What makes a great Christmas present, one that sticks with you for decades?
In my experience, it's one that has some meaning that runs deeper than the actual physical object. I have, to date, celebrated 48 Christmases in my life and of the many gifts I have received, the one that stands out the most is an electric train I received when I was about 10.
My father had it set up and running under the tree, and I knew it was mine the moment I saw it. Seemed logical since I was the only boy in the household at the time. It was a Tyco brand, a steam locomotive running on an oval track with about a half dozen cars and a few plastic buildings and trees. I supplied the imagination.
It ended up in an attic room, set up on an old ping pong table, and I never grew tired of. I played with it often and eventually began making buildings and streets out of paper and, with my little toy cars, created a little miniature city. They were just backdrops, though. The train was always at the center.
I've always loved trains. I don't get to ride on them nearly as often as I would like. No matter how pressed for time I may be, I never mind getting stopped by one in traffic, and when the opportunity arises, I'll stop what I am doing to watch one pass. When I worked out of Record Publishing Co.'s old Bedford office, I would try to duck out at around 4 p.m. and cross Broadway Avenue to watch the train that would often go by at that time on the west side of the commons.
When I was little, before I had a train set of my own, my family lived in a suburb of Chicago and we would take periodic trips to the Museum of Science and Industry. I fell in love with the enormous model train set up there, one that dated back to 1941. You could watch it from ground level or from above on a balcony, and I would have stayed watching it all day if my parents had let me.
To this day, I dream of having the space to create something like it.
I think it's genetic. My maternal grandfather was a railroader, a maintenance man who worked up to foreman on the St. Louis-San Francisco Railroad, called The Frisco by railroad old timers. Despite its name, it actually operated out of Springfield, the city in southwest Missouri where my grandparents lived, until it was absorbed by the Burlington Northern Sante Fe Railroad in the late 1970s.
I never knew my grandfather. One Friday night in 1962, two years before my birth, he came home from work too tired even to stay up and watch his favorite television show, "Gunsmoke." He went to bed and never woke up. He was 57.
I grew up hearing about what a great guy Grandpa Jack was. I remember my mother telling me when I was a child that if he had lived, he would have taken me down to the yard to see the trains. I'm not bitter about it, but I have always felt envious of my siblings and cousins. They're old enough to remember him and to have known his love, while the closest thing I have to memories are old photographs.
I don't think it ever occurred to me as a child, but I believe now that this is the main reason why that electric train meant so much to me, why I played with it so often and why after all these Christmases and so many presents, it still holds a special place in my heart.
It helped provide a connection that I wanted and needed.