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Friday, December 23, 2005

Smokey Briggs

Sage Views

By Smokey Briggs

The best Christmas
present ever

It is terrible what life does to us. It is a gradual process. Day-by-day, a piece at a time, we lose it.

It happens so slowly we don’t even notice for the most part. But, it is stolen, none-the-less.

Well, I got a little of it back for Christmas this year and it was one of the finer presents I have ever been given.

It started with a new toy train.

Mom brought a little HO scale train set home Saturday and announced she wanted it to clickety-clack around the Christmas tree.

Well, HO scale is really too small to go around the Christmas tree, but she got a good deal and seemed happy with her purchase, so I settled in to make it work.

“This is the size you used to have, isn’t it?” she asked.

She was right, of course. As a young boy, like most young boys, I had loved trains. HO was the scale I played with.

“I thought you could use some of your old cars and stuff,” she said.

Now, in all the moves we’ve made as a couple, there has always been an old whiskey box labeled trains that makes it into the truck.

More than once I have taken grief over that box of memories. I think she thought it was actually a box of old love letters that I wrote “trains” on to throw her off the scent.

A few years back she found out it really did contain a few relics from my days as a ten-year-old engineer.

The fact that I have such a box, and that I knew exactly where it was, should have been fair warning.

Now things have changed for the better in the past 30 years when it comes to HO railroading.

The new set came with track that already had a plastic roadbed attached so you could run it on carpet - just snap together and off you go. That is a nice change from the old days of actually driving spikes to secure your track to a board.

So, pretty soon, I had the little train clickety-clacking around the tree much to Ruby and Carson’s delight. Ruby is now eight and Carson Mae is five and both are of the age when children fall in love with trains. At two months, Dixie Jo was not all that impressed. Maybe next year.

While they engineered, I retrieved my box and began to unwrap 1972 editions of a North Carolina newspaper from around much-battered locomotives and rolling stock.

And so it began.

It was about 8 p.m.

Soon we had a diesel Union Pacific locomotive that had not seen the light of day in 30 years pulling our little train.

Then the girls and I were repairing boxcars and oiling locomotives and dancing down memory lane as I told them the history of each car.

Some are really old, hand-me-downs from older railroaders.

Some were store bought. Some began life as a kit to be built on a young boy’s desk.

My favorite locomotive, a big coal-fired job, was at the bottom of the box. It had broken down just before my model railroading days came to an abrupt end at age eleven with one of those curves life occasionally throws us.

As the girls went to bed I started unscrewing tiny screws.

Some time later she was back together, and wonder of wonders, she ran. A little oil and she was hustling around the track like new, and I was ten again.

For a while, a time warp engulfed the little house in Barstow.

For a while, I was ten again. Union Pacific No. 4073 was making its way across the twisting and treacherous “Z-line” across the mountains hauling precious cargo for the people below - and Smokey Briggs had a cool hand on the throttle and confident wink for my nervous fireman as we approached that uphill curve that had claimed so many trains and crews.

How many times did 4073 make that trip that night? I do not know. When I pulled her into the roundhouse the big house was dark.

Mom and Dixie were asleep in our bed. She mumbled something about just wanting a train around the tree, and it just figured that I would turn it into a new way to clutter up her house and avoid my chores.

But, I don’t feel bad, the box labeled trains was fair warning. And, secretly, I think she knew all along what the effect of that cheap little train set might be. Mom is like that, but she would never admit it.

I pulled the covers up and marveled at the carefree state of my mind. It’s nothing really to marvel at. It is the effect of playing. Kids are smart enough to do it all the time.

Grownups are stupid. They forget what is really important in life.

In mid-thought my mind switched from conscious to unconscious - just as I used to fall asleep when I was a child.

My final thought was about how good the morning was going to be. Two of my best friends were sleeping over and would wake in the morning to find that Union Pacific No. 4073 had been resurrected from the scrap heap and was waiting her new engineer and fireman.

And, that next morning Carson and Ruby were the first all-girl crew in the history of the privately owned “Z line” to take the controls of Union Pacific No. 4073.

We played and played.

So, thanks Mom. This year, for Christmas I got to be a little boy again. This year, for a little while, I got to be a child. And I got to play - really play - totally absorbed and oblivious to all but trains and my best friends. It was perhaps the best present I’ve ever gotten, except maybe for the year No. 4073 was under the tree.

Merry Christmas everybody.

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