Thanks to the generosity of a friend and colleague, my son Nick and I recently came into a rather nice train set.

I hesitate to refer to the railroad paraphernalia as toys, though that's exactly what it is for Nick and I, because model railroading is a serious, substantial and year round hobby for a lot of people. In other words, model trains are toys the way my fishing tackle is a collection of toys, that is to say you could argue either way, but you'd be arguing over something that's largely inconsequential.

It's a fine subject for pondering this time of year because model trains, for some reason, go with Christmas like bacon goes with eggs. I'm not entirely sure, so this is speculation that I add in only so I can repeat a well-worn joke, but I think the connection between trains and Christmas had something to do with Prince Albert, husband of England's Queen Victoria, and (here's the bad joke) the same fellow featured in the prank phone call where you call a tobacco store and ask if they have Prince Albert in a can.

Anyway, the tale is that model trains were all the rage when Albert and Victoria were bringing up their children, and they included trains as part of their palace Christmas décor.


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So, like I said, my son and I have been fooling around with some nice trains, which prompted me to pull some old trains out, some of which date to when I was younger than my fifth grade son. Most of my old stuff is pretty lackluster, now that I've had a chance to get a good look at it. The cars are nice enough, but the locomotives I've come to realize, were all inferior and none of them run anymore.

Then there's a better set that must have been a Christmas gift from my first or second go at the holiday. I don't ever remember being without it. Though it's been decades since I've been able to coax it to lumber down the track, I'm fairly certain this old Lionel could be put back in working order.

The oldest of the bunch, however, goes back to the late 1940s or early 1950s, having belonged to my godfather when he was a boy. It's not an electric model, but a wind-up with heavy spring in it and a substantial key on the side. It runs like a wind-up watch, and has proven to be sturdier than most toys I ever owned.

So as Nick and I have been fooling around with these trains, I've been prompted to think of those times in my life when I've lived within earshot of a railroad line. For many years, I had apartments in Havre de Grace so close to the Amtrak line that a passing train could stop a conversation.

Even so, I never had any trouble sleeping.

Before that, my family lived in Reisterstown within walking distance of a regularly used freight line. When I had trouble sleeping, I could listen for the train and came to be able to tell by the whistle blasts which road crossings it was signaling for. In those days, there were probably about four or five between Owings Mills and where the track went beyond earshot as it passed Boring or Hampstead or Manchester.

In Havre de Grace, though, I never really felt compelled to set up trains at Christmastime, largely on the grounds that there were so many passing through the area that it was almost like living in a holiday train garden. There are some rather classic looking stations in Aberdeen and Perryville. There are those two railroad bridges over the Susquehanna that date to, if not Prince Albert's lifetime, certainly those of his children. There are more modern rail shacks at places with names like Minnick in Perryville. And, if you're on the lookout, you can spot a pretty substantial variety of engines, cars and maintenance rail vehicles.

So where is all this going? Nowhere, really. In a way, this little essay is a lot like the little oval track Nick and I set up in the basement. It just goes around for fun.

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