Thursday, December 22, 2016

December and Electric Trains...

1950s Print Ad for Lionel Trains

As Christmas approaches, model trains are never far from my thoughts. No surprise, of course, as my birthday also falls in December. For me (up until I had to choose between it and component HiFi!) the magic of my Lionel O Gauge layout was year-round. And, yes, I still miss it. But the magic transformer throttle would get really notched up on the Friday after Thanksgiving, for it always meant the trip downtown with my Mom, which always included three fondly-remembered stops, each of them rich in model railroad enchantment.

Well, actually four, but one was not so much tied to “electric trains” as it was to ladies in white gloves and, umm, Chicken a la King. To get the fourth one quickly out of the way, it was lunch in the Tea Room at Hochschild-Kohn’s, a venerable Baltimore department store, popularly known simply as Hochschild's (or "Hayshuls," in Balmerese, the local variant on the King's English).

You see, once lunch was dispensed with, Mom and I would be off to the department store next door, the equally venerable Hutzler Brothers, Hutzler’s for short -- Hutzler's and Hochschilds shared a block along Howard ("Harrid") Street in downtown Baltimore. That’s when the magic kicked in, for our destination there was Hutzler’s ToyTown, as announced by the uniformed elevator operator, as the doors slid open.

For my purposes and preferences, I never considered “ToyTown” an apt name, for my mission there was not a mere "toy" experience.  
Lionel's popular and iconic O -Gauge EMD Santa Fe F-3 diesel locomotive

For it was here that, every Christmas season, the Lionel-experts set up an elaborate O-Gauge layout with multiple trains negotiating steep grades (aided of course by Lionel’s much vaunted MagneTraction), disappearing into tunnels, blowing their whistles or horns for grade crossings, gliding into magnificent stations, or disgorging cattle into stock pens, or dumping logs into a sawmill’s conveyor.

Silhouetted passengers rode in style in the fluted silver streamlined “Lionel Lines” cars, pulled by growling Santa Fe F-3 diesels in sets of three…or iconic Pennsylvania Railroad GG1 electric locomotives. And, of course, imitation smoke puffing Hudson- or Berkshire-class steam locomotives would haul their “heavyweight” Pullman parlor cars between country towns and the big city. As I recall, it was all on auto-pilot, as speeds were carefully set to be as impressively fast as possible without risking model disasters. And the big Lionel ZW transformers powering the trains, as well as all the twinkling lights and crossing gates and other elements of enchantment, were safely out of the reach of young visitors who might take it upon themselves to cause quarter-inch-to-the-foot calamity.

Imagine that: Bringing the FAMILY together. What a radical concept...

This post-Thanksgiving pre-Birthday ritual visit was for the purpose of deciding which locomotive or passenger or freight car or accessory might  (well, hopefully) be presented following birthday dinner. And, damn, did I ever make it my mission to be a good boy at this particular time of year.

The trip downtown would also include a visit to Taubman Hardware’s flagship store on West Baltimore Street. Now, “hardware store” I could more willingly buy into than the more frivolous “ToyTown.” See, it was once a tradition for Lionel’s O and O-27 Gauge trains to be sold in hardware stores. Back when hardware stores were not Home Depots…

So, further scrutiny to Lionel’s offerings was applied there at Taubman’s, as Hutzler’s had the glamour layout but perhaps not everything that Taubman’s had on its utilitarian shelves.

And, finally, there was the visit to the lobby of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad’s office building at the corner of Baltimore and Charles to take in their elaborate display. This one was not Lionel, but the competing American Flyer S-Gauge trains, which actually ran on more authentic looking two-rail track (as opposed to Lionel’s middle power-rail) and were, as I recall, more toward scale in proportions. But, heck, back then, you were either a Lionel partisan or an American Flyer devotee. I do remember a very appealing American Flyer iteration of my favorite B&O train, the elegant Royal Blue. Of course, AF’s “Royal Blue” was pulled by Alco diesels instead of the sloped-nose EMDs of real-life, but such “poetic license” was OK as AF’s Alcos were quite attractive.

Screen Capture from Eisenbahn Romantik Ontraxs DVD

No matter the gauge…or whether one remembers them from earlier years as “electric trains” or “model trains” (the latter having the more “serious” connotation, as in devoted hobbyists who do everything in scale), this is the time of year to raise a hearty Glühwein (or libation of your own choosing) toast to electric trains, whether they simply chase their tails in a basic circle or oval under the Christmas tree…or recreate moments from a saner past, chuffing their way between German or French or Swiss villages, admired by tiny farmers with their cows, awaited by tiny – and properly dressed – travelers…admired by full sized adults and pint-sized kids….

If I may throw in a plug for a most enjoyable project I did a few years ago on a major European model train show, it was my honor to be the English language narrator for an “Eisenbahn Romantik” 2-DVD set on the Ontraxs show in Utrecht, Holland.

One of the reasons narrating this presentation was so much fun had to do with how well the script described the enchanting miniature worlds created by these dedicated modelers.

"A Diorama" - Screen Capture from Ontraxs DVD

I see the set is still available, so I thought I’d tell you about it, even though it’s going to be too late to order and view it with your loved ones by the Christmas tree (although, if you’re reading this in Europe, there just might just be that chance).

Here’s a link to an earlier blog story I did on the project. Embedded in it are two audio players with clips from a couple of favorite chapters (and that selection was, indeed, a hard choice!) as well as a link to the web site from which the DVD set can be ordered. Yank (and other non-European) readers may wish to lay it in for next Christmas.

©2016 Steve Ember

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