Something About A Train

by Terry Hogan

There's something about a train. I don't know what it is. Even if we hadn't invented trains to haul ourselves and our goods across America, we would have invented toy trains. It is there to be seen in the eyes of little boys and little girls. And even in their granddad's eyes.

There is something about a train. A toy train makes a child old. It makes old men young. The child dreams dreams of running the locomotive or riding on the train to places unique to the dream. Old men recall years ago when they wore younger clothes. And their bodies knew no limitations.

When I was about eight years old, I wanted a Lionel train from Santa. My friend Jim had a really neat train set with multiple trains, mountains, bridges, cattle that would self-load into rail cars. I was really envious.

Christmas morning came. In front of the fireplace, there was a small train. It was electric and had a steam locomotive, a coal car, two cars, and a caboose. It was nice. But it wasn't a Lionel. Nevertheless, it got years of use. It just required a little more boyhood imagination than a Lionel train system. Even though it wasn't a Lionel, it was an electric train. In time, it became mine and I liked it as much as I would have a Lionel.

Years passed. The train got stored. I got married and the "I" became "we" and the "we" soon included two daughters. When our daughters were small, I set up my old train set so they could watch it. They enjoyed it. I came home from work one day to find that our younger daughter, Sarah, had found a new way to play with the train. She was two years old. She disconnected each car from the others. She had carried one car at a time, toddling across the room, and dropped each car, one after another, into the aquarium. The aquarium sat on a low oak table. I recovered the cars and locomotive, dried them best I could and put the train away. I figured the train was dead, but I couldn't throw it away. (Yes, all the goldfish survived.)

Decades later, actually this last Christmas, Santa must have been doing a database review and discovered that he had failed a little boy in Galesburg, all those years ago. On Christmas morning, I had a Lionel train set from Santa. It was a steam locomotive with a horn. The locomotive even puffed smoke. Santa knew that there was something about a train. Or perhaps my wife had reminded him.

Our grandchildren range from ages one to five. Excluding the one-year old, they have a pretty good interest in trains, particularly the two boys. They can play for hours with "Thomas Trains". Now Grandpa's new Lionel has opened up a whole new area of interest. When the train gets put together on the dining room table, the children sit on the chairs and hunker down, eye-level with the train as it makes its small laps around the table top. We watch the smoke in daylight, as the little white puffs drift across the dining room air. We watch the locomotive's headlight at night. It sends its little slice of light into the darkened dining room night sky. The mournful horn calls out, unanswered. The grandchildren and grandpa are mesmerized. Each in their own way. There is something about a train.

For Grandpa it reminds my youth. Both with recollections of the toy train and with the steam locomotives that used to prowl Galesburg and the surrounding farm land. The sound and sight of a passenger train evokes both the romantic and the mournful. There is something about a train.

The grandkids are not rowdy with the train. They sit quietly, watching at eye-level. They watch the train come. They watch the train go. They are in thought, or perhaps in dreams. I don't pry. It is their world that they are in. The world will be what it will be. Their role will be as it is dreamed or thought. But it involves that train as it circles and passes from reality into dreams and then back again.

One day when both my wife and the grand kids were gone, I went up into the storage attic above our garage. I knew where it was. I could remember the size and shape of the cardboard box. After nearly 30 years of storage, my old train was unloaded from the box. It was dusted off, and looked over. After the dunking, it had survived a house fire and numerous household moves. I plugged in the transformer. It hummed. It didn't catch fire. That was hopeful. I got steel wool and rubbed the rust off the old tracks and assembled them. I put the old steam locomotive on the track and attached the cars, one by one. I fired up the transformer. The transformer hummed. The locomotive sizzled but did not move. There were a few sparks on the track. The locomotive stopped growling. I cleaned the tracks again. I polished track connections again. After several hours or work that was pure pleasure, the old steam locomotive made its first complete lap around the track in nearly 30 years. It had survived the dunking of 1976.

I felt eight years old again. I hooked up the red and green airport beacon that drew its power off the railroad tracks. The miniature light bulb with a dimple on top still worked. The heat from the bulb, rising and passing through little foil vanes caused the red and green lenses to rotate, pivoting on a needle point, balanced in the dimple of the light bulb. I was mesmerized.

I am nearly convinced that the most important thing I can pass onto my grandchildren is the magic of a train. A train can take you anywhere. It can take you anytime. It is powered by your imagination. The power of imagination is a good thing to learn. It is too easily forgotten.

My prescription to old and young alike. Take one toy train. Exercise it daily. Let it take you where it will. Share it with others. It has an unlimited passenger capability. It grows in use, not diminishes.

There's something about a train.