Christmas Trains and Memories Beneath the Tree

Looking back now over Christmases in my childhood, railroad trains were as integral a part and essential to the holiday itself as Santa Claus, Snickerdoodles, and Christmas trees. We are not talking 1940 as in Ralphie from ‘A Christmas Story’, but not far removed, being more early 1950’s for me, being born at the tail end of 1949.

Every year my family would devote one December Saturday for an annual pilgrimage to downtown St. Louis to see the big department store window displays with their trains running around and around, shop a bit, crane our necks up at the tall buildings, and have lunch at Miss Hullings’ Cafeteria. It was magical, at a time when all meals were made at home and “going out” was something that just wasn’t done except on rare occasion. The annual Train Window Displays certainly counted as a special occasion.

When very young, let’s just say around three to five years old for discussion purposes as memories before that are a bit more foggy, we lived in Kirkwood, Missouri, a suburb of St. Louis. Every year, Santa Claus would arrive at the Kirkwood Railroad Station on a train pulled by a huff-chuffing steam locomotive, complete with whistles and bells. Santa would be greeted by applause and cheers by the crowd, step out of the train, wave, and then come inside the station for each of us to take our turns sitting on his lap for a photo while confiding our seasonal wish list.  Memories like that tend not to fade over the years. And I still have the photos of me on his lap. Somewhere.

I have not submitted to an official DNA test but would bet the next rent check that I inherited my train-loving gene from my father. Beyond the real world Santa train and department store window displays, my father was as big a train fan as I remain today. My third birthday (yes, I remember because it was that special) brought a Marx Passenger Train set from Santa, just like the one he arrived in at the station each year! Within minutes my father had the little train circling around the base of the Christmas tree. There is no doubt that train logged as many miles circling the tree as Santa’s reindeer that Christmas.  For an over-the-road truck driver, my dad made a crackerjack engineer!

The following Christmas brought another train, a Lionel Freight Train with a huffing, puffing steam locomotive that actually had a working headlight and put out tiny puffs of smoke as it ran around the tracks. The technology was advancing by leaps and bounds in the early ’50’s! We had two trains circling the Christmas tree that year, in opposite directions so the make-believe engineers could wave at each other as they passed each time around. It was dizzyingly awesome.

That was to be my last complete train set package for many years, as each subsequent Christmas brought more Lionel train cars, buildings, tiny people to be painted, bridges, trees, telephone poles, tunnels, and accessories. Adding on to the established base. Before long, my father and I had a complete, working Lionel model train layout going each holiday, complete with plastic buildings, Cowboys and Indians, army men, horses, pigs, and cows. It continued to build and grow for several years.

Buildings were lit from the inside.  Working switches were added.  A new transformer arrived later with a whistle button and a cool, side-mounted throttle. Two pre-fab tunnels were added, one tunnel with a little blue lake painted on top and the other, longer tunnel curved to fit over a matching curve at the far end. A tall tower with a revolving red and green lantern at the top arrived one year, along with crossing gates that blinked red lights and went down and then back up as trains rumbled by. We had a long, silver metal bridge which merely sat on the floor, bridging over nothing, but it was neat to see the train travel thru it. A few years later, a new flat car appeared, which at the push of a button launched a helicopter sailing off thru the living room. The future had arrived right in our living room!

Meanwhile, apart from the ever-burgeoning Lionel empire, the old Marx passenger train dutifully encircled the Christmas tree on our living room floor each year. I don’t think our Christmas trees would have remained upright without that Marx train holding their roots in place over the years. It had a job and it did it well.

At some point around the age of nine or so, my older sister moved out to be on her own, leaving her bedroom vacant. It was just the right size to fit a 4′ x 8′ plywood board atop sawhorses for a permanent set-up, and it wasn’t long before my father and I were hurrying to construct a bonafide model train layout to be ready by Christmas, just a few months away. It was awesome and took up nearly the whole room.

But, and please pardon me if I get a little technical here in explanation, it wasn’t long before we reached the inherent problem presented by the old Lionel trains, the point where the train layout reached its limits. There was no more room for expansion.

In model trains ‘Scale’ represents the ratio of the model size to the real-life prototype. Lionel trains were ‘O’ scale, modeled on a scale of 1:48, where 1 inch on the model equals 48 inches in real life, making for fairly good-sized model trains which required a goodly amount of space to operate. Especially around curves, since trains do not handle 90 degree turns as well as automobiles and bicycles, having a much larger turning radius. Which in turn limits how much track and modeling can be done in a given space.

