The Boy's Toys

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I received my first Lionel model train in 1954, the year my sister was born. The day Mom arrived home from the hospital, I came home from school to find a new baby sister, two diesel engines, several freight cars, and a caboose. I immediately suspected that something was up.

It was unfortunate that I received the train the same day I met my sister for the first time. It forced me to make a decision, a choice that no seven-year-old should have to make. Should I go see my new sister or my new train? The choice was simple; I played with the train.

Ciminel Brass Locomotive

Photo by Bob Ciminel © 2007

I still have that Lionel train. It runs well, although the "Magna Traction" feature that helped Lionel's locomotives stick to the track is gone, proving once again that there is no such thing as a permanent magnet. Over the ensuing 50 years, the train has traveled from Pennsylvania to Ohio, Georgia, North Carolina, Texas, Tennessee, Louisiana, and back to Georgia. Where it will go in the next 50 years is anybody's guess. I will pass it on to my progeny, who will pass it on to their sons (or daughters, I hope). However, at some point the train will become a thing that no one knows what to do with. It probably will end up in a garage sale. That's fine; it has had a good life.

In a way, that train is a lot like some of my elderly relatives. It was new and shiny once, but over the years it has bounced around a lot. Some of its parts are worn out. The horn doesn't blow and it needs to be oiled more frequently. The engines can't pull as many cars as they used to. The train spends most of its time in the attic, except when we bring it out for the holidays. Then it goes back into the attic where it's ignored for another year. The attic has become the equivalent of a really bad nursing home.

When I received my Lionel train in 1954, America's railroads were transitioning from steam locomotives to diesels. General Motors, General Electric, and the American Locomotive Company were the major players in what was becoming a high-tech industry. As freight trains became longer and heavier, and passenger trains faster, the railroads were using two and sometimes three steam engines on a single train. When General Motors introduced its 1,500 horsepower diesel locomotive, four or five units could be operated from a single cab. That put 6,000 horsepower on the rails with no need to stop for coal or water. In one fell swoop, the steam locomotive became obsolete. Soon, the romance of chuffing smokestacks and melodic steam whistles were replaced with the monotonous sounds of diesel engines and monotone air horns. That was the price of progress.

But the steam locomotive did not go out with its tail tucked between its legs. By the early to mid-Forties, steam engine development had reached its zenith. Automatic stokers shoved coal into the fireboxes; boiler pressures were over 300 pounds per square inch; superheaters and feedwater heaters extracted as much energy as they could from the exhaust steam and imparted it to the water going into the boiler. The wheels rode on nearly frictionless roller bearings instead of oiled brass. As it ended its life, the steam locomotive became a machine that Casey Jones and his peers would not recognize except for its spinning wheels and the frenetic movement of its driving rods and valve gear.

And so, 50 years later, I am still playing with trains. The wife does not smile when I lay track on the living room carpet, but I only run my trains at Christmas. Besides, the dog and the cats like to play with them. One of these days, I've got to grow up and start getting serious about life. Yep, one of these days I have to do that. 

Bob Ciminel ©2007
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