When I was a little kid, I wanted to be a railroad engineer. No thrill was greater than Dad having to stop the car to let a train pass. I got out and counted the cars while the behemoth machine passed by. I got hooked on seeing the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade just to watch the commercials. Most were for Lionel electric trains. So, it was natural that my biggest Christmas present ever was an electric train, a Lionel of course.
It was a simple layout, a figure eight with a diesel engine and three passenger cars. I ran it forward and backwards for hours. I guess watching shiny objects go round and round for hours appeals to a boy. Explains NASCAR racing.
But I could not leave it at that. I saved my allowance for over a year for the day I could walk into a toyshop and buy my dream layout. I had switches for a sideline running by a train station and even a rocket launcher (my boyhood paralleled the space race). My mother allowed me to take over a small bedroom upstairs and my older brother helped me with a piece of plywood to make a decent landscape. He even fashioned a paper mache mountain and tunnel.
I learned something about electricity by wiring the whole thing. First, using too much wire before understanding serial wiring. This was all while I was in the fifth grade. By the time I had a science project to do in the eighth grade, I’d discovered that a tape recorder generated a strong enough signal to turn a small switch off and on. The result was my recording the pulses generated to move a train forward and backward and then replaying the sequence as teachers and principal marveled at the programmed train. A scientist was born.
Some men stay boys for their entire lives and create fantastic layouts meticulously detailing real-world scenes although the real world less and less features trains. The train now lives more as a throwback legend. Thomas the Train, The Polar Express, all for children who have few actual instances of a locomotive for reference. The train now makes guest appearances doing circles around Christmas trees.
Sure, there are plenty of things that move with motors for the child to enjoy: Cars and dune buggies with remote controls and the latest fascination, the drone. Yet, few have the persistent effect that the electric train had for me as the best Christmas gift ever.