Still with me? Good — because now we’re getting to the dramatic part. Reaching my eleventh birthday, buoyed by a decent fifth-grade education by this point and having been exposed to Boy’s Life Magazine and the modern world thru the Boy Scouts, I had become aware of the newest, modern new thing in model railroading — ‘HO’ scale — ‘HO’ itself standing for “Half of O” scale.

‘HO’ scale modeling was at a 1: 87.1 modeling ratio, meaning one inch of model equaled 87.1 inches in real life. The decimal point alone made it much more scientific and cutting edge to the knowledgeable fifth-grader. In short, ‘HO’ model trains were about half the size of the old (and “out of date” in my young mind) ‘O’ scale Lionel trains while at the same time being much more detailed and realistic. The early train sets were truly more ‘toys’ while the new ‘HO’ trains were ‘models’, and to me at age eleven and now a Boy Scout, a vast difference. Madison Avenue and the marketers had my full attention. “Models” were for serious folk, while “toys” were for kids. And at age eleven and going on campouts and hikes, I no longer considered myself a kid, already being a Second Class Scout, after all.

In addition, it was all supported by the obvious fact that our Lionel train ran around on three silver tracks — Three! — while the new ‘HO’ trains ran on two more realistic, copper-colored rails with faux-wooden ties. Two tracks, like trains in the real world. Not to mention that my best friend down the street had an American Flyer set which ran on two rails like the real trains, which he constantly reminded me of.

The new ‘HO’ scale meant that in the same amount of space one could do twice as much modeling, track, and scenery work, with a much more realistic than “toyish” (three rails!) layout. Converting to HO meant that suddenly our 4′ x 8′ layout would not be maxed out, after all. The wonders of the modern age!

But, this is where my father and I parted ways. His affection for our early Lionel trains was deep-rooted and his opinions set in stone. I suppose, looking back with an understanding not yet acquired by age eleven, that he was emotionally invested in them. By advocating for the new ‘HO’ model trains, as far as he was concerned my position was pure heresy spoken by a greenhorn still wet behind the ears who didn’t know anything.

But, of course, in the fifth grade,  if really not quite knowing it all, I was aware of the unfortunate fact that if anything ‘HO’ related was going to appear under the Christmas tree that year, it wasn’t going to be delivered by Santa Claus. I negotiated, bargained, pleaded, and threw myself on the mercy of the court that year to no avail. Ol’ Dad wouldn’t budge. — No ‘HO’ — period.

And that’s where it stood for another three years. In my mind, he was being hard-headed and unreasonable, denying modern science. In his mind, I was simply out of mine. The ‘Marx’ train locomotive eventually wore out and was dutifully replaced under the tree by the old Lionel train set each Christmas, no longer running along the rails on the bedroom train layout which had long since been dismantled following the Great ‘O’ vs ‘HO’ debate of a few years past. As well as our having grown bored with it since any more work or expansion was out of the question due to having run out of space. The big Lionel was reduced to annually running its course on the floor, around and around and around beneath the tree once a year at Christmas time.

My father and I still had a good relationship, mind you. We just seldom if ever spoke about trains anymore, except in debate. With the determination and fortitude of Ralphie and his “Red Ryder BB Gun With A Compass In The Stock”, each year I would ask, plot, scheme, and maneuver for an ‘HO’ train set for Christmas, only to find myself with a pair of gloves or something else “more my age” now.

And then something happened that still to this day I cannot explain. Perhaps it was a Motherly Intervention. I have no idea and can only relate the event as it occurred.

One chilly, late October Friday night my Scoutmaster appeared in our home for an inexplicable reason, with three ‘HO’ scale, little ore car kits he was working on and building. He was seated at the kitchen table with my mother and father, explaining all about them, showing a completed model, one in progress about half-finished, and the other in pieces, still untouched in the box. I was called in to see them, and of course, I was mesmerized. The idea of building your own rolling stock from kits was fascinating to someone already loving to do handwork, and this was all being demonstrated by my Scoutmaster, nonetheless. The man who had taught me how to put up a tent, build a fire, and to make a foil pack hamburger dinner in a campfire!

If I had ‘HO’ fever already, I popped the top off the thermometer that night. After a while and having talked about all things ‘HO’ over a few cups of coffee, the mysterious discussion was over and he left. None of it ever to be discussed or mentioned again over the following months. I can only compare the strangeness of it all to Thomas Edison suddenly appearing unannounced in a colonial town square, switching on a light bulb, and then everyone going back to their candles and never mentioning it again.

