Choo-choo, pang-pang

THE special 37-page catalog of Christmas toy bargains arrived (batteries not included) and I studied it in vain for rapport with my glad old days when I was a forward-looking likely recipient. Christmas, I find, is no longer for the Old Boys. There wasn't a choo-choo in all 37 pages. It came to me with a pang-pang that today's youngster doesn't go for a choo-choo because he doesn't know what a choo-choo is.

I've heard talk of keeping Amtrak active, but out here in the sticks Amtrak means nothing, and daresay there isn't a kid in town ever rode a train. The freights that remain of our old railroad are just putting in their lackadaisical time until their petition to abandon gets approved. Besides, today's trains don't choo-choo anyway.

How good it was to long for a toy train back when we'd line up by the crossing shanty and watch Mr. Buck lower the gates for the Halifax Express! Mr. Buck would say, ``Now stand well back, for the suction might draw ye under!'' Then the Halifax Express would howl past, its chime whistle peeling paint off buildings. A train like the Halifax Express, when it started up, would huff and puff and churn, and go ``Choo! Choo! Choo!'' So if a lucky boy got a toy train for Christmas -- cast-iron and no tracks --

he would push it about the living-room floor and say choo-choo-choo.

So I was intrigued by a toy in this catalog that is called a ``voice changer,'' $7.97 -- batteries not included. It changes a tot's voice so he sounds like a robot. Shall we skip, in compassion, all thoughts as to what a robot sounds like when it goes, ``Choo! Choo!''?

The great variety of frivolous toys (batteries not included) in this catalog ignores the old-time belief that gifts should be ``useful'' and ``sensible.'' I resurrect, accordingly, the summer I noticed what a great many mittens Aunt Lucy was knitting. One day she would be doing some red ones, and when I asked who would get them she drew me aside, looked about for eavesdroppers, and said, ``Sister Louise, but it's a secret -- don't tell!'' Then another day the yarn would be blue, and she'd say, ``For Tom

-- don't tell!'' Everybody, I could see, was about to get new mittens for Christmas -- everybody except me. I felt left out as fall came along, and took on a bit of dislike for Aunt Lucy. But on Christmas morning I got mittens, as did everybody else, and for the first time mine didn't have a loop to connect them through my sleeves and over my shoulders -- I was old enough now so I shouldn't be losing my mittens.

In this year's 37-page catalog, I found no Christmas mittens. There is a cash register for preschool children, which may be both useful and sensible, attesting that the world is still too much with us, but it will likely not prove so popular as the ``Secret Wars Tower of Doom.'' For ``only'' $19.99 this offers both a trapdoor and a chair to eject the enemy. I gather it is a companion toy to the ``Thunder Tank,'' which amazingly turns into a mechanical cat with a menacing jaw. Then, there is the ``Wheele d Warrior Vehicle'' with five interchangeable weapons included. And for the tot with advanced aptitudes, there is the ``Dynamite Crossing Set'' for $12.99. The simple instructions tell how to push down the detonator button to launch the Bridge Blaster Van, but also how to use the timer for a delayed explosion.

I take this opportunity to wish one and all the kindest sort of safe and happy Yule.

And then I found the one toy in the whole catalog to which I can relate. An aerial Hook-N-Ladder for $24.99. Nontoxic red enamel. Ladder rises to 36 inches! One of my best boyhood toys was a fire engine, so at least this much is left for today. Mine was a steamer. Had a brass boiler, but all else was cast-iron, bright red. Three horses, matched, brown. Up front was the driver, the second man, who rang the bell, and the spotty dog. Behind on his platform, the boilerman, hanging on. Just like the real one

that rolled from the hosehouse when the bell rang. Clang, clang, clang! The cannel coal would already be sending up black smoke when the engine reached the street; steam would be ready to pump when the horses got to the fire. No batteries included. Unhitch the three horses and lead them away until the fire is out. Children can step up and pat their soft noses.

And the boy with a steamer on the living-room floor didn't go choo-choo-choo. The noise of a fire steam was soft -- whish-whish-whish. Wonder what a robot sounds like when it goes whish-whish-whish. . . .

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