Monday, May 6, 2013

I Hear That Train a Comin'....

On Saturday we visited Yankee Peddler Day at Staten Island's Richmondtown Restoration Center. It was better than the flea markets they typically run where vendors are selling junk jewelry and used CDs. This event actually featured antiques and memorabilia from the past. Naturally, I remembered all this stuff because I too am an antique. One vendor was selling old electric trains and accessories. The sight of these treasures immediately awakened the twelve-year old buried in me and I made a beeline for his table. I could tell the guy was Old School; dressed in jeans and a black tee shirt with a mane of wavy silver hair, he looked like the lead singer for a Fifties doo-wop group.

He looked bored and I could tell he wanted to talk, so I happily obliged. I told him I was a model railroad buff (whatever a buff is), and we easily slipped into a conversation about Lionel vs. Marx or American Flyer trains, HO vs. Standard scale, and how train collecting has declined as a hobby. When I was a kid, model trains were on every boy's Christmas list. I had the Marx Standard gauge set, but later as an adult, switched to the Lionel HO gauge just to save space. I remember as a kid, we would set the trains up around the tree every Christmas. My father would lay down the track that had to be nailed to a plywood board. Looking back, I think one of the reasons I loved these trains so much is that working on them was one of the few things my Dad and I got to do together. He worked two jobs to pay the mortgage, so I valued any time he had to spend with me.

Once the metal tracks were down, we would lightly sandpaper them to ensure the train wheels encountered no friction in their trip around Tiny Town. We then set out the model buildings including the post office, general store, Woolworths and the bank. We had specialty trains like the cattle car that required a trackside platform accessory where the cows could be offloaded using magnets to move them jerkily along. We also had a water tower that loomed over the tracks and was used to simulate filling the black metal locomotive with water. Of course there were Styrofoam tunnels for the locomotive and its trailing freight cars to pass through, and an electric gate that came down automatically to block traffic while the train roared by.

Once the trains and layout were set up, my Dad's job was done and the trains were mine. Just watching them go round and round became boring after 30 seconds, and so I released my imagination to liven things up. I would take some logs from the log car, lay them across the track, and use them to help masked outlaws derail the train so they could rob it. I also like to see how fast the train could go in reverse before it careened off the tracks and took out the post office. Sometimes I would use my little, plastic cowboy and Indian figures to stage epic battles where brave lawmen would jump down onto the moving train from the top of the Styrofoam tunnel to fight the murderous redskins who had boarded the train with mayhem in mind. (I usually waited until Dad was out before doing this stuff or he would have brained me.)

As I spoke with my new Yankee Peddler friend , he lamented how today's kids knew only one thing: computers and electronic games. When the batteries ran down or the computer locked up, they were like lost zombies. He said he was getting too old to keep up with the hobby, especially since the only store on Staten Island that sold model railroad trains and accessories closed a few years ago. He offered me a good deal on the stuff he was selling, but I politely declined explaining that my railroad days were behind me. I used to set the trains up every year for a time, but my own kids seemed more interested in Transformer action figures than model trains. Once in a while I get to a train show in Manhattan, and there is always the great model train display at Northlandz in Flemington, New Jersey that has floors and floors of layouts.

Model railroading was great fun for me, both as a kid and an adult, but most important, it gave me some quality time with my Dad, something I will always cherish.



Children's Craniofacial Association


Joseph Del Broccolo said...

Loved my American Flyers! They seemed so life like in details.

Jim Pantaleno said...

I recently came across a whole bunch of Marx train accessories at a flea market. I was tempted, but just don't have the energy any more.