Thursday, December 25, 2008

Trains and Planes--Christmas in the '40s

I love old steam trains and jet airplanes. Both were just coming into regular service in the late '40s, when I was still a kid, not even ten years old. Everyone still stopped and looked up at the jet trails in the sky, but no one paid much attention to the new diesel engines. Engines were still on the front of the train, and cabooses were on the rear. I had always wanted a model steam train.

Christmastime was special for the family. Although not devout churchgoers, my family (which included my grandma M who lived with us) was like most in the area, dependent upon the railroad for livelihood. I grew up with stories of adventure alongside the tracks where my dad and uncles had 'hitched' a freight to the West Coast (and Alaska) before the war to find work during the depression years. My uncles and he were borne off to fight WWII by the old steam engines. My grandpa P was an inspector for the old Illinois Central RR, whose tracks were not 100 yards in back of our house. The house shook as the GM&O Special sped by with its load of freight.

There were no TVs in our neighborhood yet, so the family gathered round the radio or the old Victor gramophone to listen to Christmas songs. Caroling was also popular and some Christmases we would be treated to a bunch of people who braved the cold to sing their carols, usually 'Silent Night' and 'Hark! The Herald Angels Sing. You know the kind. Before Bing Crosby's White Christmas. I was a teenager when that became 'the song'.

Anyway, the story of this particular Christmas morning foray was told to everyone on the morning of Christmas Day when my step-father (never called him dad, wish I would have and told him so later in life--he was a great guy who raised us the best way he could) told everyone what I had done the night before, after the tree was off. Everyone conserved electricity in those days, a carryover from the war effort.

My step-dad followed my tracks in the snow from the back door, where I had snuck out because the living room was 'sealed off at the french doors' early on. I had gone out the back basement door, around the side of the house to enter the front door, leaving a trail of boot tracks in the snow coming and going, tracking snow in all the while. Puddles of water where each boot stepped led to the tree, which was encircled by a beautiful little Lionel HO gauge model train. It smoked. It had a headlight. It had a whistle. Wow. I had a blast playing with it while eating Mars bars and cookies. I went out the front door when I was startled by a noise and went back to bed, where I'm sure I dreamed of a jet airplane, and next Christmas.

It's now 1:15am on Christmas Day as I remember this; having a glass of vanilla spice eggnog and piece of Cadbury chocolate as I write. They don't make Mars candybars anymore. Burp. Goodnight, and Merry Christmas! Oh, yes...I did get the jet airplane too!

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