Christmas Express makes an unscheduled stop


ON THESE COLD January nights, I like nothing better than to light my drooping Christmas tree, turn the stars on over my miniature Bethlehem and answer the front door bell.

Now, more than a week after Christmas, is the slow and comfortable part of the holiday season, when I can work through my holiday cards, read the notes carefully and eat every last crumb of baked goody left in the storage tins.

On many nights, there's a ring at the door too, meaning that a caller wants to ride the rails of my cellar train set.

For dozens of years, Baltimoreans have been building what we call Christmas gardens -- those folksy villages with mountains, lakes, forests, main streets and, of course, as many electric trains as you can squeeze onto a piece of landscaped plywood.

My garden was pronounced finished the Sunday before Christmas, but I really didn't get much of a chance to play with it until this week, when my extended family settled in for a visit.

As word leaked out around Charles Village about this Lilliputian world, more friends began calling, asking to visit now that their own family and social obligations were winding down.

So it was this past Wednesday night, when the winds whipped up and the temperatures dropped.

I got home from work, cranked up the furnace and started a fire in the living room with some of my best Port Deposit seasoned oak.

Right on schedule, the doorbell pealed at 8 p.m. I admitted a carload of shivering friends who wanted a dose of Christmas garden.

I was prepared -- with seven charging locomotives, four Old Bay Line steamships and one Pimlico Race Course. They were armed too, with a gift of a new red caboose bearing the insignia of the Reading & Northern.

Within minutes, the cellar was a pleasant madhouse of whirring electric motors augmented with sound micro-chips -- even I've embraced modern technology when it comes to my trains.

We had electronic bells and whistles going, several at once, as the Baltimore & Ohio battled the Pennsylvania Railroad for supremacy of my St. Paul Street cellar.

One of the favored features of any Baltimore Christmas garden is the smoke machine that is an essential part of the steam locomotive apparatus.

I've heard it said that a favorite memory of Christmas past is the distinct perfume of the artificial smoke that pumps out of the stack of a little steam engine.

Throughout the night, as my steam loco raced around the curves and straightaways like the good rail thoroughbred it is, I added smoke fluid to its stack.

It was pouring out smoke when one of my guests noticed that my block of rowhouses was also smoking, as was the simulated water (really a blue plastic bag) and a set of sawdust tennis courts.

In fact, the Christmas garden was smoking far too realistically. It was about to burst into flame.

Under the platform, the insulation on some vintage wiring was melting away, converting itself into its own smoke machine -- one that I hadn't counted on.

Smoke issued from cracks, streets, pavements and little trees.

Though I urged my guests to seek the safety of the outside, they decided to brave the smoke as I hit the emergency all-off switch. I think they were fascinated at the prospect of a budding Great Baltimore Fire.

There was no permanent damage, but the trains are all stalled now.

It'll be a long January before the B&O; pulls out again. It's no way to run a railroad.

Pub Date: 1/02/99

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