Posted on December 24, 2017
The Christmas Train (An Atari Nerd Memoirs Story)
The Christmas Train (An Atari Nerd Memoirs Story)
By Steve Fulton
Part 1: H.O. Scale Christmas
Train tracks feel like the stuff of life to me. They stretch long into an unseen distance, appear never ending, yet always travel to a known and inevitable destination.
I’ve always had a fascination with trains. When I was very young, in the middle of the night from my bedroom window, the one reliable noise were the long, loud, whistles from the Western Pacific trains rumbling through the Los Angeles suburbs, pulling their loads from the port in San Pedro to destinations unknown to me.
I loved looking down the tracks from a car window as we drove over a crossing, imagining a train was coming right for us. It reminded me of the “runaway train” portion of the tram ride at Universal Studios from the one supremely memorable time we went there as family in early 1970s.
My dad loved trains too, especially steam engines with tall smokestacks, spewing blackened clouds backwards, down the length of their cars and caboose. He took us to Travel Town (disappointing), the Lomita Railroad Museum (cool), and the Laws Railroad Museum in Bishop CA (neat), the model train museum in San Diego’s Balboa park (utterly amazing), and numerous times on the steam train at Knott’s Berry Farm and Disneyland. Whenever he got the chance, my dad tried to introduce my brother and I to his fascination with steam engines and railroad tracks.
My dad also loved Christmas.
He was not religious at all (not in those days anyway) but Christmas was his favorite holiday, bar none. From the stories he told us kids, I was under the impression that he felt abandoned by his parents when he was forced to attend Manumit for most of his youth, a co-op boarding school in upstate New York during the Great Depression. Because of this experience, he set out to make sure his own children always had a great time at Christmas, and were never sent away.
Still he MUST have had a memorable Christmas at some point, with a train and a Christmas tree involved somehow.
I was sure of it.
Since my dad never told me directly, In my mind, this is how my dad’s favorite childhood Christmas memory went.
“When he was a young boy his family placed an electric train around their Christmas tree. He recalled in deep reverie, getting on the floor and watching the train travel around under the glowing lights of the Christmas tree. He watched it for hours. He recalled the memory often. To him, it seemed like trains and childhood were inextricably tied, and there was train shaped hole in his heart he was always trying to fill.”
I figured it was one of his fondest memories. However, he never told us any stories about having a train of his own, I just figured this is how it must have occurred. What other explanation could there have been?. A train around a Christmas Tree? As far as I was concerned it was my dad’s own personal “Rosebud”
Yearly, right after Thanksgiving, my dad posted a piece of paper to the refrigerator, with everyone’s name on it. We were all encouraged to to put our Christmas wishes on the list for everyone to see. This became a family tradition that lasted 40 years, with our wives and kids’ names added to the list as they joined the family in the ensuing decades.
My dad also loved Christmas decorations, and the annual sojourn with my brother and I to locate the perfect Christmas tree was one of my favorite trips of the year. My dad’s love of Christmas even extended to presents, where, oddly, he did not join my mom in buying presents for his kids (My parents were married and lived in the same house), but instead bought his own set of presents to put under the tree himself. As an adult, I didn’t realize this was weird until my wife gently told me otherwise.
When my brother and I were suitably old enough, the inevitable happened; my dad’s love of Christmas and his love of trains clashed to our benefit. It started when we were 6 years old in 1976, when my “Grannie” (his mom) with obvious coaching from my dad bought my brother and I an N-Scale model train for Christmas.
At the time, HO was the standard scale for model trains. N-Scale, the next size down, was petite in comparison to HO, and I instantly fell in love with it. The footprint of the track was was small enough to fit onto a card-table in our compact living room. After we set it up, my brother and I watched the tiny train travel through its’ double oval track for hours. I looked on with fascination as the mechanical and electric met on the brushed nickel railroad tracks. I loved the idea that I could design my own tracks, fitting them together with switches to alter the course and control the flow of the train cars. It was system of elegant, modular, simplicity that could be used to create infinite combinations. I did not know it yet, but model trains were my first introduction to the world of design and engineering.
