Monday, November 26, 2012

In Training for Christmas

Among the things I inherited from my father -- my music background, my prematurely gray hair (thanks Dad!), my cooking skills -- none is perhaps as meaningful as his model train set, which has been part of my Yuletide since birth.

The legend of the trains is twisty-turny affair, of course, but the best I've been able to root it out, it goes like this: At some point in the late 1930s, when my Dad was a youngster, his father -- my Pop-pop -- was temporarily out of work, the result of a strike. Pop-pop worked for Midvale Steel ( as a machinist. The strike was long and times were tough, but as always seemed to be the case back then, my grandparents cinched their belts even tighter than usual and made it through.

They were facing a rather grim Christmas season that year when, glory be!, the strike was settled and the workers received a rather large lump sum settlement in pay. 

Despite the pressing needs of the bills that had mounted, my grandfather took a portion of that settlement check and purchased a set of Lionel trains for Christmas.

A platform was constructed, and here the story gets fuzzy, as the platform seemed to be a piecemeal affair, augmented through the years. But as far as I know, it always included a tiny village of houses that provided residence for the town inhabitants, and legend has it that those original houses were made of stiff cardboard. I've also heard tell of tales of sawdust "snow" blanketing the tiny neighborhood, which caused my grandmother no end of cleanup as it eventually dusted her carpets and furniture. So a fence was added for containment purposes. Later, lights were added, to illuminate not only the fence but the homesteads it surrounded.

Those trains have been an integral part of Weckerly Christmases ever since.

Which is not to say that they were as revered then as they are now.

My Dad and his brother -- my uncle -- delighted in running the trains at full-tilt until they would leave the tracks in spectacular displays of mayhem and destruction. Unfortunately for the Lionels, many of these disasters occurred in their basement, where the cement floor was unforgiving to the engine.

Years passed, and the trains were boxed, stored, and almost forgotten.

When my Dad married and had children of his own (my elder brother), the trains and platform were resurrected. The engine, unfortunately, was beyond repair. I've later learned that iron shortages led the Lionel Company to improvise on materials back then, and the sturdiness of some of those 1930s engines was always in question, crash damage aside.

A new engine was purchased, this is now the late 1950s, and the rear truck was modified (this would have been Pop-pop's specialty, as a machinist, re-jiggering something for utility purposes) as a retrofit for the existing tender and passenger cars.

The paper houses, too, were gone, and Plasticville residences replaced them. They didn't exactly match the style of the trains themselves, but then again, eclecticism was always part of the platform. For instance, the platform has always included a barn with animals, but scaling is a challenge, evidenced by the tiny cows and gigantic chickens that dot the farmyard.

We like to say that things like those "nuclear" chickens add to the charm.

The best part about the trains is that Santa brought them.

When we went to bed on Christmas Eve, the house blazed outside with colorful lights, but inside, things were purposefully bland. The only decorations permitted before we went to bed that night were our stockings and the creche.

Once we were asleep, my parents went into hyperdrive, The platform and trains were hauled from their storage spot in the basement (on shelving that hung over the washer/dryer). My grandparents would arrive from the City and assist, and often, a few errant aunts and uncles would accompany them.

The menfolk did the assembly and electrical work; the ladies decorated the tree.

The final task was a matter of placing our presents around the platform, and tip-toeing up to bed, but Christmas being Christmas, there were often glitches and issues along the way that caused their bedtime to stretch into the wee hours of the morning. Many was the Christmas, my Dad used to tell, that he would barely lay his head on the pillow when a set of wet toddler fingers would poke him in the eye, accompanied by a whisper:

"Dad! Dad! It's Christmas! Santa, Dad! Santa!"

Pounding down those stairs on Christmas morn was an unforgettable experience, as our entire living room had been transformed into a display that would cause both Mr. Gimbel and Mr, Macy to gasp with surprise. Tree! Trains! Platform! Holly! Lights! Tinsel!

Oh yeah, and presents!

Of course Santa was real. Mere mortals could never pull this off. Never.

