There's Magic in Those Trains
by Bill Hudson
I often recall the excitement of my childhood Christmas mornings waking up at 5:30 a.m. coming down the stairs and seeing the gifts that we prayed for, behaved for, and made impossible promises for. Gifts like my first bike (a Western Flyer 26” two-wheeler that I could barely reach the pedals on), my Erector Set and motor, the Daisy pump BB-gun (that I promised to only shoot at safe, stationary, inanimate targets), and my first set of model trains … the American Flyer Union Pacific 4-8-4 steam locomotive with the crane car.
I did my homework for that train. Like every other boy in my Baltimore neighborhood, I had carefully studied the yearly train catalogs published by both Lionel and Gilbert who produced the American Flyers. The catalogs strategically came out each year in the early fall giving every boy adequate time to pick his favorite train and relentlessly pester his parents for during the weeks leading to Christmas. Better than any comic book, these were artistically perfect booklets with full color pictures of their best steam locomotives and latest streamlined diesels shown next to a proud pipe-smoking dad with his arm around his big-eyed smiling ten-year-old son whose hand was pushing the throttle on their most expensive transformer thereby reminding all families of the bonding, the happiness, the serenity a train will surely bring into their otherwise chaotic house. Why, any caring mom and dad could plainly see that a train was an absolute necessity for their young American family and the extraordinary expense should be regarded as a parental honor to bear for their exceptional child.
The catalogs alone were addictive, but the need for a model train became irrevocable after Thanksgiving when our family caught the #19 streetcar from Parkville downtown to Sears and Roebuck’s which had an elaborate layout (coincidentally right next to Santa himself) with several trains running simultaneously puffing smoke, flashing lights, and blowing whistles that kept me and my younger brother Ernie in a well-behaved trance while our parents did some Christmas shopping. And when we needed a break from the trains, Ernie and I just wandered over to the familiar shoe department which had the amazing
known as the
X-ray Shoe Fitter
that was free to use with no adult supervision. So, with no adult supervision, Ernie stuck his feet in the bottom and I climbed up, pressed the button unknowingly zapping Ernie with a five-year’s limit of Roentgens, and looked through the peep tube at the top to see his toes wiggling. Like any big brother I encouraged Ernie to squeeze his head in, but there just wasn’t enough room. So we reversed positions as I stuck my arms into the shoe slot so Ernie could see the bones moving in my fingers. Like many modern wonders, the health hazards of that machine weren’t recognized until years later when it was forever banned.
Sorting through all of this information, Ernie and I soon decided we wanted the more realistic two-rail, S-gauge American Flyers rather than the larger three-rail, O-gauge Lionels and we made the pitch to our parents over and over again. Then, early on Christmas morning of 1953, there it was, running and belching smoke under our Christmas tree … the ol’ number 336, 4-8-4 steam locomotive powered by a beautiful, single-handle transformer with both a volt and amp gauge. The smell and energy of Christmas changed forever that morning from the clean, fresh, calm of evergreen to the smell of smoke and burnt oil from a locomotive pulling freight cars, blowing a whistle, and clickety-clacking in circles around our dining room.
It was no coincidence that every other boy in our block was gifted with a train that same year. All of us were about the same age and it became part of our tactics to tell our parents, “Guess what ‘Leimy’ and ‘the Wentworths’ are gittin’ fer Christmas.” Those were the days when all the neighbors were close …. they socialized; they all knew each others’ kids and they discussed what the kids wanted and what they were likely to be given.
So in 1953 a custom began in Baltimore that I have never witnessed anywhere else since. After opening our own presents, we eagerly went to every other kid’s house on Christmas Day to see their trains. In my block alone, the Wrights, Johnny Matuze, the Wentworths, Billy Leimbach, Stevey Schaffer, and Billy and Larry Morwood all had Lionels. Butchy Stoermer, we Hudsons, the DiFattas, and Raymond Meyers had American Flyers. Only Tommy Bush had the newer, very small HOs with those distinctive two brass rails.
Highlights of our neighborhood tour included seeing the huge layout that Raymond Meyers had in his basement which his dad, a contractor and our baseball coach, had built and continued to add onto each year. Then there was the multitude of electronic gadgets that the Morwoods had accumulated -- the electric cattle car, crossing gates, the barrel loader, coal loader and coal dump car, switches, rotating blinking lights, and moving automobiles. Thereafter, as the years progressed so did the size and personality of each kid’s train garden.
As we kids moved on from house to house the size of our herd increased. We collectively saved the Wentworths for our final stop because in our hearts we all knew that whatever Mike and Dick Wentworth demonstrated, it would be so destructive that it could only be performed once. So why not save it for the entire neighborhood to watch (
November 2016 “Peeing on the Electric Fence”).
The Wentworth Boys entertained by placing impassable obstacles on the track for incredible collisions … things like their Mom’s glass flower vases and Lincoln log houses. Adding to the drama, Mike and Dick would shoot at the moving train with homemade weapons such as slingshots, pee-shooters, and rubber band guns. One Christmas I witnessed the Wentworths disconnect the completed track loop into two separate halves. They hooked up another transformer and then ran two steam engines in opposing directions at maximum speed for a perfect head-on collision into a glass of grape juice providing a perfect parts-everywhere finale to the neighborhood tour.
My dad realized our appreciation of model trains and helped as we expanded our display in size, complexity, and realism. He also allowed us to keep the layout up and operating long after the Christmas season. Personally I became fascinated with techniques to achieve life-like scenery and began to dislike anything that was obviously artificial. I talked Dad into subscribing to Model Railroader magazine and became a fan of model trains ever since. For me it is another venue for artistic expression … one that I have shared with my children and now with my grandkids.
With a family my size, I’ve come to realize that for some of the grandkids …. well, they’d rather kick a ball or play video games. A couple of the boys are “Wentworths” at heart and simply enjoy speed and derailments. But right now I am blessed to have 2-year-old Tanner and Brooks who both come through my front door, immediately raise their fist in the air and pull it down twice while yelling “Choo, choo!” Then they race upstairs, turn on the transformers, and see how
they can run my trains. These may be my future artists who want to savor every powerful turn of the wheels letting their imaginations take them travelling over mountains, through tunnels, on bridges, into locomotive roundhouses and rail yards, beside rivers, and across the roads of small American railroad towns as they once were in those glorious 1950s.