A CHRISTMAS MEMORY by Ray Flynt
It’s no mystery why I love trains.
I grew up in Wampum, a small town in Western Pennsylvania, nestled on the banks of the Beaver River and surrounded by hills that climbed several hundred feet. Limestone in them thar hills is what attracted the Medusa Portland Cement factory, located on the edge of town. In the 1950s, our community had a population of about a thousand people. Three different railroad tracks passed through it: The Pennsylvania Railroad, Baltimore and Ohio, and the Pittsburgh and Lake Erie Railroad. The latter provided passenger service between Youngstown, Ohio, and Pittsburgh. In my first summer job after high school, I walked three blocks to the train station for a twelve-minute ride to the next stop, then hiked about a mile to a retail paint store.
My grandmother’s home was a half-mile from ours. Getting there required crossing a pair of railroad tracks. As kids we were indoctrinated to NEVER walk between or crawl under a stopped train. Rather, we were to wait patiently until the train finally moved. Patience was never a virtue of mine, especially as a teenager. But I always obeyed that rule.
Diesel trains hadn’t fully replaced steam engines when I was a young boy, and I recall watching those massive “iron horses” chug into the station with their powerful pistons driving rods to move wheels taller than me. They left a powerful impression. Sounds of trains rumbling down the tracks and their piercing whistles were a regular occurrence. After a while, we tuned out the noise.
Circa 1958, I had a different—and equally memorable—train experience. That December my uncle and aunt were visiting from Texas. We enjoyed their visit, but it disrupted our usual Christmas morning routine. You see, my parents gave their bedroom to my uncle and aunt, while they slept on the sleep sofa in the living room. My brother and I shared a bedroom, and like every other Christmas we were up early and champing at the bit to start unwrapping. How early you ask? It was still dark outside, so probably around 5 a.m.
We knew better than to disturb our uncle and aunt. Our younger sister in the adjacent bedroom soon joined us, and the three of us engaged in whispered conversation on how to achieve our goal. We couldn’t just go charging downstairs to wake our parents. We needed a good reason. I don’t recall who came up with the idea first, but Christmas was also our dad’s birthday. “Let’s surprise him by singing Happy Birthday.”
We tiptoed downstairs with only the glow of streetlights through the windows. We passed by the Christmas tree, and I heard my brother whisper, “I think we got a train set.” Wow!
The three of us stood next to the sleep sofa and launched into our rendition of Happy Birthday. Although waking from a sound sleep, how could they be mad at us for singing our heartfelt best?
They took our singing with smiles and good grace and quickly saw our real motivation. My mother turned on the Christmas tree lights and informed us that we could each open one present before going back to bed. But there it was, already unwrapped, assembled, and displayed under the tree. A Lionel 027-gauge model train on a figure-eight track, a joint gift for me and my brother. I don’t recall what individual gift I was allowed to open at that early hour. The train set was more than I could’ve expected, and we played with it regularly. Later we learned that my parents, along with our visiting uncle and aunt, had been up until 3 a.m. putting it together.
Now you know why I’ve imbued Brad Frame with a love of all things train. I’ve given my fictional private detective an attic full of model trains eclipsing any I might have imagined in my youth. Several of the Frame mysteries include settings at train museums. More than sixty years later, that first model railroad remains a fond holiday memory.