Thursday, December 25, 2014

"Mixed Marriages"

In the 1950's and 60's, there were many great corporate rivalries far beyond what we have today in the likes of Microsoft and Apple. There was Hertz versus Avis. Kelloggs versus Post cereals.

One of the other great rivalries was Lionel electric trains versus American Flier. In that era, especially the 50's, an electric train was the ultimate Christmas gift. So, I thought I'd excerpt pieces of an article that appeared three days ago in the Wall Street Journal.




A New Yorker and a Midwesterner, a Polish Catholic and a Scots Presbyterian, an engineer and an English major—ours has been a marriage of opposites in many ways. With the approach of Christmas, I’m reminded of one more: American Flyer and Lionel.
I was the Lionel, and lacking any brothers, my sister and I knew that the train was really Dad’s. In real life he was an engineer (not the train kind), but to children, the difference between being an engineer and being the engineer of our in-house Lionel line for a time eluded us.
While some households set aside a dedicated area in the basement or attic for a permanent train layout, in our house The Train appeared only at Christmas. A sheet of plywood painted dark green with an improvised pipe-like Christmas-tree holder at its center was the Lionel’s home turf. For 11 months of the year the “train board” stood on edge at the side of our attic; then, sometime after Thanksgiving, living-room furniture would be shuffled and Dad would bring down the train board with its affixed oval track, then the boxes marked “Train,” signaling the beginning of the annual Lionel excitement, for Lionel could be a temperamental beast.
Our minimalist train setup only had one engine—a black steam-locomotive with delicate silver-colored handrails running its length and down to the cowcatcher, and silvery rods linking the driving wheels. The Lionel had a tender that I was told did something important with the electricity that drove the train, though I never understood what. And, as I suppose nearly everyone once knew, Lionel trains run on tracks having three parallel rails. Even as a small child, I found this detail an assault to my sense of verisimilitude. Everyone knows that any real train’s track has only two rails.
Eventually our father installed a pair of manually operated switches on one of the Lionel’s straightaways and a short siding for cars out of service, briefly rendering our railroading fantasy a bit more interesting. Nevertheless, the track on our green train board remained basically the unimaginative, optimally large oval that the rectangular board could accommodate.
The transformer with its control throttle was, without doubt, a hazard to life and property. Tiny wires wrapped in white, red and black insulation led from terminals on the track to the box, but the contacts got jostled and became incomplete (perhaps because of frequent train wrecks). I suspect that the transformer itself may even have been faulty, since I remember getting more than one electrical shock by touching it. Anyone who has run Lionels knows they have a unique smell, something like burning electricity, which very well may have been the case with ours. I well remember cautiously advancing the rheostat/throttle when I was finally allowed to “run the train,” knowing that the cantankerous Lionel could at any moment spurt forward and jump the tracks at the next corner—the ultimate humiliation.
Sometime while courting but before marriage, my husband and I happened upon the subject of model trains, though by that point in the relationship even the American Flyer/Lionel divide would not have derailed us. My disappointment lifted when I learned that my husband-to-be himself came from a mixed household. His father had first given an American Flyer to him and then later, wisely, gave his younger brother a Lionel, precluding disputes over rolling-stock ownership.  …
What happened to our old Lionel I have no idea, but on several Christmases my husband set up various American Flyer circuits from his train stash (for the children, of course) in our academic-gypsy homes in Austin, Texas, suburban Chicago and here in Durham, N.C. On living-room carpets, on attic floors, on platforms in basements, our kids politely played with the venerable American Flyers. Alas, neither child (even the one who became a mechanical engineer) eventually felt that model trains were competition for Pac-Man and his progeny.
Their father took it well. He packed away the American Flyer engines, cars and two-railed tracks, and during a downsizing we sent the trains to his brother. But now that our first grandson has been born, we are wondering if we downsized a little too much.
Yes, the "ozone" smell of a Lionel transformer. Wonderful memories.

At the Smith House, 2015 will be the "year of the train." Stay tuned. And, Merry Christmas.

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