In the evening time, I often found myself sitting on a chair, laying my head on the table, and watching the train whiz by with the blinking lights on the Christmas tree as a backdrop. It was in those quiet moments that I felt anything was possible, and at the same time, nothing would ever change.
In the months after Christmas that year, my dad took my brother and I around to the local model railroad shops. This was the mid-1970’s, when model railroading was still a viable business for brick and mortar, walk-in traffic. Within a 5-mile radius of our house, there were, at least a half dozen stores that sold exclusively products for model railroaders. These stores were not for kids. You might find kids inside, but for the most part, they contained graying old men who took their hobby very seriously. What we discovered in those first few months of 1977 was that, while N-Scale trains were compact, cool, and efficient, they were also expensive and hard to find.
HO Scale is 1:87 scale, which means that the cars and scenery are 87 times smaller than in real life. By comparison, a Hot Wheels car is 1:64 scale, or 64 times smaller than real life. N-Scale, smaller than HO scale, is 1:160 scale, or 160 times smaller than real life. The only thing smaller at the time was Z-Scale, which is 1:220 scale, or 220 times smaller than real-life. Smaller in this case meant more intricate, and more expensive. In the mid 1970’s, HO Scale had become the standard, and while N was still mildly popular, it took three or four times the effort and cost to build a model railroad at such small of a size.
Even so, the N-Scale train and the few pieces of scenery we could afford, were good for a couple years. My brother and I played with it, racing the engine forward and backwards around track for hours until one day, one of the wheels broke off and the fun was over. After that, the train, cars, and scenery were put into a box and put into the garage and I thought that would be the end of model trains for my brother and I. While I liked them, other things had caught my attention. Kenner had a full line of Star Wars toys by 1978, and my brother and I were full on fanatics for the franchise. With our Christmas list on the refrigerator filled of things like action figures, Millennium Falcons, Death Stars, and R5D4s, there was little room for the electric model trains my dad so wanted us so much to love
However, dad was still not ready to give-up. For Christmas in 1978, he went far-off the refrigerator list and gave my brother and I an HO Scale Tyco Model train set and an “IOU” for HO scale model train scenery. My dad was a notorious bargain shopper, and the year before, he had noticed something significant. All of the “after Christmas sales” at major retailers were filled with HO Scale model train products. Unlike our tiny, beloved, yet notoriously expensive N-Scale train, it appeared that HO Scale model trains were cheap and in abundance, especially as part of “after Christmas” Sales. This gave him an idea. His plan for the next Christmas was for my brother and I to accompany him the day after Christmas, to all the stores in the Del Amo Fashion Center in Torrance, CA, to buy twice as many HO Scale model train accessories as he could normally afford. Since the sales were 50% off or more the year before, he figured we would get twice as much or more and build an amazing HO Scale train layout.
It was a good plan, but the world doesn’t always honor good plans.
The major problem with my dad’s plan was that the after Christmas sales the year before did not just occur because stores had overstocked on model train toys. They also occurred because kids in 1978 were just not into model trains any more. Some kids were playing Atari video games at home, some asking for LEGO, and some playing with Star Wars figures. There was little room in their toy chests for traditional toys like model trains. So for Christmas 1978, most stores stopped carrying HO scale model trains altogether. We spent the better part of the day after Christmas, in the rain, searching the back aisles of discount stores like Woolworth’s, Zody’s and The Treasury for any HO scale model train accessories we could find.
It was an agonizing trip, as it appeared that only the oddest and least wanted pieces of HO Scale Train scenery were left in the already dwindling surplus stock. By the time we were done for the day, we had discovered enough random stuff (cattle rail cars, an automatic crossing for non-existent road, 1930’s people sitting on benches, a set of scale modern 1970’s automobiles, fruit trees, and tons of track pieces) to make a reasonable, yet totally random model train layout. My brother and I built and rebuilt the Tyco train track on the living room floor over the course of Christmas vacation, while my dad watched with interest piqued, and I imagine, satisfaction, that his plan, even with it’s obvious downfalls, had worked reasonably well.
