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       A CHRISTMAS TRAIN MIRACLE white and black logo
STORY BY JOHN H. WEST - PHOTOGRAPHY BY CHRIS POH
John West's collector's train cabinet full of Loinel model trains as seen in American Public House Review
JOHN WEST'S CABINET FULL OF VINTAGE, LIONEL MODEL TRAINS



Today, 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 Train (224E),"  and The Vanderbilt (264E) Lionel Model Trains as seen in American Public House Review
"THE SWITCHER" (203), "THE PASSENGER" (224E), AND "THE VANDERBILT" (264E)



Before 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 theory.

“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.


Which 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 sign of The Train Station in Mountain Lakes, NJ as seen in American Public House Review
The Train Station in Mountain Lakes, NJ as seen in American Punblic House Review

 
Through 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.




   
Train case at THE TRAIN STATION in Mountain Lakes, NJ as seen in American Public House Review
DISPLAY CASE AT THE TRAIN STATION



Model Railroad at The Train Station in Mountain Lakes, NJ as seen in American Public House Review
A LIVE LAYOUT



Duckie 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 trains. 




700E Hudson Steam Engine at The Train Station in Mountain Lakes, NJ as seen in American Public House Review
700E MODEL HUDSON STEAM ENGINE






THE TRAIN STATION



12 ROMAINE ROAD
MOUNTAIN LAKES, NEW JERSEY 07046

(973) 263-1979


www.train-station.com




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