As I grew, there were eventually changes to the story and the traditions, driven, I suppose, by necessity. I recall that we were asked by the North Pole if we could take down the display ourselves and pack it away. I suppose that before that, Santa Himself returned and returned the living room to its normal status. But over time, things being what they were, His schedule no longer permitted that luxury. So we would disassemble the trains and the platform and "...put all the boxes on the roof, so Santa can just swing by and pick it up."

Made sense to me!

Years continued to pass. Santa's truth was revealed to me, and decorating for Christmas no longer was an overnight sensation. But on this rule, Dad was insistent: The trains would go up Christmas Eve, not one second sooner.

It became a family project. After a hearty breakfast, we three boys would help Dad tote the boxes from the basement, move the furniture in the living room, and put up the platform. This was often an all-day project, accompanied by the sound of Christmas carols on the radio (which had gone all-Christmas, all the time, only on Christmas Eve itself, not a month prior) and the scent of Mom's Christmas cookies baking in the kitchen.

By this time, the mid-1970s, both Dad and I were involved in church music, and the call of Christmas Eve Mass often had us scurrying to finish with the trains. The benchmark we were always trying to beat was that the trains must be running by 4:00 p.m., when we had to stop work and turn our attention to showering/eating before Mass.

It was a lot of work. But a lot of fun. And such an integral part of Christmas that we didn't dare tamper with the tradition.

Except for one year. My mother's family had a tradition of a yearly reunion Christmas party that rotate through her siblings. Mom had a large family -- there were five sisters and a brother -- which meant a ton of cousins descending on the home of that year's host family.

Dad, anticipating the onslaught one year, proposed that we skip the trains. The living room was too small; there was too much risk of damage; time was short; the boys were getting older; it was time to retire the tradition.

I was heartbroken. I couldn't imagine Christmas without the hearing the mechanical churning of that engine and whiffing the faint electrical smell in the air. But he was steadfast. We would put up the tree, the lights, the decorations. But no platform.

That Christmas Eve, we were finished with our Yuletide tasks before noon. Uncertain what to do with the remainder of the day, we wandered aimlessly through the house, letting the carols unspool on the radio but merely as background music to... nothing.

None of us was happy. But the unhappiest of all? It was Dad. By late that afternoon, when it was time to clean up and prep for Mass, he moped around the living room, gazed at the lonely tree and the array of presents, and sighed:

"It doesn't look like Christmas..."

That was the last year we ever skipped the trains.

When it came time for our own children, Dad reached a decision as to the fate of the trains: They would come to me. 

And here they remain.

There were more modifications to the platform and the trains and the legend that accompanies them. Again, these were driven by necessity -- no matter how much he may want to, a music director at a church can't be supervising Santa's descent down the chimney on Christmas Eve with trains. So our timelines were shifted away from Christmas Eve, but not too early.

The Plasticville houses were also replaced over the years by a set of ceramic buildings that are much more sturdy and also less architecturally anachronistic. The nuclear chickens, however, continue to peck around the barn.

One of the changes I've made was the resurrection of the train's whistling tender. As kids, we were told that this car was "broken," but I've come now to believe that it only needed some TLC and that, perhaps, my grandmother declared it non-working because she had tired of its ceaseless, hollow whoo-whoo-ing. With the help of a Lionel train aficionado -- who, it turns out, is our optometrist --  the whistler rejoined the train display in 2010, and its happy sound is now as much a part of the holiday as carols and jingle bells.

These trains have survived more than 70 years. They've brightened Christmases that were both prosperous and lean, years good and bad, years of bonus and frugality, spirits high and spirits broken. Wartime. Peacetime. Life's ups. And its downs.

Through it all, they work their particular brand of magic. The first Christmas after Dad passed away, I vividly recall finishing up their assembly, letting them fly around the track, and breaking down in tears at the loss of their chief engineer. But that sadness was but a passing moment, for it's all but impossible to experience the trains -- to see the faint puffs of smoke coming from the little stack as it rings a whimsical town of little houses and tiny residents -- and feel anything but the comfort and warmth of deep-seated tradition.

All aboard!

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