That year, I wanted a Lionel Santa Fe diesel for Christmas more than anything else in the world. Johnny Schumann and his dad had a train layout in their basement that was so big, they needed pop-up doors in the middle of it in case the train jumped the tracks … and right next to their three black steam locomotives and gray Erie switcher, ran a yellow Union Pacific diesel. They had some pretty cool stuff, but nowhere in sight was the silver and red of a Santa Fe!
It was a time when steam and electric engines were giving way to diesel power on the railroads. It was a time when trains meant as much to little kids as cars meant to big ones … and fast freights circling the tree meant Christmas to all kids. It was a time when I had reached that age of wondering if there really was a Santa Claus. Most of my friends thought it was silly to believe in some jolly fat man who flew through the air with a bunch of reindeer, but I was afraid not to. I mean, we all believed in Superman, right? What if Santa really did exist and I doubted him? I’d never get my Santa Fe diesel then! Geez, even the names were alike …
Besides, believing felt good. The anticipation of his arrival added a special tingle to the Christmas butterflies that already danced in every kid’s stomach. My friends and I had any number of intense, philosophical discussions on the subject, always with the same result. They stood against the red-suited elf and I was his staunch defender. I even talked it over with my parents but the evidence on both sides of the question was inconclusive. I had to know for sure, so I cunningly devised a test.
Mom and Dad went shopping frequently around Christmas but I knew they always stayed out longest when they went shopping for the tree. There was a time Dad used to wait until Christmas Eve “when the price was right,” as he used to say … but since it was now against the law for vendors to simply abandon their unsold inventory, we started getting our tree a little earlier and Dad became a little fussier. That would be the perfect time to really scour every nook and cranny of the house without fear of getting caught. A friend of mine said it was snooping. I preferred to think of it as conducting a sort of scientific experiment. After all, I wasn’t really hurting anything and it had become a matter of honor.
My criteria were simple: It was pretty close to Christmas and a Santa Fe diesel was a pretty big present, so they would have to buy the engine early enough to make sure they found exactly what I wanted. If I discovered it hidden somewhere, then I’d know for sure that my friends were right and Santa Claus was a fake. If I didn’t find it, and it showed up Christmas morning, chances are only the jolly old elf himself could have delivered it and I would have proof positive for all those nonbelievers at the playground.
The big day came when Mom and Dad went out to buy the tree. I really had to be thorough … after all, a lot was riding on my research. I started in the attic, working my way down through the coat closet and guest room all the way to the basement. No luck. I really had mixed feelings about what I was doing because, as determined as I was to find my present, that’s how much I hoped that I wouldn’t! I had looked everywhere. Almost.
I hadn’t looked in my parents’ room. That was off-limits … a mysterious place that I had mostly seen only from the doorway. It’s not like they ever told me not to go in there but I always kind of felt it was almost holy, for adults only. Maybe I got that impression because they usually closed the door when they went in there. Anyway, I was getting desperate and this was important. I ventured into the room and tip-toed silently around, peeking under this and inside that. I don’t know why I was being so quiet … it’s not like I was going to wake anyone up!
At last, there was only one place left, only one place in the whole house … their closet. A quick once-over revealed there was no engine at kid level so that just left the top shelf. I carefully positioned a chair, took off my shoes so as not to leave any evidence, peered over the shelf and poked around a little. There, half-hidden under a quilt was an oblong box that read “Lionel Lines” on the side. I had to be sure. The end was only folded shut. No tape. My heart was nearly pounding out of my chest as one-by-one I opened each flap … and revealed the shiny silver and red nose of a Santa Fe diesel! My momentary delight suddenly gave way to a dizzying sadness and I felt empty, like someone had let all the air out of me. The butterflies in my stomach formed a knot the size of a real locomotive … and I took one giant step out of kidhood. Simon Sez, “Grow up.”
Christmases were never quite the same after that for a very long time. Then one day, I found myself staring into a pair of teddy bear brown eyes and heard a small voice excitedly talking all about what Santa Claus was going to bring that night. We hung a fuzzy red stocking from the fireplace mantle and set out the obligatory glass of milk, plate of cookies and a couple of carrots for the reindeer. Then I tried to sleep.
In the morning, for the first time since I stood on that chair in my Mom and Dad’s closet, I felt the special tingle of Christmas butterflies dancing in my stomach … as the keeper of those eyes gleefully rushed a mountain of presents under the tree, and I realized that there is a Santa Claus after all. You just have to know where to find him.
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