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The most meaningful train was powered by the love a father

| Thursday, Nov. 29, 2012, 8:58 p.m.

What is the fascination with trains at Christmas?

Even someone like me – who has no mechanical inclinations whatsoever – finds trains hard to resist this time of year and perhaps not again until next year.

It began as a boy for me. Do girls have the same interest? Surely some do.

Trains in my recollection were big and powerful and their counterparts under the Christmas tree carried the same magic. If an old film wanted to convey speedy travel the director would show a steam locomotive. Its stack was puffing up white smoke and its wheels churning and churning.

No one has ever explained to me how trains became so strongly connected to Christmas, unless they were just such an incredibly popular toy for Santa to distribute so long ago and it just stuck.

Growing up in the Pittsburgh area, there were always trains passing by here and there. And at the Buhl Science Center on the North Side (and now at the Carnegie Science Center) was a train display that is not to be missed, then and now.

My grandmother's brother, Pius Fox, had worked on the railroad and had, in Cresson, Cambria County, a home with its front porch facing the freight train yard. When we would visit I would watch the freight trains just sitting there for hours, and recall how that when they started to move the cars would clang together one after the other with a loud slamming noise that was a bit frightening at my age.

Uncle Pi gave me one of those blue and white railroaders caps that I was quite proud of and wore for sometime.

Cowboys and trains were a big deal in those days, too. The movies made it very clear that they were great for jumping onto from a moving horse as they raised across a western plain. And for some reason, Indians seemed to hate them and want to attack them.

They most definitely were the key to expanding the country.

But my favorite memory of trains is of the platform my Dad built for trains in the basement of our home, and how he kept it a complete secret until Christmas morning.

Mom and Dad and I had our usual Christmas morning that day. We exchanged our gifts in the living room, and I opened gifts from Santa that were always under the tree on the dining room side. In my mind's eye I can still see Santa standing there late at night, maybe enjoying one of those cookies.

This particular morning, I was told there was something in the basement and we all went down single file.

There in what we called the back cellar (where coal was once piled) was a low, green table on which there was a little village, billboards, roads, cars, a hill with trees and a tunnel running through it and two trains, one a Marx freight train and the other a Lionel passenger train.

In the windows of the Lionel cars were the black profile images of men and women passengers, visible when the lights went down outside. And there were little white pills to put in the smokestack to made it blow out a white stream of smoke as it moved about.

Dad had taken a thick, wooden cutting board to attach to the table (made from an unused ping-pong table) so the controls had a place to sit.

It was an image I will never forget and I recall how proud I was to show it to my older cousins Gary and Dennis when they came to dinner.

Mostly, these days at least, I am most proud of my late father for having created the whole thing.

Dad worked as a movie theater manager. He was asleep when I left for school and gone when I got home, not returning from the theater until after midnight.

I marvel at how he ever found all the time necessary to complete the project -- and the energy too.

So, while it might sound trite to some, I find this gift was not so much in its usefulness or playfulness as in the love that powered it. It never faltered in his lifetime.

Meandering appears Fridays. To share your thoughts on this column (or on most anything) with Mike O'Hare, write to the Leader Times, P.O. Box 978, Kittanning, PA 16201 or via e-mail to mohare@tribweb.com.

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