As my mom got more and more annoyed by us taking up the entire living room floor with the HO scale train over Christmas break, my dad promised that he would build us a train table where we could have a permanent layout. “Train Tables” were not an uncommon thing at the time. My friend Alex’s dad, a Danish engineer, built an amazing train table in their garage, and my friend Brian Hill’s dad was in the midst of building one too. The back of the Sears Wishbook had a page of pre-built tables, the exciting curves, tunnels and hills of which often flashed by in my dreams. However, even though my dad had the best intentions, the logistics of his idea were not fully baked. There really was no place to in our tiny house or stuffed garage to put train table large enough to hold an HO scale train layout.
In the same way my dad planned for many things that he never pulled-off, he drew-up all sorts of plans and ideas about where to put and how to create a table, for an HO-Scale train set. He was great at coming up with designs for things. He was a master at it. Execution, on the other hand, was not his strong suit. He designed folding ping-pong style tables , tables that lowered from the ceiling, and even additions to the house that included rooms for a an HO Scale train layout. The designs were all very well thought-out, and very detailed, and had one major aspect in-common: none of them were even remotely possible.
Since we had no permanent place to run the trains, when Christmas vacation was over in 1978, the HO Scale trains and all the discount random scenery we acquired were put into a box to get them out of the way. They got mixed in with the Christmas decorations and became inexorably linked to that holiday. For the next couple years the train got pulled out and used on Christmas vacation and put away soon afterward. This was supposed to be a temporary situation while we waited for that elusive “train table” my dad had promised, but had not yet found a way to deliver.
When my brother and I finally received an Atari 2600 VCS for Christmas in 1981, the dynamic of Christmas around our house was inexorably changed. Instead of running out to buy model trains with my dad the day after Christmas, as we had done a few years earlier, we ran out with our mom to buy new cartridges for our video game system. The HO scale trains stayed in their box near the Christmas ornaments all of Winter break. We played Asteroids, Breakout, Tennis and Laser Blast on the living room TV, as my dad, sat back and watched with feigned interest from across the room.
It was obvious that, not for lack of effort on his part, his plan to have his sons inherit his love of model trains did not play out the way he intended. While we liked trains alright, he loved them. At 11 years old, we had become LEGO fanatics, Star Wars fanatics, and video game fanatics. To us, model trains were a fascinating technological step onto greater things like making games and programming a computers.
So, as my dad did his entire life when things did not go his ways, he took matters into his own hands. Almost 40 years later, I can only imagine the circumstances that drove this event. It probably went like this:
As he sat and watched the blinking of the Christmas lights from the couch that year, punctuated by the primitive video games sounds emanating from the TIA chip inside the Atari VCS connected to the TV, an idea came over him. The video game sounds, and the sight of his kids mesmerized by the digital pixels flashing by on the TV screen must have been as foreign to him as his stories about World War II and boarding schools in the Great Depression were to us. That day he decided he had to take action. To bring things back into focus. To build something he could grasp and control. He was inspired to create one of the most industrious marvelous things he ever conceived.
A couple days after Christmas that year, my dad entered the garage to start work on something new. He did not tell anyone about his plans, he just went in and got to work. I still recall, with great fondness, the sound of my dad working the garage. The noises of band saw, the grinder, the drills , hammers, and the A.M. radio talk-shows. Each sound distinctive, yet in my mind’s-ear form a cacophony of reverie and remembrance that will be with me the rest of my life. It was warm comfort to hear from the living room, even as my brother and I blissfully battled asteroids and each other in simulated Combat
When my dad was in the garage working on something, all was right with the world.
Part II: H.O. Scale Dreams
Before my brother and I were born, my dad created a permanent stand for our yearly Christmas trees. It included a round base, 4 feet in diameter, attached with wood box, open at the top, that housed a plastic bucket for water. Four large bolts could be screwed in from all four sides to hold a tree in place. It was one of his few garage projects that actually worked and had all the hallmarks my dad’s craftsmanship: impressively functional, yet a total eyesore hated by my mom. Every year, after the “f*cks” and “G*oddamns” and “S*hits” were done flying out of his mouth and around the living room as he set up tree, my mom would quickly cover-it-up with a white sheet to make it look like the bottom of the tree was covered in snow. This is how every Christmas had gone as long as I could remember.
