A Ride on The Christmas Express

WE live within the sound of trains. From our backyard, or even from the living room when the wind is blowing in the right direction, the bells at the crossing gate and the groan of the diesel sound downright close. In fact, when our neighbor has her kitchen light on and the train rolls by, our two-year-old, Ariel, mistakes Fern's house for the train, thinking that it's coming through our backyard. The train stops down by the center of town. It's the Boston & Maine carrying people to and from their offices in Boston. They board and disembark at the post office, next to Johnnie's Foodmaster, across the street from Dunkin' Donuts and Saint Raphael's. There's no depot, as such, just a wide stretch of black Tarmac with yellow ``Caution'' lines painted on it.

But the train sounds would be the same were we listening in Vladivostok or Vienna, I like to think. The sound of trains transcends locale. For me, the heavy, voluminous clatter of any railway evokes summers at the house by the river in New Hampshire, hearing the nightly freight from Portland to Berlin wind its way up the Saco River valley to Crawford's Notch. Its forlorn weal blasted down the valley to our house and as I lay in bed I pictured it snaking along towards the trestle beneath the Frankenstein cliffs, just below the notch.

Of course it's always special when driving to be held up at a railroad crossing and watch the place names on the cars rattling by. Unlike airplanes, a train announces diverse landscapes, resources, and industries. Airplanes are about destinations and arrival; trains are about travel, the sinuous route, the journey. Trains have the romance of being known by name in story and song: The Flying Scotsman, The Orient Express, the Rock Island Line, Lionel.

WE had model trains when I was a kid and took pride in taking our parents' dinner guests through our ``HO'' gauge layout down in the cellar. When a magazine ad for model trains caught my eye before Christmas a few years ago I couldn't resist. ``Lehmann-Gross-Bahn - The Big Train,'' it heralded. For an enticingly fair sum, you too could have the large ``G'' scale train from Germany circling the presents under your tree - for the pleasure of the kids, of course. I ordered over the phone and had it sent to my work address. In a week I was setting up track on the floor of my office and playing with my Big Train between teaching classes. Ah, the sound of trains, even electric trains. There is a somnambulant cadence to wheels on rails. The sound alone transports you.

The train store also sent the company catalog, an encyclopedia of detailed reproductions of European and American railroad lines, beautifully photographed in magnificent garden layouts (I especially liked the photo of an elephant standing on a section of track to show its durability) and accompanied by paragraph after paragraph of elegant descriptions, all in German. I'm keen on the ``gleiserweiterungspackungen'' on page 6. Unless of course ``gleiserweiterungspackungen'' is a verb. Evidently I have bought more than a cute train for beneath the Christmas tree. The catalog depicts a life work.

Notice I haven't used the word ``toy.'' Uncle Mel, full-time train enthusiast, part time doctor, told me the story of the model railroaders at his local hobby shop who looked disdainfully at a particular gauge train set because it was really a ``toy'' not a model railroad. Mel also noticed the conspicuous absence of children at the train store. This was a preoccupation for grown men. Uncle Mel's trains come out once a year. But he lives in Los Angeles and somehow running a train around the Christmas tree when it's a balmy 75 degrees outside violates my northeastern sense of propriety. It must be cold outside before the trains come out.

EVERY year, two weeks before Christmas, we take our annual trip to the train store to add another car to our railroad and, perhaps, another few sections of track. Last year the layout encompassed the living room. This year I'm hoping to expand into the dining room. Eventually the whole downstairs will be a maze of tunnels, switches, homemade villages, and logging operations. At our present rate of expansion, this will come about by the time our youngest child goes to college; I'll finally get to play with the trains by myself. For now I'm happy if the dog isn't lying on the track or Ariel blocking the tunnel with her baby buggy. Ariel Rose loves train wrecks.

I let the kids choose the new car, or ``rolling stock'' as we aficionados are supposed to call it. The store has so many choices: cattle cars, box cars, flat cars, tank cars, crane cars - to say nothing of all of the passenger lines. Ours is a work train: We haul freight, not passengers.

A freight line contains variety, hence the dilemma of choice. Last year we chose a red caboose modeled after the Circle line and the year before we got the red, white, and blue ``State of Maine Potatoes'' box car. Our two older children, Spencer and Hilary, stood by the counter in the store and flipped a coin to see who got to select. Whatever disappointment they feel over losing the toss is canceled once we get the new car hitched up and rolling behind the little yellow, muscle-bound locomotive.

We use the two flat cars which came with the starter set to haul logs (scraps from old bookshelf lumber) and, alternately, graham crackers. When the kids are in bed I like nothing better than to turn on the Christmas tree lights and lie by the tree with the train running. This is Christmas: the tree, white lights, cold weather outside, our Big Train clacking along in circles delivering lumber and graham crackers to towns up and down Living Room County.

The men at the store would frown: None of my homemade tunnels, depots, and houses conform to scale or anything remotely reminiscent of our train's actual historical milieu. We don't, in fact, run a railroad at our house.

The MIT Model Railway Club runs a railroad. During our second training Christmas, after walking for what seemed like hundreds of yards through a ramshackle building full of physics labs and clubs in pursuit of all manner of arcane interests, we found the archetypal model railroaders: half a dozen men, some wearing engineers caps, some with their hair tied back in pony tails, mastering their own railroad universe in a seedy top floor room with clanking radiators and a glorious HO scale layout.

We saw ancient and modern freight trains, passenger trains, trolleys; a switching yard, turntable, mountain tunnels and elevated urban trestles and a Hewlett-Packard main frame computer blinking in the corner and confounding train wrecks. The room hummed and clattered with the sound of trains. Even a small HO scale model train seemed redolent of the Berlin freight approaching the Frankenstein cliffs. This was a railroad because you could go on a complete journey, from urban to rural landscape and back.

What shall we get this year? I'm thinking about a tank car that holds real water. Another box car would be nice. Or we could expand into passenger service. I hope I win the coin toss when we go to the train store. After all, whose train is it?

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