Once upon a time, not so long ago, hearing a train whistle was not an uncommon event for those in big cities, or small towns scattered in remote areas. To some, trains are like noisy, dirty animals … great hulking monsters spewing smoke, crushing what lies before them; but they are also friends, like Thomas, that little boys play with, dreaming of being big boys. I had those dreams once … and I had a train, too. Of course, I thought of it as a magical train – the first memories of it are gone, it is more like echoes of my childhood thinking of putting the metal track pieces together in living room on special occasions. Those echoes are like the steam whistle, and the memories of Judy Garland singing “On the Atchison Topeka and the Santa Fe” while the engine roared into town bringing the Harvey Girls to tame the wild west – all wispy fantasies that fade like the smoke into the sky, but the echoes reside in my soul, with others.
Judy Garland leading “On the Atchison Topeka and the Santa Fe” in “The Harvey Girls – 1946 – All Aboard!!!
I have written before about my Mom’s tendency to, well, hoard. She kept things that had value – and things that had no meaning at all. It took me years after returning to my childhood home to sift through it all – there were treasures to be found among the trinkets. I had never forgotten the train set – it was a happy memory, like playing children’s records and lying in the bedroom on a quiet afternoon reading. When I found the box, at first I didn’t realize what it contained, because she had literally kept the shipping box itself, a plain cardboard box which I opened to find another “sleeve”, and under that, the carefully preserved decades old Lionel engine, and accessories – dusty, unused, kept in darkness … it had been years since it ran around the small oval, years since the farm animals had been let out of the barn. Years in which a large part of my own life too had been put away, kept in darkness, waiting.
The dusty box with childhood treasures, buried but not forgotten
Memory is an odd creature, too – it moves in ways unpredictable, little eruptions now and then emerging, and the emotions tied to them still. My mother had always said that I had won the train set from the toy store in Vacaville, California, where a drawing had been held; I would have been 2, so I remember nothing but my brother, 30 months older, retained the memories more. We would play with it together, and alone; we had those moments of shared joy as children, but they were fewer to be found as the years grew, and we grew apart. Our home was not the one shown on TV – not the one shared apparently by our classmates in the small town where we moved when I was 5; it was in that house I learned to be alone, to hide my feelings, to put them in a box like the train and put them away.
Like many brothers, we are very different, and it has not been easy or really entirely successful to bridge the differences between us – a distance greater than a train, toy or otherwise, could shorten. We shared our younger years but had very different hearts – and diverging paths ahead. He went to live with our father, and was less present in my life, ultimately marrying and having children out of state, with occasional return visits. In my mother’s final years, spent in a care facility near our childhood home, I returned to that house to deal with those challenges – a single man, in what was probably the loneliest time of my life, not yet having the footing to stand and say who I was, what I felt, who I wanted to be and to love. I returned to a home without friends, finding pieces of my family, and in a way finding pieces of myself as I tried to bring what had been forgotten into the light – to renew the small tract home my parents bought for our future, before the family picture shattered and the curtains closed. It was in some ways a chapter of renewal for us both.
Some of the other artifacts that were buried in boxes, and in books, revealed that trains were more a part of my past than I could have imagined. I remembered the whistle in the night going through the Corona orange groves – the smell of the smudge pots on winter nights to preserve the fruit – that heritage has been replaced now with distribution centers and tracts, and the citrus packing houses remembered by fewer as the years move on. I discovered my great grandmothers handwritten journal describing her son’s birth in the Corvallis, Oregon train station where his father was the station master; I found photos of my father’s grandfather standing by a steam locomotive somewhere in the desert of Arizona, or Mexico, with antlers on the front as he worked with Santa Fe to build a rail line to the coast near Guaymas, where he found his bride. I learned of my other family lines who came west by wagon train, seeking gold, seeking new homes – seeking opportunity away from the farms and everything and everyone they knew for the chance for a better life; some were lost along the way. These were the seeds of my interest in family history – me, a lonely boy, a “gifted” boy but an invisible child, realizing that others before him had faced challenges, failures, obstacles but continued to dare to hope, to dream. Somehow, their spirits out there, somewhere, were still connected to me – outside of time, speaking to me in words and old greeting cards and photos with scribbled names, some still mysteries even now. Their secrets, their dreams, their passions were waiting to be unearthed, revealed – like the train.
