A Favorite Christmas Gift
special toy was under the tree waiting for Christmas that morning, but I didn’t have a clue. In spite of last week’s confession of a nocturnal mission to uncover any mysteries wrapped and tucked under the tree, it was a more normal practice for us kids to go to bed on Christmas Eve and eagerly anticipate the excitement of the next morning. That came at first sign of light when we woke sleeping adults in hope of stirring them to action.
It was but a few minutes later when wrapping paper was be torn asunder and thrown in every direction, falling wherever it may. When we were passed a gift package, we still tended to give it a little shake so we might guess its contents. Any resulting movement or sound could help us with a speculation. For example, we often could tell if it contained clothing, or something heavier like a book, game, or a toy. This practice guessing prolonged the agony of not knowing. The continuing suspense would increase the thrill of being right or wrong. In either case it was the thought that mattered, a statement heard more than once under these circumstances.
As was the propensity of many teenagers, I was already resigned to be disappointed. While it seems negative, I think it was this attitude that helped me stave off disappointments. In spite of that, as Gomer Pyle often said, ‘SURPRISE, SURPRISE,’ and we were often pleased with the new item in spite of ourselves.
We had already deduced that the ‘big’ thing we wanted, like a shiny new bicycle, would not fit in any of the boxes or under the tree. Coming to that realization early helped us to accept that and adjust to see the positives. For kids and adults alike, it was a stressful time that we all wanted to get through it with a smile.
I remember the year that there was one big box under the tree that had my name on the little tag taped to the fancy wrapping paper. There was another, almost the same size and wrapped with the same paper that had Cousin George’s name. Both boxes were very heavy and nearly impossible to safely pick up and shake. Besides, whatever was in there made no noises whatsoever. They did feel heavier on one end than the other, but otherwise, their contents were still a mystery to me. I finally took in a deep breath and began tearing into the wrapping.
Soon, I was able to see by the markings on the box that it was an electric train! It had a heavy black steam locomotive that was modeled after the real trains I saw pass through town several times a day. It had a big, black steel engine, a tanker car, several box cars, and a couple of coal cars, a flat car, and even a red caboose. It was an American Flyer train so the duel tracks were also a match for the real thing. I knew that Lionel trains had three parallel rails, but the tracks I had seen on the real C&O had only two. The American Flyer was perfect.
Sales histories of vintage trains clearly prove that Lionel sold more model trains over the years. I’ve seen some very complex working models over the years since. There are more Lionel trains, but I still feel that if American Flyer somehow didn’t need that third rail it is an important point that made American Flyers the best. They were like the real thing that I saw every day of my young life.
Then it was George’s turn to open his. It, too, was an electric train, but larger than mine. It had three large drive wheels while mine had only two. That seemed okay because he was three years older than me. (You can tell I brushed that off and was happy for him and totally forgot that his was better than mine.)
Together, we combined our tracks and mounted our trains on the rails. When we plugged in the transformer and moved the control slowly forward the lights on the engine came on and the train began to move. Round and round it went puffing smoke from the stack. The set came with small tubes of an oily substance that we were directed to put in the chimney on the engine. As it heated it sent the grey puffs from the chimney. I don’t recall the trains having whistles, but surely they did.
We soon discovered that the trains would occasionally derail on a curve. I accepted the bad with the good, but George liked to set it up so they would crash on purpose. I didn’t see the sense in that because it just created a mess. I saw it as disruptive to our play because sometimes it was a little difficult to get everything back on track. If the track separated the train would lose power and stop, but sometimes it would be the cause of another crash. When that happened we’d merely turn off the transformer and fix any broken track before we started resetting the cars. I got to be good at putting things back in order.
Over the years we bought some accessories such as more track, and signals that included crossing arms, little depots, small villages, trees, bridges, and water towers. We didn’t have the space to create mountains, tunnels, streams, or highways, so we settled with what we had. Pretend became the byword. For years thereafter we played with the trains for several days and then at the encouragement of those wanting to walk through the house, we boxed them up for later. Out of sight meant out of mind, so later usually meant the next Christmas season. We ended up not putting a lot of hours on those trains. Still, we got them out every year until I left for the Air Force. I’m guessing the family sold, gave away, or lost ‘track’ of them.
When it came to the electric trains, I never figured out how mom could have saved up enough money to buy the set. Neither could I see how my aunt could have bought one for George. They were expensive toys in the day. It would be years later when I found that someone I didn’t even know had bought it for me. That was a kindness I appreciated then and even more today when I remember those fun times.
I think I enjoy trains partly because I grew up around them and had family connections. One Great Uncle was a design engineer for C&O, while a great grandfather was a conductor. I made several trips across country on them and must say they were pleasurable. As a child, I grew up hearing trains all the time, sometimes playing on the boxcars left open on a siding. I hopped one once that was going slow but I jumped off before I was carried away. I had a respect for those solid steel wheels, so I kept an eye on them and thought I was being careful. Anyway, I lived through the experience.
Today, I have a vintage toy engine and tender just like the one I had so long ago. I bought it at a garage sale or auction a few years ago. It is on a short length of track on a shelf display to remind me of that special Christmas gift so long ago.
As we remember Christmases past, we need to remember that the real gift was given to us more than two thousand years ago. The birth of the Christ child was and is the real reason for our celebration. We need to remember that in our giving and in the midst of our family traditions at Christmas. Put on some carols and remember that time in Bethlehem. email@example.com