and down, rolled around on the ground, and generally behaved like a lunatic. I honestly don't recall my reaction to getting those trains, but I imagine it was pretty much the same as Michael's. I know my parents must have sacrificed to buy me such a present, and I hope my gratitude was animated enough to give them their money's worth.

The train consisted of the classic black locomotive with an operating front light, coal car, oil tanker, flatcar, cattle car and caboose. These were the large, "standard gauge" trains made of metal, not the flimsy plastic ones made today. They sat solidly on metal track, the pieces of which fit snugly together and could be configured in different track designs. Later model locomotives had a whistle, and pellets you could drop down the engine stack to produce real smoke. I didn't need these extras; my imagination readily supplied all the sights, sounds and smells of a real railroad. (I picked up model railroading again when my kids were young. It was fun, but on a different, less exuberant level.)

The Marx train station featured inside lights, and there was a control switch built into the station that allowed you to regulate the speed of the train as it approached. There were also tiny accessories like a baggage cart, a food vendor's cart, and a station conductor holding a lantern to signal the engineer as the train arrived. As time passed, we added to the basic set. We had a log car that could be unloaded by a crane onto a special platform, a trestle bridge that allowed you to raise the tracks and elevate the train layout over a roadway, and of course a couple of tunnels through the mountain made of painted metal.

Starting the week after Thanksgiving, I would begin to hound my father. "When can we put up the trains"? My Dad was a fairly patient, good-humored person who naturally preferred to wait until we put up the Christmas tree before we tackled the trains. It was much easier that way than the other way round. I like to think I wasn't a whinny kid, but when I put my mind to it, I was very good. I wore the poor man down and, with him swearing mightily as we worked, the trains always went up before the tree. After a couple of years of this, during which I added many new curse words to my vocabulary, Tony gave up and allowed me to do it myself.

Another big fad of the fifties was cowboy shows on TV, and I worked this theme into my train games. We used to collect little, painted lead figures of cowboys and Indians, and I would use these to stage daring train robberies, Indian attacks featuring naked savages leaping from the top of the tunnels onto the moving train, and people tied to the tracks who (most of the time) were rescued just before the train sliced them into cold cuts. I would do this for hours on end, completely absorbed, loving the faint smells of oil and electricity as the train did its figure eights around the track. When I got older, my Mom gave the trains to my cousin Nicky; I hope he enjoyed them as much as I did.

My father worked two jobs to keep us going, so he didn't get to spend that much time with me at play. The time I did have with him was special to me. Tony taught me to ride a bike, he got me started in the railroad business, and thanks to Dad, I can curse with the best of them.


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Joseph Del Broccolo said...

I got American Flyers. I liked them better than Lionels, because the tracks were two rails, not three so they lo0oked more authentic to me. I also loved the trains themselves, they were less toy like in looks!

Jim Pantaleno said...

Ah, another railroad man chimes in. It's funny how this craze died down over the years. I guess kids are more into games like Wii. Too bad, they don't know whet they're missing.