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For those of us of a certain vintage, there was nothing better than getting the Lionel or American Flyer catalog right before Christmas. We drooled over the color illustrations of streamliners, steam engines, passenger cars, and accessories. My big brother had a terrific Flyer set and every year about a month before Christmas, my Dad set up the train table in the basement and a new layout would take shape.
Growing up we didn't have a lot of money, so model trains were a luxury. I remember going to my friend's house and watching his Lionel trains with more than a touch of envy. Still, those American Flyer trains beckoned and I could be found in our basement with my brother and father watching that big steam locomotive ply the rails, puffing smoke, and Dad showing me when to push the button for the switch. Heaven was turning off the basement light and watching the locomotive's headlight as the train made its way around the layout, accompanied by the luminous glow of the miniature streetlamps that lined the sidewalks of our Plasticville town.
Like most boys, as my brother and I grew older, model trains were replaced by a growing list of other interests, mainly girls and cars, and the trains were packed away. After my father passed away in 1982, we rescued the trains from storage before my mother put our house up for sale. I watched with the same little boy fascination as the big locomotive came to life for the first time in twenty-five years, after some cleaning and lubrication.
Twenty years ago, I was celebrating Christmas at my brother's farm in Waterdown, Ontario, and suggested that we get his old American Flyer trains and set them up around the Christmas tree. Neither he nor my nephew answered. "Well, what do you guys think?" I asked. Then I was told the truth. All of the trains had been stolen from the storage barn a few years earlier. My jaw dropped. The thief who stole the trains took more than he realized. The basement of our house was always on the chilly
side, but the warmth of the memories of my Dad, my brother, and me on those cold winter evenings, so long ago, will stay with me forever.