Full Circle: My First Smoke
I got a gift that was off the tracks

Come the holidays, when the Hanukkah candles glowed like shorted Christmas lights, I lived a life of diminished expectations.

After all, we weren’t really rich. Honestly, we weren’t even middle class. I had once seen my father’s pay stub. It was the beginning of my career as an investigative reporter. I couldn’t imagine how he paid the mortgage on that check, let alone buy us decent presents.

My eight nights of Hanukkah, with a present every night, became more of a utilitarian exercise. A new yo-yo, plastic chatter teeth, two pairs of socks, a three-pack of fresh underwear. When you’re embarrassed to take off your pants in the elementary school locker room because your tighty-whities look like shredded wheat, you welcome new underwear.

And a ball – a bright, white pimple ball. Because my father worked in a toy store, I had become the steady supplier of pimple balls on my street. They made me the most popular kid on the block.
But the big night of Hanukkah was the last night. That’s when I’d get the best present. And, starting in September, I wondered what it was. An ant farm? Ant farms were very big that year. A pee-wee football? A cap gun? How about a Lone Ranger cowboy guitar? I loved the Lone Ranger. I thought he was the coolest man on planet Earth. Next to Tonto.

And then it came. My father could barely carry the bulging box into the house. I ripped off the paper like it was a burning slice of pizza. Oh my god, trains. And not just any trains. A whole set of Lionel trains. With a smoking locomotive.

Now I could build my own town. With Lincoln Log houses and plastic brick stores. I could have my very own Bedford Falls.

My father helped me unload the box. Just look at all this. A steam locomotive engine with a headlight and smoke. A little box of smoke pellets for when the steam went dry. A square whistle tender. What’s a train without a good whistle? An operating log car that included a ton of its own logs and a dump bin. A Baltimore and Ohio boxcar. Maybe there were hobos in there, hitching a ride to the coast. A New York Central gondola with lots of wooden barrels made of plastic. And a big, red Lionel caboose. What train set would be complete without a red caboose?

Plus, there were eight curved tracks and three straight tracks. And one of those tracks that uncoupled and unloaded, so you could bring your cargo right into the station. And a 60-watt transformer that even had a separate whistle control.

My father, with a big smile on his face, went into the garage and came back with a giant plywood platform he had been working on for months. He slammed that sucker on the floor and sprinkled down some fake grass he had hidden in a brown paper lunch bag.

Oh, there was one more thing. He reached around to his back pocket of his double-pleated pants and pulled out an authentic engineer’s hat. He shook it out and put it right on my head. It was a perfect fit.
With the new train all set up, my father said, “Let’s give it a try, Chief.” He called everybody Chief.
Then he gave the transformer some juice. What followed next was pure magic. A bright, white light shined on to lead the locomotive. And then, the best part. Smoke started coming out of the smoke stack. Thick, billowy smoke.

We spent the next three hours at that train platform, taking turns running the railroad. Two hours in, my mother came down with a tray of Velveeta sandwiches on white bread.

“Hey,” my father said. “It’s just us guys down here.” Guys. He called me one of the guys. This had to be the best Hanukkah ever.


Maury Z. Levy, former editorial director of Philadelphia Magazine, is the retired chairman of Levy Jacobs Marketing in Marlton. Email Maury at maury@levyjacobs.com.

December 2017
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