Christmas, 1955

Christmas, 1955.jpg
Christmas, 1955.jpg | Photo: DJW

It's the evening of Christmas day, circa 1955. The tree had been set up on the train board about a week earlier. I had helped my mother hang the ornaments and tinsel. My father had strung the lights.

I'm the boy in front. My brother, two years older, is behind. We're wearing the silk robes patterned with dragons that our uncle Arthur had got while stationed in Japan with the Navy.

Behind us on what we called a TV tray -- heavy iron legs and frame, a sheet of wood-patterned Formica for a deck -- is the manger. The plaster figures in the manger are illuminated by a Christmas bulb my father fixed up.

The tree, train board, manger, and my brother and I are in the dining room of our house. There isn't space in the dining room for anything else. The table and chairs have been moved into the kitchen.

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The train set -- an O-scale American Flyer -- was my brother's. One of my earliest memories is seeing the pale yellow headlamp of the train casting a swath of moving light on the walls of our bedroom the Christmas the train set arrived. My father built a low plywood platform the following year, painted the whole thing green for pasture, laid out a two oval tracks connected by switches, and wired up the controllers. There was one for each set of tracks so that two trains could run at different speeds on each oval.

By 1955, the train set had acquired several O-scale street lights, crossing signals, a mechanical loading platform that would dump small metal barrels into a gondola car, and several plastic buildings, including a city hall and the White House. These were lighted inside with a set of Christmas lights, also wired by my father.

The train set was something of a neighborhood attraction, giving my friends and my brother's something to do when their parents came over for eggnog. Even dads got down on the hands and knees to run the trains and throw the switches. The littlest kids were the most enthralled. They would watch the trains circling with a solemn wonder.

I remember the barnyard in the foreground, one of several construction sets I would get over the years. The earliest ones, like this one, were printed tin that had to be fitted together with bendable tabs that could cut like tiny knives.

My family was not much for picture taking. There aren't many photographs of my brother and me. That may explain why this one was saved. My brother is smiling mildly. I'm looking away and not smiling, getting ready to interlock my fingers in a gesture that I still have, like the figures from the manger, like the American Flyer locomotive and tender, like the brother.

D. J. Waldie, author and historian, writes about Los Angeles twice each week at KCET's SoCal Focus blog.

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