Thursday, December 12, 2013

Toyland Heaven

Toyland Heaven
memoir by Greg Larson
            The 1962 Fall edition of the Sears and Roebuck catalog seemed to weigh a ton. I held it close to my chest, then threw it down in front of me on the sleek sofa, spread out my legs behind me, and began flipping the pages, one by one. The tinsel on the Christmas tree in front of the big picture window glistened in the sunshine. It was my afternoon ritual, part daydream journey into fantasy Christmas mornings and part mission to select important things to put on my list for Santa. Wasn’t the meaning of Christmas to seek out the favorite toys to get on Christmas morning, and then blissfully play hour after hour without thinking about school?

In the electric train section I looked at all the sepia-toned images of every train imaginable, from giant locomotives roaring across trestle bridges in the forest, to stubby-looking switch engines working the freight yards of big cities. The Great Northern Railway locomotive was my favorite, hauling Mesabi iron ore through tunnels in the birch forests. I closed my eyes and pictured small towns with wooden train stations and goose-necked lamps along the platform, with the countryside full of mirror-surfaced lakes and snow-capped mountains beyond.

The anticipation of Christmas was almost unbearable, but Christmas Eve finally came and we all gathered around the tree to take turns reading parts of the real Christmas story from the Bible. After our fill of sugar cookies and hot chocolate, we grabbed a flashlight and a wristwatch to keep under the bed covers. Mom had a rule: nobody gets up before 6:00 AM. The night went on forever. My brothers and I tossed and turned, checking the watch every ten minutes.
Christmas Eve 1962 - Brothers Tim, Dan, & Greg

At 5:50 AM we rousted our parents. Dad had to get up and position himself with the 8mm movie camera and floodlights before we ran down the hall and into the living room. The blinding light and the buzzing camera motor were the signal to see what Santa had brought during the night. Everything in the room was flooded with silver light, creating a surreal atmosphere. I thought it must be something like heaven, all silvery with shiny toys spread about the room.

There it was! Low-hanging tinsel fluttered as a Lionel train rolled on a track set up in front of the tree. Wow! New train cars; a Sunoco tank car, a double-decker car full of automobiles, and a boxcar with a Baby Ruth trademark on it. The camera lights, the train whirring along the track, and our yelps as we explored the room made for a heady experience and a great Christmas memory. Santa (aka Dad) was a smart cookie. He had not disappointed us.

Immediately, Dad began to talk of a project for the rec-room he had built in the garage. He wanted to build us a train table that would fold up into the wall. My older brother started planning a track layout that would fill a four-foot by eight-foot table top.

Over the next few days we watched Dad assemble the plywood table. At times, he allowed us to hold a piece of lumber when he ran it through the power table saw, or sweep the sawdust and pick up the wood scraps. He installed a big piano hinge along the table edge and wall box, and added folding legs for the outer corners of the table.

Brother Dan installing track

After a lot of discussion between my Dad and brother, they began to attach the trestle pylons and pieces of track to the table. My brother consulted with his friend across the street to determine how to maximize the track. Only one piece of track had to be cut and spliced.

In no time at all we had our Katy switch engine pulling train cars along the track. On our nearby blackboard, I created lists of train cars, and we spent hours rearranging the cars, using the sidetracks to create new trains to pull. We took turns controlling the train from the transformer, which became warm to the touch. Occasionally, we were able to run two trains at the same time, but that put our small transformer to its limit. On the busy days with the train, the room became warm and the engines emitted the fragrance of ionized electrons and three-in-one oil.

Before the end of the Christmas holiday, we had daily visits from our friends bringing their favorite Lionel engines and cars to run on the tracks. My friend Mike brought his silver Santa Fe engine and we had two trains running at full speed. I remember thinking it was the best Christmas ever for an eleven-year-old boy in Kansas.