My great Grandfather in the Sonora Desert in the late 1800’s – the wild West.
I decided it would be worth the effort to see if the train had any value – after all, it had to be unusual to find an intact set, in the box, with all the accessories and the vintage catalog and more! 20 years ago, I found an Ebay listing that seemed to be the identical set – which had sold for over $1700! It was known as the “Halloween set” with the “General” engine – due to the orange and black colors, I am guessing. And mine was in better shape! It was not until after my Mom’s passing in 2006 that I finally sold the home and turned over the keys and closed the door for the last time, leaving what had been the core of my upbringing forever. In the months before and after her passing, time also took from me my father, his wife who had become a part of my life decades before, and his cousin Bill who I cared for in his final years. My own heart was still in a box of its own – I was still shut away, like the train, like the boxes of memories and old toys and photos that I put first into storage, and then into my new, “dream” home, closer to work, big and spacious and sunny. A new chapter was being written, and the light began to break through my own closed doors, and I pulled out the train as I prepared for a Christmas where I could welcome friends … setting up the track again, connecting the frayed wiring and … finding the train would not move. It needed repair. It needed help to function; help from someone who knew how something old and broken could be brought to life again. I didn’t know it at the time, but so did I. And I found it – for both of us, eventually.
Instructions, and even “billboards” (although from a VERY different era!)
I reached out for help – I found someone out of state, online, and shipped them the engine and the electrical parts. There were not many resources to be found with that knowledge; it was not easy. Some online sources indicate the set was only made in 1960 for distribution at independent retailers, with 7300 produced; for some, it is “legendary”. Bringing something back to life that is neglected takes special care. It did not run that Christmas, of course – but it did come back in time, if not “restored” – at least, able to run. I found others to help me learn to run, too – finally, in my fifties, finding the strength and support to not hide in the closet of secrecy and shame. It’s been a little over 10 years now since I started to tell others that the Norman they knew had never been able to fully share his heart with them, or anyone; looking back, I can see it has been a long and hard journey which still stretches ahead, unlike the metal track sections that form a loop to nowhere – my track is being laid in new directions. You have to travel down roads you don’t know to get to a new destination, of course – and my wanderings brought me here to SF and to my husband, and the train came along, buried in the basement – something of value, to be treasured, along with so many little pieces of my past, and my family.
Yes, the farm was included – along with a little “station” and more.
More than a half century has passed since I won that drawing; my brother’s children are grown; he is divorced, and recently retired, about to turn 68. He has mentioned the train set over the years; first when his children were young, but they lived on the other end of the country, and we did not see them often. Now, they are grown – and although I reach out occasionally, they have lives of their own, and we really are not close to one another. Still – I feel a responsibility to preserve the lessons, the heritage that I found in my Mother’s closets – and now that my brother is in a new chapter of his own life, in my heart I sense that it is time to let the train travel east to his home. It won’t be cheap – it is large. I bought a large box and will pack it carefully; it will reach him there before his birthday. He was willing to wait, but I have a sense that the time is right now; time to let go, in more ways than one, and with more than just a vintage train set.
The thrilling accessory catalog – and invitation to become an honorary stockholder – must be under 16! You’ve made an investment in happiness!!
And yet – letting go is freeing, too. I want to believe, to hope at least, that his children’s children will play with the train, and keep it; and perhaps some will retain the knowledge of how trains changed their family’s lives, and futures. I accept that, like most old relatives in photos, particularly those who never had children, my name will be mostly forgotten, my face a new mystery. But in a way, that little train carries generations of love, and history – not just my memories, or my brothers, but those of our parents whose not fully successful dreams of a happy family gave us life; their parents whose work and sacrifices gave us opportunities many in our world would never know. The little train will go around it’s track, and as I say farewell, I look ahead toward the future which still holds promise, and discoveries to be shared, free of the restraint of tracks, awaiting my steps on a road that daily winds ahead.
See the old smoke risin’ ’round the bend
I reckon that she knows she’s gonna meet a friend
Time to disembark, folks – hope you enjoyed the trip – watch that last step! Thanks for visiting – always appreciate chatting with friends and strangers! Oh, and don’t forget to subscribe – it’s complimentary with your paid first class ticket today!