Life’s adventures all began with toy electric train set
Carson City resident
When I think back to the most exciting Christmas presents Santa brought me in the first decade of my life, three things come to mind: my powder-blue bicycle with the fat tires and coaster brakes, my Fanner 50 six-gun with the simulated ivory grips and leather gun belt and my Lionel electric train with the smoke-belching steam locomotive and string of realistic-looking freight cars.
Each of these presents became a prized possession, granting me countless hours of exciting play. But each gave me something more.
The bike meant mobility, the expansion of my world. No longer was I confined to my yard, but could roam the neighborhood in search of adventure.
The six-gun was my ticket to the storied past, to the realm of the Western hero where the good guys always won, and a kid was bound only by the limits of his imagination.
And the electric train gave me an appreciation for the world beyond my world, the vastness of America and the romance of traveling to distant cities. The Baltimore and Ohio. The Atcheson, Topeka and Santa Fe. The Illinois Central. Names like these, emblazoned on the sides of my Lionel freight cars first awoke a thirst for travel in me that would one day carry me to those cities and beyond.
I loved to run my trains in the dark. In the dark, you could easily pretend you were looking at a real train, rushing through the night to some exciting, far-off destination. My brother, Cliff, and I would turn out all the room lights and lay down on the floor with our face at track level. Then we’d set the trains in motion.
All over the layout, the tiny lights from the switches and houses and crossing gates would glimmer, making it look like a real town at night. Then, every couple of seconds, the engine’s headlight would come roaring out of the dark and the train would flash past. We’d quickly swivel our heads and watch as the caboose lights receded into the night.
I think it was Christmas 1955 when Santa brought electric trains for Cliff and me. I remember tumbling out of bed Christmas morning and rushing to the living room to find that the jolly fellow had somehow performed a miracle during the night.
Though he needed a major portion of the room to accomplish his task, Santa had constructed a complete Lionel metropolis in a 4-by-14-foot space that had lately held much of the living room furniture. Brother Cliff and I whooped with joy and raced to the trains, while Dad and Mom tried valiantly to hold us back, at least long enough to explain how everything worked.
The layout was actually comprised of two separate layouts, each complete with a transformer, steam engine, set of freight cars and operating accessories. The two layouts lay end to end on the living room floor, and Santa had hooked them together with a removable crossover section. The crossover permitted my brother’s train to travel to my layout and my train to his. Santa had hit on an ingenious idea that allowed us to share our trains when we preferred and to operate on our own separate layout when we wanted to play by ourselves.
Young people today would probably find it difficult to believe that in the early 1950s, operating toys didn’t exist in the lives of most kids. I remember being 3 or 4 years old and making most of my toys out of empty cereal boxes, milk bottle caps and glue. I had seen electric trains in store windows, but never dreamed I might actually own one.
Santa changed all that when he gave us trains. Trains did things. Not only did they chug around the layout with the merest twist of the transformer control, but fixtures on the layout did things, too. Red- and green-lighted switches rerouted trains in the blink of an eye. Couplers uncoupled at the touch of a button. Crossing gates lowered. Whistles blew. Lights blinked on and off. Just about everything did something.
My train, for instance, had an operating milk car. You flipped open a small hatch in the roof of the pristine white car and inserted tiny metal milk cans. Then, when the car stopped opposite the unloading platform, you could push a remote button and the center doors of the car would fly open and a miniature milkman would busily begin pushing the milk cans onto the platform. I loved that car and never tired of watching it perform.
My brother’s set had an equally exciting car, one that would load and unload cattle. This amber-colored cattle car held nine black rubber cows that would, when you pushed a remote button, exit through a door at the forward end of the car. If you held the button down, the cows would, one by one, travel around the adjacent stockyard platform and then re-enter the car at the rear.
The whole operation worked through vibration. Pushing the remote button caused both the platform and the interior of the car to vibrate and the cows to move. Lionel engineers had designed ridges on the cow’s feet to cause them to always move in a forward direction. If you wanted to keep the cows on the platform until the train pulled in next time, you could manually close a gate and the cows wouldn’t be able to re-enter the car.
But even though there was a lot happening on the layout, Cliff and I soon grew bored watching our trains race ’round and ’round our miniature cities. So we got creative. We discovered that we could simultaneously throw our switches and send our locomotives through the cross-over to the opposite layout, just missing the other brother’s locomotive. What a thrill!
Of course, sometimes we cut it too fine, and the steel-jacketed engines would crash into one another. I’m sure today’s train collectors would shrink in horror to hear me say that, but at the time Cliff and I didn’t know any better. The locomotives seemed indestructible. Even when they flew off the track on a curve and landed on the concrete floor, they seemed to suffer no noticeable harm.
Years later, I asked my mother what happened to my trains. She couldn’t remember. I suppose she probably passed them on to a younger cousin or gave them to the Salvation Army. Unfortunately, I hadn’t noticed when they disappeared, having long before grown bored with them.
I’m sure that, at the time, the trains seemed hopelessly mired in my childish past. And besides, by then I had entered the second decade of my life and more exciting things had captured my imagination; things like my lipstick-red electric guitar, girls and the ultimate symbol of teenage freedom, my first car.
Still, sometimes, I think about those old electric trains. Sometimes I even think about finding an old set and building a layout so I could watch them run again. Then I’m going to turn out all the lights, lay down on the floor, and wait for that locomotive headlight to rush toward me out of the dark.
And when that caboose light has receded in the distance, I’ll think about all the fascinating cities I’ve explored in my life and how it all got started.