April 3rd, 2019
I had to dig through some dusty shelves, full of long-forgotten toys, to get at it. I knew it was there. I could see the box. It was on the very top shelf, and I could make out the faded words on its side. Once I cleared away some other things that we should have thrown away years ago, I could finally reach the carton. I felt like an archaeologist. I was playing at being Indiana Jones in my own basement.
The box had been crisp and white at one time. Now it was stained and torn. On the top of the box was picture of a glorious steam locomotive, and there was the name of the manufacturer: “Lionel of New York”.
It was an electric train. Once it was my train. Then it became Hans’ train. Now it might become Weston’s train.
I don’t have many happy memories from my youth. Maybe most other people don’t either. However, the memory of my parents buying me this train is a good memory. They bought it for me in 1967, when I was nine years old. They bought it at a small hobby shop on National Avenue, back when West Allis was a working class, industrial town, and little, family-run stores were common. If I remember right, we walked there from our house to get the toy. It was during wintertime. I think that we were without a car then. Somehow, we got the box home, and my dad set up the train.
My dad loved trains. He especially loved steam locomotives. He despised diesel engines. A diesel engine, because of its size, can be impressive, but a steam engine is something completely different. A steam engine is a thing that is almost alive. It hisses and roars, and its pistons move like the muscles of an athlete. A diesel engine is a domesticated machine. A steam engine is a wild thing.
I took the box upstairs into the kitchen. I opened it up for the first time in how many years? Twenty? Twenty-five? I found the engine and the tender. I found various sections of track, all of them tarnished from decades of neglect. Buried under everything else in the box were yellowed pieces of paper: an instruction sheet for operating the the train, and an order form to request extra parts from the Lionel Company. The order form stated that shipping costs could be as much as fifty cents.
When Hans was little, I set up the train around our Christmas tree. Hans was fascinated by it. He could watch the train go round and round for hours. He loved it. Later, he and I went out to buy new parts for the train. I remember going with to a hobby shop on the north side of Milwaukee to buy more track, or maybe a new car. My memories are sketchy now, but I remember us waiting for the store to open. We sat in the car with raindrops splashing on the windshield. He was so young then, so small.
Hans got older. He wasn’t interested in trains. He became interested in motorcycles, and in the military. We put the train away. He left to live in Texas. He went to war in Iraq. We forgot the things of childhood.
In November of 2018 Hans and his fiancee, Gabi, had a son. Weston is nearly four months old now. He looks a lot like Hans did way back when. I asked Hans if I should bring him his train when my wife and I come to visit him. Hans said, “Yes.” He wants Weston to see the train.
I laid out the track on the kitchen floor. It didn’t seem to fit right. Maybe we had lost some pieces. The transformer was not the original. I can remember the first transformer for the train. I guess it must have gone bad, and Hans and I had bought a a new one. I was worried that the engine would not work at all. When I first got it, the headlight shown, and a person could somehow make it smoke like a real locomotive. Not any more. I just wanted to get the thing to run again.
I put the engine on the tracks. I plugged in the transformer. It turned it on. The engine moved reluctantly, and it barely made it around the oval track. The track needs to be cleaned.
Hans can take care of that.
Weston can watch.