Like the ritual went, my brother and I always went with my dad, 2 weeks before Christmas to get a Christmas tree that would fit into his homemade stand. There were a lot of factors that we had to take into consideration: The height of the tree to fit into our low-ceiling house and the total diameter to fit into the requisite spot by the front windows, plus the length of the trunk, the thickness of the trunk, and the clearance between the bottom of the trunk and the first branch to fit onto the stand. We left early in the morning, and drove all around the South Bay until my dad could find the best tree at the best bargain.
“More than 20 bucks for a tree? What a total rip-off!” my dad would say in multiple ways, after leaving several different Christmas tree lots until we finally found the perfect mix of bargain and tree shape.
After my mom placed the sheet under the tree to cover-up my dad’s functionally ugly tree stand, it was time to decorate the tree and house. The cardboard box with “X-mas” scribbled on the side in red-pen was pulled from the garage. The old string of highly flammable incandescent lights (some blinked, most did not) was strung around already drying pine needles. The box of random glass bulbs and homemade ornaments were hung from the branches. Finally, our creepy proto-Elf On A shelf looking stuffed elf brother and sister were placed on the window sill next to my dad’s homemade Santa sleigh carved from a piece of stereo box styrofoam.
Christmas 1982 started in the exact same way but when we finally found a tree and took it home that year, my dad changed his routine a bit. Instead of of going right to the garage to saw off the bottom of the tree, then drill a hole in the trunk so it would fit into his Christmas tree stand, he went into the garage and shut the door garage door behind him.
By that time in my life, I had clued in to the fact that there was not always a lot of “output” from the time he spent in garage. A lot of time and energy went into his “special” projects, but they didn’t always pay off with something “physical” . His job at Hughes Aircraft was drafting fittings for housings for million-billion dollar military equipment, which meant he was good at creating analog boxes, angles, and connectors, and when those things were involved, the project usually worked. He was an artist by trade, but fancied himself a craftsman. The problem was that he did not always have the patience or resources to produce that ideas in his head (something I’ve inherited from him in spades) , so the finished product did not always live-up to his own expectations. For instance, he once repurposed an old 50’s radio speaker to plug into the TV headphone jack to increase the volume so he could hear the TV with his ever failing right ear. He was sure the sound was better when the speaker was plugged in, but none of us could hear any difference. All we knew was that we were forced to have an ugly old speaker on top if our TV while he lived in the illusion that he the sound was amplified. After a few weeks, he realized his error and the speaker disappeared forever.
After the Christmas tree was in-place that Christmas in 1982, I expected everything to be the same as always. The ugly tree stand, the white sheet, the dangerously blinking string of lights, the homemade ornaments, the scary elf siblings, and the styrofoam sleigh without reindeer. However, even before the “X-mas” labeled cardboard box was brought into the house from the garage, my dad came to the screen door, and asked for some help
My brother and I were trading turns fighting Asteroids and ICBMS on the TV screen, looking forward to getting some new games like Vanguard and River Raid for Christmas that year. We were not really prepared for what happened next.
“Hey boys, come one of you hold the screen door open for me”
It was my turn with the joystick, so my brother Jeff jumped-up to help my dad. There was no question that one of us would help him. There were no complaints about helping either. Of course we would help. It was something we did, regardless of circumstances.
As my brother held-open the screen door on the side of the house, my dad rolled-in a giant board something on it that looked like a large, round, white mountain.
Then my dad stood in the living room, holding the board, and spoke,
“Boys, I need your help to fit this under the Christmas tree”
And my brother and I saw what he was holding.
His secret project.
It was circular N-Scale model railroad track laid-on wood base, with a section cut-out in the back the length of two pieces of N-Scale railroad track. In the middle of the track was a set of paper-mache mountains, rounded, so they formed a hole in top that could hold the trunk of a Christmas tree.