And then followed the Christmas of my fourteenth year, two months later. With my birthday on December 16th, nine days before Christmas, one soon gets used to birthday and Christmas presents being combined into one, which worked out well sometimes for a larger gift than one might expect singularly for either event on its own. Other times not. But number fourteen was one of those auspicious times when it did.

That birthday was a swing and miss with something I do not recall, being told that we were just exceptionally poor and money was tight that year. I understood as we were admittedly and firmly entrenched in the “middle class — lower third” and subject to its economic ups and downs over the years, never in that “upper class” which we talked about in school.

On Christmas Eve, I opened the unusually large package which had been cleverly buried and hidden behind the Christmas tree in utter disbelief and amazement to find a brand spanking new ‘HO’ train set including my favorite — a smoke-puffing steam engine! An exact, half-size version of the old Lionel steam engine! Birds sang — Bells rang — Angels smiled — and I did a Happy Dance! The Universe was once again back in order.

Over the next year, my Father and I worked together again, in the basement this time, on a new 5′ x 9′ layout even larger than the old one, with a special “quieter” board he had come home with one day from the hardware store made specifically for train layouts. He protested, grumped, and griped all the way in typical fatherly fashion, complaining about the tiny ‘HO’ parts and concept in general to save face, but couldn’t hide the fact that he loved it all every bit as much as I did.

We ditched the old, pre-fab Lionel tunnels and constructed towering mountains from screen wire and plaster in their place with cuts and tunnels at two different levels. We sculpted rock cliffs, constructed trestles, built buildings, and formed trees and bushes. We wired automatic switches and every building with lights, had a working sawmill with its saw going up and down on mock logs, and a turning water wheel on a riverside mill. We had a building which “caught fire” (flickering lights, of course) and at the turn of a switch, firemen pumped real water into it to extinguish the “blaze”. To top it off, right before the next Christmas, we added an honest-to-goodness working waterfall behind which the trains passed thru another tunnel while real water drizzled down the mountainside in front. We were back loving our trains. Trains had made us “We” again.

A few years later brought the most-prized Christmas present I ever received — ever. Something I had wanted for years and had little hope of affording myself at the time — “The General”. Unwrapping the package, I remember being so excited that my sock-covered feet slipped out from under me on the newly-waxed floor! I hung suspended in mid-air for a moment and then crashed to the floor in a heap, all while carefully cradling the box in my hands to protect my new prize.

“The General” was a famed, wood-burning steam locomotive involved in a daring raid in the Civil War, when on April 12, 1862, Northern infiltrators stole the locomotive and headed back north, intent on sabotaging rebel railroad lines and bridges deep behind enemy lines as they went. They were pursued by another locomotive, “The Texas”, and eventually captured before much damage could be done. But, Fess Parker, of Davy Crockett and Walt Disney fame, had made a 1956 movie about it, “The Great Locomotive Chase”, and that was enough to have peaked my interest. “The General” was not cheap, and there it was in my hands!  I still have “The General” safely stored in its original box. Best Christmas present ever. Magic under the tree.

Nowadays, the old Marx train, worn out as it is but much too valued to be discarded, rests in a box. Emotional investment again, I suppose. The old Lionel train, together with all the attendant pieces and accessories, waits in two boxes on top of it. My collected ‘HO’ trains and materials gathered over the years? They reside in three boxes alongside. Boxed treasures of Christmases and times past. I cannot think of Christmas without thinking about trains. And cannot think of trains without recalling the times with my father. And perhaps my mother’s inserted influence. Hopefully, all to be resurrected and shown the light of day again soon following another move in the coming year, even if inoperable.  Memories on display and stories yet to be told.

Memories. And stories. That’s what holidays and Christmases are all about, aren’t they? The cherished memories we build together in our families and with our friends over the years?  Most are good.  Others maybe not so much, sometimes.  That’s the way life is. But, some of them are outstandingly special that remain with us forever.

My fondest family traditions and Christmas memories seem to run thru tunnels, over bridges, and along train tracks thru the years.

From home to home, and heart to heart, from one place to another. The warmth and joy of Christmas brings us closer to each other.” — Emily Matthews

“Christmas, children, is not a date. It is a state of mind.” — Mary Ellen Chase 

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