Lionel 681 Steam Turbine under the Christmas Tree

The sixth guideline from symmentropy states that we embellish our stories in many ways to make them have meaning for different audiences with different experiences.

Sixth rule of nonlinear storytelling

To remove the joy from the holidays, focus on the chores.

By Lee McGavin

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The holidays on Peary Street were all about chores. As a child, it seemed that justice was served for the candy binging of Halloween led to two months of preparing for Christmas. Our holiday tradition had none of the seasonal magic featured in books, films or our black and white television, instead we kept Marley's ghost at bay by keeping our shoulders firmly planted on the hands of the clock forcing them past the midnight tolling without interruption. If any of my siblings have memories of great family gatherings or holiday magic, they keep those stories to themselves, just as our fable retentive parents instructed.

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At the age of six, I could not identify the source of the decidedly bad temper that cleaning the basement brought out of my father. The three oldest of us were pressed into service moving things out of harm's immediate path while my father ran the commercial grade floor buffer/polisher around the basement first with soapy water and then with several coats of paste wax that would have to last until the following fall. Later, I would understand that my mother's quiet nagging was the source of the thorough cleaning and the ill temper that took over all of our holiday preparations. Her list of little chores for everyone seemed endless, meaningless and self indulgent, as if her holiday treat was either tormenting everyone around as payback for taking care of seven children or that she got to see the basement floor shining for one week of each year.

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After the basement floor basked in a waxy glow, the next chore that we all tried to avoid required hours of suffering through chestnuts that had been ruined with over boiling. Of course, I had no idea at the time that the nut meats were mushy, mealy and malodorous because they had been boiled for over an hour instead of the7 minutes or, even better,roasted that chefs and chestnut growers recommend. We sat around peeling the shells away from over cooked nuts without ever waxing poetic about how great the chestnut stuffing would taste with the Thanksgiving turkey. Like most of our holiday chores, this one belonged to our mother who adopted mushy chestnuts as her signature holiday dish.

It was not until after Thanksgiving that we finally got some relief. It began with dragging the old military footlockers from their non-Lionel storage area. Followed by the two, chalkboard green painted 4 x 8 sheets of plywood that rested on top of the footlockers and were strapped together as the basis for the train layout. Next we designed a layout, well, it was we for a few years, after that my level of interest so outstripped anyone else that I had it designed and built before the rest could start discussing. It seemed like a good working arrangement for everyone. Once the track was screwed down, it was always easier to find people who had an interest in creating mountains, tunnels or villages for the locomotives to visit.

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The winter months were pure delight with Lionel trains holding the second spot in importance to the Christmas tree, except that the train stayed set up far longer than the tree. This lasted until my father decided to buy a pool table that took up a major part of the basement rec room. The Lionel 681 Pennsylvania steam turbine engine made fewer and fewer appearances in the basement before the whole Christmas celebration moved upstairs when the youngest of my brothers figured out that Santa Claus might be a myth. My father still had to have a train running for Christmas, so he added a G scale train to make perfunctory runs around the tree and the only tradition that I remember fondly from holidays on Peary Street gathered dust in a basement closet. Over the years, I quizzed my parents about their willingness to part with the train so that I could get running again, but never had any success.

Last Christmas, the last time the seven of us would gather at Peary Street, we went through years of decorations and memories, adopting many of the them for our own holiday festivities. The three youngest, associated Christmas with the tree upstairs and the many holiday ornaments and keepsakes that had accumulated over the years. They brought me boxes of ornaments imploring me to take some back to Texas. I declined. No, I only wanted the Lionel train. My siblings looked at me like the same way they always had, took a step back to avoid contagion, admitted that none of them had any interest, so I was able to leave with the train set some sixty years after it had first appeared on Peary Street.

I am not surprised that my family had a different view of those early years than I. In a family without stories and shared experiences, it would have been surprising had my brothers and sisters been able to make a connection to the joys of my youth. The interesting part of this story, pieced together from fragments and the excellent historical documentation of Lionel, struck home when I had the trains in Texas and began restoring them to working order. My memories were of the train, not the relative value of certain train sets to collectors or even what prices they commanded in retail stores in 1950's. To me it was The Train, dollars and cents never came into my thoughts.

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A little detail here about the train. First, I really do not remember when the train made its first appearance. Memories from ages 1 to 5 are notoriously vague and the train made its debut during those years of my life. My father never discussed the train or the pleasure that he took from it. My mother made some vague reference to the train being from when my dad was a boy. But, the facts are that Lionel only made the model VW 150 watt transformer for one year, 1951. At the time it was the most powerful and advanced available from Lionel. Lionel only made the 681 turbine locomotive between 1951 and 1954, so it is pretty clear that my father made a big splash in getting a train set for our holidays in 1951 or 52.

How big a splash? Again, the records from Lionel make this easy to see. Lionel had a wide range of railroad sets available in the early 50's. The prices ranged from around $30 to $80 plus accessories. For reference, in 1950 the median income of people in the United States was less than $100 per week. I am sure that our family was on the high side of the median, but like most young families, I doubt we were much above that number. So, for him to spend over $150 (681 turbine, Pennsylvania tender, additional cars, VW transformer, switches, track) on a toy train, well before his children were old enough to operate it with any level of success, must have driven my mother a little crazy. Lionel's turbine locomotives were just a step below their top of the line Berkshires, yet my penny pinching father went into the local train store and bought one and a top of the line transformer! The more I read about what was available and the purchase choices my father made, the more I marvel at how much that train must have meant to him.

After I left Peary Street, I had trains of my own for my holiday season and never really felt like theholidays holidays were official until I could hear the whistles and the clicking of wheels on track. Trains are Frosty's hat, they contain the magic that allows us to dance about. Working on that old Lionel locomotive and hearing it chug around the track again after a long vacation, woke up oceans of holiday magic for me. There is also a sadness that comes with once again being reminded that my parents went to their graves without sharing their experiences with their children. I have to spend hours researching trains and family memories to reconstruct even a portion of what went into that train for my father. Stories outside of their context or stripped of their humanity fail us when we try to connect to who we were or where we were going. I had to restore a locomotive before I could restore a long lost connection to my father.

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