A little Christmas village lined the track, with powdered snow topping each of the tiny buildings. The train base was designed to slip-over the round, wooden Christmas tree base he had built years before, until it fit snug, under the tree, but above the base. A perfect fit.
With the main portion positioned, he reached around the back and fitted a curved section of wood in-place that had two pieces of N-Scale model railroad track attached on-top. With the section secured , hidden behind the tree, the circular track was complete.
He plugged-in the N-Scale train controller, put the N-Scale engine and cars our grannie had bought us years before on the track, and started the train.
My brother and I stood there stunned.
It was glorious.
For every shitty speaker, exposed wire, terrible paint-job, and jerry-rigged repair-job he had made in our 12 years on earth, this stood above all of them. Not in bad way, but in good one. It was like every ounce of effort, every drop fortitude, creativity, and effort went into this creation.
When the lights were strung on the tree, ornaments hung, and all the weird little decorations placed in the living room, it was darkness had fallen. We kept the lights off in the living room, lit the tree, and started the train. The blinking string lights made the Christmas village come alive with wonder. It was like the tree above the village was the whole of a Christmas sky, with pure wonder and joy floating above.
It was beautiful.
The tiny train circled the tree about a half foot off the ground, passing the Christmas village every 20 seconds or so. The little light on N-Scale engine punctuated the darkness every time it came around the track to visit. Bathed in the warm glow of the light from the tree, the train and village looked perfect. My dad’s boyhood dream come true, and one that his boys could not ignore. Here, in one fell-swoop, my dad laid-to-rest the ghosts of his own Christmas’ past. He finally had his Christmas train, and he had created the “train table” he so badly wanted to make for his sons (albeit, in a much more compact form than we had imagined), but seemed so elusive for so long. It was something we could not ignore, nor could we put it in a box and forget about it ever again.
“This will last forever” I recall thinking to myself.
The tree stand and running N-Scale railroad remained part of our family Christmas celebrations for the next 25 years.
Part III: H.O. Scale Dementia
Recently, When I looked at photos from Christmas 2006 taken at my mom and dad’s house, I noticed that one thing was missing: The Christmas Train Stand. Even after my brother and I grew up and moved out, my dad kept it running for many years. On our yearly Christmas visits, my kids, and the kids of my siblings were fascinated with it. They too loved the little snow-topped buildings, the mountain, the track, and how it seemed to exude Christmas cheer just from its’ mere existence. Even after it stopped working sometime in the early 2000’s, my dad kept using it as the base for his Christmas tree. However, he replaced the train itself with an enormous, Lionel sized Christmas train set, one he bought for himself and one he bought for each of my brother and I to put under the respective trees at our own house for our wives and kids to enjoy.
While I wanted to appreciate his gift, the trains were large, lousy and loud. My wife and young girls joyously appreciated the gesture too, but it was were short-lived. The train lasted a couple good years, but it’s sheer-size and lack of quality meant their staying power was not as great as the Christmas Train he has built decades before.
I don’t recall the events that led up to the N-Scale Christmas Tree stand being removed completely from the tree. It could have been that my sister’s new cat knocked around the train, or to protect the new baby (my third child) or just from the age of the track and train. By that time the stand had fallen into disrepair and only looked like a shadow of its’ former self.
I do know that it was gone between Christmas 2005 and 2006, and that something very significant happened in my dad very soon afterward.In June 2007 he was just starting to show the signs of the dementia taking hold. At that point, none of us really knew the extent of his condition, or how far it would go, but the signs started with a curious occurrence in his bedroom. Much like the winter of 1981, he began a “secret” project that would change his life forever.
He initiated this project by removing nearly everything from his room that was not nailed-down. He left his dresser, his closet filled with Civil War books, his bed, and a filing cabinet. Everything else (desk, DVDs, chair, card table, night stand, his father’s paintings, gifts, games, ephemera and odds and ends from 79 years of living) ended-up in the garage or stowed away inside his Lance camper on the back of his Toyota pickup truck.
