So This is Christmas

by John Delach

When I was a kid, my Christmas centered around Lionel Electric Trains. My starter set consisted of a modest steam engine and its tender, a Baby Ruth candy bar box car, a Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR) gondola, a Shell tank car and a Lionel Lines caboose.

Once I discovered Lionel Catalogues, I became aware of what was available. But money was tight, and I had to temper what I wanted. This would become my big gift. One year I asked for a Santa Fe diesel switcher, another, additional rolling stock. Relatives helped me to add automatic switches, an upgraded transformer and operating cars like Lionel’s cattle car and a log car. At the flick of a switch, cattle would leave their pens and enter the car or exit the car for the pens. Logs would be ejected from a flat car and into a saucer like container.

That is, of course, when they worked properly. Sometimes a cow or two would fall over jamming the path of others causing chaos, or logs would be flung in multiple directions knocking down scenery or blocking the tracks.

One year I asked for a PRR electric engine and my mother traveled to the Abraham & Straus (A&S) Department Store in Downtown Brooklyn to buy my desired motor. I was old enough that she allowed me to open the box when she returned home. To my horror, I realized that this unit was missing one of its two panographs.

I panicked and Mom returned it to the box, put on her coat and repeated her round-trip bus ride to exchange this engine. The trip took about two-hours and I waited for her return ashamed that I caused this to happen. Mom retuned with a new motor that passed inspection. To this day, I feel guilty.

By the time I reached 12-years of age, I had expanded my layout to allow two trains to operate at the same time. At 13, I had moved on and my railroad remained boxed and stored in our cellar bin.

When I was 17, I visited my father who was then stationed at March AFB in Riverside, California. Dad convinced me to ship my collection to him for my half-siblings, Nancy, Mark and Steven who were all quite young, He offered in return, a good pair of 7x 50 binoculars. His offer was an easy sell as I was beginning my life as a football fan and my Lionel Trains didn’t matter anymore.

Time marches on. Nancy, Mark and Steven outgrew electric trains, I married, and Mary Ann and I had our own children. I petitioned my Dad who agreed to return everything to me. Their return allowed me to build bigger and more complex layouts that I created in the basement of the house we rented in Middle Village, Queens. I continued to set up Christmas layouts after we moved to Port Washington in1977 until Beth and Michael also outgrew the magic of electric trains.

For twenty-years my trains remained inert and without power.

Drew Delach, my Number One grandson, entered the world in November of 1999. I told him early on that he was our only grandchild born in the Twentieth Century. When he turned four or five, I unboxed my train set and erected a new layout for that Christmas season. The look on Drew’s face when I powered up the system for the first time was magical. The action, the sound and the smell of these electric trains was as unique and powerful to Drew as it was to all who came before him starting with me.

Over the next four years I added additional items, a new steam engine to replace my original, a Long Island Railroad passenger car set and a set of four old IRT subway cars that I operated on a steel elevated line that ran above the train boards.

Four more grandchildren followed. Marlow and Samantha’s interest waned quickly, but the remaining two boys, Matt and Cace lasted the course. Cace is the youngest, and despite the inroads of electronics, my train set enthralled him longer than I could have expected. In February 2012, I underwent hip surgery. That Christmas season, I had to call on my son-in-law, Tom Briggs, to help me set up my railroad. By then Cace was the last kid interested. Together, we successfully set it up.

Sadly, Cace only came to visit my train set one time.

For Christmas 2013, I set up an abbreviated layout. A fool’s errand, the only times I turned it on was for my own enjoyment. Sadly, I would turn on all the illuminating fixtures on the layout, turn off  the basement lights and watch the lights while I listened to the sound, of the running gear and smelled the electric ozone as the trains circled my layout knowing this was my last stand.

Since then, my train set has remained boxed and stored in protective containers as they await either a future family resurrection or an estate sale.