The Christmas Train

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Sometimes the further you get away from childhood, the harder it is to remember things that happened. Not so for one childhood memory from our time living at 110 Flamingo Street. Though it’s been almost 50 years, I remember it like it was yesterday. Lucky for me, being a writer, a lot of what I write about is yesterdays.

In my mind, I see and hear the Christmas Train with its tan wooden boxcars chugging around beneath our Christmas tree. I smell the sooty smoke puffs of its engine and the machine oil from its wheels. For those seven magical years spent growing up on Flamingo, the train was as much a tradition as picking out and cutting the tree. Christmas was the only time we saw the train all year.

After lights were strung on the tree, all the handmade ornaments by us kids placed low, the irreplaceable ornaments placed up high, and angel arranged on top, it was time for the last item to be brought out to finish the tree’s decorations. Dad assembled the Christmas Train.

That’s what us kids called it because the train only came out during Christmas. Dad never really talked about where he got the American Flyer from, or if he did I simply don’t remember. I was too busy fighting with my brothers to see who would be next to play with it to actually care about the train’s origin.

The train had everything a train set for a kid should have. The Franklin engine had a black boiler with a red smoke stack that puffed real smoke! The stack was trimmed with gold and the cab and tender with both red and green. We had five frontier boxcars, a red caboose, sections of tracks both straight and curved, tunnels, bridge trestles, rail crossing arms and signage, a miniature conductor and a train station.

The wood doors of the box cars actually slid opened, warning lights at the rail crossing turned on as the train approached, the rail arm descended blocking the roadway, and a gong sounded. A large black transformer with one central red switch supplied power to the train set.

Therein lay the problem. Electricity and kids usually don’t play well together. In our case, it certainly was true.

The transformer supplied power to the engine by way of the train tracks. If either rail was accidentally touched, or a hand of one of my brothers was “accidentally” placed on it by another, then a powerful shock would occur. The electrical shock would be strong enough to leave the arm tingling for a few minutes, but more importantly, render it useless in any retaliation.

Playing with the train and fighting with my brothers over whose turn was next was one of my fondest memories of those seven Christmases spent on Flamingo.

After Christmas, the train was the first item to be disassembled. Dad stored it in a large cardboard box with a single word written on the side in black marker – TRAIN. When we moved away from Flamingo, that box and the train inside was one of two things we all lost forever.

My dad has been a part of my Christmas for 59 years. This will be the first he will not be there either in person or by phone call.

When he passed in July, it was Big Brother James and me who were charged with the laborious task of going through his house and either packing up items or discarding them. The task was both physical and emotionally draining. We quickly realized sorting through every item would take much longer than we were afforded.

At the end of the week, a cursory examination of items left in his attic was done and then boxes upon boxes were loaded, moved, and soon forgotten about. But as rushed as we were, I made it a point to search every cardboard box for a now faded black marking on the side that read – TRAIN.

It was not to be. No such box existed. The train, and my father, were now gone forever and Christmas will never be the same.

I understand how the train box could’ve been lost. As best as I can remember since we left Flamingo, my parents had moved six additional times.

As an adult, I have moved 16 times and some stuff will never be found. Once I asked Dad if he remembered the Christmas Train and possibly where it had been stored.

He turned away and said sadly, “No. That was the last Christmas with your oldest brother Richard. We moved right after he passed. We lost a lot that year.”

Last weekend our family ventured out into the cold and snow, selected a fat Christmas tree with our granddaughters, Little One and Sweet Caroline, who live with us.

After waiting a day for it to open up on our front porch, I made a fresh cut on the bottom, dragged it into the house and secured it into the tree stand. The girls shook loose pine needles off the lower limbs as The Wife and I retrieved 10 large plastic containers, five purple and five green, from the back corner of the basement.

Each plastic container had one of the following words written on the side in black marker: lights, ornaments, nutcrackers, nativity display, or tablecloths and plates. It took most of three days, but with the girls’ help, our tree and house were almost ready for a visit from Santa.

After the last exciting day of decorating and an evening cup of not-so-hot hot chocolate, The Wife and I put the girls to bed and started to clean up. While storing the empty plastic containers back in the basement, I noticed an overlooked and unmarked green plastic container.

Assuming it was full of lights, ornaments, or more oversized nutcrackers, I took it upstairs and set it behind the tree. Life got busy and the container remained unopened. Meanwhile, the girls threw a blanket over it and a battleground was drawn. The war between the Barbies and dinosaurs was epic and lingered for two days. Finally our hectic life settled down and it was time to finish our decorations of the tree and house. I looked into the last unmarked plastic box.

Inside the plastic box was a tattered, brown cardboard box. On the side, in faded black marker, was the word: TRAIN.

After 50 years, the Christmas Train will chug around its track under our tree, and the tradition will continue with our two granddaughters. In spirit, Dad will be here watching the Christmas Train on its journey making his great granddaughters happy and he’ll be smiling.

A Christmas Train, an Elf on a Shelf, a special star or handmade decorations — whatever your holiday traditions are, The Wife and I wish you a Merry Christmas and a happy New Year.

[Rick Ryckeley has been writing stories since 2001. To read more of Rick’s stories, visit his blog: storiesbyrick.wordpress.com.]