What was left was an 8×10 foot space in the middle of his room.
After the way was cleared, he drove to Home Depot and bought some nails, metal bolts, and bunch of wood of different sizes: long-flat boards, 2×4’s, and 4x4s. He took all of it into his room, shut the door, and began working.
No one in the family really knew what he was doing. Since I had long since moved-out, with two little girls and a tiny baby to look after, I could not spend much time reviewing his efforts or his plans. However, I was happy he had found something to occupy himself beyond listening to conservative talk radio on his bed for hours upon hours every day.
One Sunday soon after on a visit to my parents’ house, I spied an interesting stack of magazines on the coffee table in my parent’s living room. On closer inspection, they were not magazines at all, but catalogs for Bachmann Trains.
Then it hit me.
My dad was finally building his train table. The same table he had been planning in his head and on paper for 30 years. He never found room for it, so he made room be emptying his bedroom.
At first, while my dad was still fairly coherent, the train table seemed like a good idea. The grand kids got a chance to see their grandfather working on a “grand” project like he done when we were kids, and it would kept his mind and hands occupied for many hours each day. The table took up the majority of his room and it was truly the only space he had for it. The house was still as small as it ever was, plus the flood of stuff from 40 years of raising four kids and four grandchildren never receded enough to let him build anything in the garage. The only space he had left was right where he was building. In the middle of his room.
My dad spent the first 18 months or so working on the table proper, and it was a masterwork of engineering and space planning. Using all the skills he had built as a draftsman at Hughes Aircraft, he cut the wood perfectly to fit in his tiny space, creating supports, and brackets to hold everything in place, while still allowing room to get under the table and work on wiring and mechanics. Sections were hinged so they could be lifted and replaced, to get at hard-to-reach corners and spaces. He planned everything for maximum accessibility and ease of use. The design and engineering prowess he invested resembled the Christmas Tree Train stand, just on much grander scale. To be honest, it was far over-engineered for being just a mere table. He treated it like it was his magnum opus: the final culmination of everything he ever wanted to create but never had the time to finish.
When the table was complete, he did not jump right into building the train layout. Instead, he studied the Bachmann catalogs, along with a host of model railroading books and magazines he had piled in his room. He wanted all the trappings of his dream model train: a steam-engine, old west town, long tunnel, a mountain, a river, and a picturesque desert landscape.
He also wanted it done the right way and no one was rushing him. When he finally began the building process, it was slow, measured and steady. He laid the perfect track on perfect track-bed. Then he built a massive mountain and tunnel. He painted an intricate backdrop that the hung on his wall to give the layout a sense of space and grandeur.
It was an impressive sight to behold. A man finally making what appeared to be, the thing he was always meant to build.
A couple years into the project, In 2008 my dad made an attempt to drive to a DMV appointment to get his license renewed, but he never made it. He got lost and circled the streets of the South Bay for hours until he finally made his way home.
It scared the crap out of him and he never drove a car again.
After that, the signs of dementia began to arrive like a steady flood. He lost his ability to say the names of numbers or complex ideas. Instead, he would count on his fingers, and use hand motions to try to describe anything beyond simple expressions. He was a man of few words that became a man of even fewer.
Then, in-turn, the train layout took a bizarre twist. As my dad lost his ability to communicate, it seemed that he turned to trying to express himself through the train table. The table morphed and changed from its’ original design. It became literally everything to him. He carefully placed objects all around the table that signified things to him: toy cars, dolls, trophies, a model ship, pictures of his grandkids, and his family from the 20’s and 30’s . He painted a massive amount of scale figures, but instead of making the realistic, they were all just the same dull color. It was obvious: the table became an extension of his deteriorating brain function.
Here are my notes from the time:
“The mountain backdrop was designed for a an ‘old west style’ train, as was the “Monument Valley” orange Styrofoam sculpture just to the left. these were made early on in his train adventures. However, right in front of that is a pirate ship. My dad “painted” the cannon white. Why? I can only guess. He placed it on the train layout where he thought it should go. also, notice that the pirate ship does not have masts. Those are paint brushes. The other interesting things in this picture are the motocross trophy my dad won in the 70’s, and his NRA coffee mug. He obviously still attaches himself to those things, but why they made it onto the train set is a mystery that stays locked in his brain.”
