Remembering the magic of electric trains

Dec. 29, 2012 @ 05:17 AM

At this season of year, I think a lot of my older brother’s first electric train.

Most of the boys got trains in our neighborhood at Christmas. Girls, for the most part, did not.

Oh sure, there are toy trains today, but I think kids would rather have some remote control car zooming under the table to annoy their parents or grandparents. You’ll be hard pressed to find an electric train in today’s box stores. A few years ago, I tried to buy one for my youngest nephew and I had to search five counties before I found a store that carried one. The store clerk told me they only stock a few electric trains, most of them seasonal Christmassy trains or some plastic rendition of Thomas the Train.

Department stores of yesteryear had enormous train layouts at Christmas time in their toy lands. Boys, like my brother, were hypnotized to watch locomotives disappear into dark tunnels.

I’ll never forget my older brother’s first electric train, a Lionel that looked like a snub-nose engine with just three boxcars and a round loop of track.

It wasn’t long before he annoyed our elders into buying him more equipment and a locomotive that looked like a “real” steam engine. He (or we, since I was his assistant engineer) wanted a figure-eight track, then switches and crossovers. Birthday and Christmas wishes yet to come were filled with “train requests” and did not stop until we had passenger cars which had roofs that could be removed to show seats and a bathroom with a moveable toilet seat. The old-time Christmas “Wish Book” catalogs contained pages of turned down corners marking the accessories we needed.

When Lionel came out with more accessories, by brother and I would pool our money. We needed fences, bridges, tall lights, farm animals. We created our own cities. We ruled our farm home’s basement and literally thought we had the world by the tail.

That is, until Lionel introduced the smoke pellet. One could drop a smoke pellet down the stack, heated by a tiny bulb. It was hot enough to produce an awful-smelling smoke, but it was smoke. One time, my brother and I decided we should stack a few pellets on top of each other to see what would happen.

Neither of us could have predicted that our home’s basement would fill up with smoke. We panicked and raced to the cellar door. As we opened it, the smoked billowed out behind us. We laid down in the yard to catch our breath only to open our eyes to find our mother gazing back us with a stern look. You know the look — all mothers have one.

From that point on, our mother rationed our smoke pellets. If we wanted one, we had to ask for one.

We didn’t like it. We had no choice since mom claimed we “almost” killed ourselves with smoke inhalation.

Today, my older brother has the train set in a plastic storage tubs in his machine shed.

I’ve offered many times to take the train set off his hands. He won’t bite. He keeps saying he’s going to get it working again when he retires.

Honestly, I hope my brother will get his train set up and running again. When he turns on the juice, hopefully he’ll remember the day we raced out the cellar door coughing up a storm because we wanted to create billows of smoke like the trains in the old TV westerns.

Rekindling memories is like rediscovering the lost magic land of our electric train set.