|JOHN WEST'S CABINET FULL OF VINTAGE, LIONEL
Christmas is symbolized by commercialization.
Our kids request and receive an endless stream of technology driven
gadgets; video games, iPods, iPhones, Blackberries, and other devices
to which I do not even know their names. I, and I suspect many others,
long for the days of simplicity, quality and gifts that span and
connect generation after generation of family. For my family and
me, Christmas for the last eighty years has had Lionel Trains as a
constant comforting presence under our tree.
In 1994, my parents passed away but the tradition of
a huge Christmas tree accompanied by pre-war Lionel Trains, buzzing
around underneath would continue. To this day, my father’s first three
trains are the ones most prominently displayed in my train cabinet. My
grandfather had given them to my father when he was a boy. We always
refer to the three as “The Switcher” (203), “The Passenger Train”
(224E), and “The Vanderbilt” (264E). My grandfather was a salesman for
National Cash Register Co. in Camden, New Jersey in the 1930s. My
father would later joke that being a cash register salesmen during the
Depression was akin to being a snow shovel salesman in a town located
on the equator. Nonetheless, somehow my grandfather managed to give my
father a beautiful train collection that we would cherish to this day.
|"THE SWITCHER" (203), "THE PASSENGER"
(224E), AND "THE VANDERBILT" (264E)
the Christmas of 1995, my wife, two daughters
and I lived in the house I grew up in. The house dates from the late
1800s; it is a huge old house located a block from the beach in South
Jersey. Every year we would put a large tree in the living room. During
that particular Christmas, I got the idea to build a four
train-operating layout with our tree in the center.
As a kid, my third floor bedroom was completely
dominated by a raised eight-by-eight foot plywood train platform.
Despite this fact, both my father and I were totally lacking in
mechanical and technical skills - probably genetic. My mother used to
say that my dad did not know the difference between a fish scraper and
a screwdriver. I know the feeling.
I knew that building a four train-operating layout
was a daunting task. For starters, electricity and I get along about as
well as a mailman and a starving Rottweiler. There was an equal
chance of four chugging, steaming, lit-up Lionels going around in
circles as there was of a total conflagration. But I knew, I must press
on - it was tradition.
I called upon a friend of mine, a local carpenter
known as Duckie, to assist me with the circular saw part of the
proposition. While Duckie was in my living room taking in the sight of
uncut lumber and boxes full of trains, he thoughtfully sipped on his
sixteen-ounce can of Budweiser. Ominously, he began to shake his head.
“Never happen,” he muttered referring to the four trains at once
“Bet ya case of
beer ya can’t do it,” he said
guzzling about eight ounces out of the big can.
Not to be deterred one bit, I said, “It’s a bet.”
“Can’t help myself lose a bet,” he said as he left.
Ingenious. He got out of
lifting a finger plus it
probably would cost me a case of beer.
A bet involving beer is a serious matter. As I
pulled out the 1930s vintage transformers that had not been maintained
for years, I had thoughts of the local fire department. Would they
respond when I threw the switches Christmas morning? I pushed the
thoughts aside and began to build my platform, circular saw in hand.
Three weeks later, platform, tree and four trains
later, Christmas arrived. I advised my wife that in true West family
tradition, she should be the one to “throw the switches”. I had seen
all the mob movies where the mob guy sent his wife out to start his car
in the morning. This was no different, just more dangerous. Nancy
obliged and miraculously, the tree lit and four trains illuminated at
once! Christmas miracles truly do exist! No shock, no fire, and a wife
who is still able to stand! A guy could not ask for more.
I quickly called Duckie. Upon learning the news, he
disappeared as if in the Witness Protection Program. Years passed, we
moved away and I continued to collect trains. But I did not collect
that case of beer.
This past summer, I had the occasion to run into
Duckie on the boardwalk. Shocked into silence at the sight of me, I was
the one to bring up the status of the delivery of my case of beer.
Thirteen years had passed but certain memories never fade.
Duckie advised that he was now “on the wagon” and as
a consequence, he could not be involved in anything involving beer-
even payment of a lost bet. I asked how long it had been since he
stopped drinking. As I expected, he replied: “About a week- or so.” The
only wagon Duckie had ever been on was pulled by eight Clydesdales; he
rode in the back and shared space with something called “Budweiser.”
At this point I offered, “How about I do five trains
this year and we double or nothing on the case of beer?”
Now the stakes were really high. Duckie, deep in
thought, just as he had been years before in our family’s living room,
replied, “When I win I guess I can donate the beer to charity.”
“Sure, good idea,” I said as we shook hands on the
bet and I continued to stroll on the boards. I was left to ponder who
in town had named their basement bar “Charity.
brings me to my present collection of
trains. I seem to have fallen in with a bad crowd, guys who are
obsessed and in love with trains as I am. I have become a member
of the Train Collectors Association (TCA). I religiously attend
the “York Meets” which is the absolute center of the model train
universe. Every April and October, located at the York
Fairgrounds, building after building is jam-packed with every
conceivable train ever created on display or for sale. I doubt
there is anything else like it in the world.
the TCA, I found “THE TRAIN STATION” located
in Mountain Lakes, New
Jersey. In this store, I found the most
extensive collection of pre war, post war and new trains. Almost
every beautiful train in my collection came from the Train Station or
the York Meet. The owner, Dave and his staff are among the most
knowledgeable train experts I have ever met. They are also
experts in designing and building home layouts.
now has to be very careful when he bets
against my trains and me. Now, I have experts on my side and I am
confident I will not burn the house down.
So as another Christmas nears, out come the trains
and the great memories of the past. Foremost in my memory is time
spent with my father and our trains. Those same trains will be
passed onto my daughters and then onto their children.
Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to all—I look
forward to seeing many of my fellow train enthusiasts at York in April;
when times will be better and we have yet another chance to talk about
|700E MODEL HUDSON STEAM ENGINE