In 2011, with my dad’s health in speedy decline, I got out an audio recorder and asked him questions about his childhood. I wanted to get some of his final thoughts saved before they passed from him for eternity. He talked to me in very short, stilted bursts. The dementia that was eating his brain stole his words, but not his thoughts. He painfully recounted stories to me with a mix of syllables, grunts and those aforementioned hand gestures. Because I knew the basic facts already, it was easy to pick up what he was trying to say.
At one point he recalled something he had never told me before. With a wave of a hand and pointing at the train table, he described what it felt like to to be a small boy, sent away from everything he knew, to live at Manumit boarding school.
I’d heard these stories so many times before, but this time it really hit me: Being sent away at such a young age was the defining moment of his life. He never got over the this one single event: Without telling him what was happening, his mom drove him down to the end of a road and wordlessly abandoned him at the strange place that would become his home for the next eight years.
I already knew that story, but this time the impact was different.
The tale he tried to tell me this time was a new one, or at least new wrinkle on an old one. This story involved a train. What he told me, with his few words, and many hand movements, with me asking many clarifying questions that resulted in his nodding of approval was this:
There was steam train that ran down the road from Manumit School. He loved going outside and watching the train go by, with the long trail of smoke dragging behind it. He wanted to jump on the train, and take it to wherever it was going.
To get out and get home.
To never return to Manumit.
But in reality he never went home again.
At that moment, it all became clear. My dad was never reminiscing about the “toy train he never got” as a child. Toy Trains were not his “rosebud”. And this imagined scenario about my dad I had created in my head 30 years before …
“When He was a young boy, and the family placed an electric train around their Christmas tree. He recalled in deep reverie, getting on the floor and watching to train travel around under the glowing lights of the Christmas tree. He watched it for hours. He recalled the memory often, and It was one of his fondest memories. To him trains and childhood were inextricably tied, and there was train shaped hole in his heart he was always trying to fill.”
…was and complete and total bullshit.
Instead, the entire idea of a “train” simply meant “escape” to him. Escape to place he knew once, never returned to as child. As his dementia grew, he went back to that place. He set up a train, and then he went about building the perfect place that that train would go. It contained everything he loved: pictures of his family, artifacts, toys, western regalia, Civil Wars forage caps, cowboys and indians, and even little, scale Christmas trees.
And he circled himself with it. It encased him, surrounding him in his bedroom.
And there he created his place to escape to.
Locked in his own head, his brain deteriorating from dementia, he reverted back to the one thing that made him feel free and alive his entire life: Trains.
By creating his own bedroom train layout fueled by H.O. scale dementia, my dad had prepared, what amounted to anyway, his own version of heaven. A place only he could fathom, built with own hands, built by a mind that could only ever understand what he had made.
A few weeks after my recording session, my dad completely succumbed to his dementia. No longer able to move or speak nearly any words, he laid in his hospital bed in the living room of his house, away from his train table, waiting for what was next.
The last time I visited, I sat on the bed and talking to him as he listened and responded in the meekest way imaginable. A few whispers, a few hand motions, but little else. In the middle of our conversation, he sat up suddenly, pointed out the living room window towards the trees in his front yard and said in clearest words he had spoken in months “Those people there, those people going by, they want me to come along.” Then he laid back down and never said another word.
Two days later he was gone.
I have no way of knowing exactly what he saw outside the window, but I choose to imagine that it was the Christmas Train, steaming by, the passengers waving him on the join them on their never ending trip around the base of the Christmas Tree.
Like I said at the beginning, train tracks feel like the stuff of life to me. Be they outside a bedroom window, just down the road from a co-op boarding school, on card table, on the living room floor, on bedroom sized train table, or circling magically under the blinking lights of a family Christmas Tree. They stretch long into an unseen distance, appear never ending, yet they always travel to a known and inevitable destination.