No one else in their neighborhood celebrates the holidays the way Phil and Marcia Myers do. As far as that goes, very few people anywhere celebrate the holidays the way they do.
Phil Myers starts to get ready in November, moving most of the furniture out of their living room and replacing it with his annual Christmas display. It takes him about 40 hours to assemble it. The result is an interactive Christmas train show. Emphasis on “interactive.”
And how does Marcia feel about losing her living room?
“I like it because Phil likes it,” she said. “And it’s how we meet people. This is what we do for the holidays.”
The free shows start each year on Dec.1 and go through the Christmas season. Phil Myers runs the electric trains with help from the guests. (Quite a lot of help, actually.) Marcia serves Christmas goodies. They’ve done this most years since 1977. He figures that since then they’ve entertained about 4,000 guests.
The display is built around a Christmas tree. It takes up the entire living room floor – and it’s a big living room. It has multiple trains of varying lengths, from a few cars to yards and yards of cars. It has passenger trains and freight trains. It has trees, bridges, trestles, derricks, water towers, houses, a farm, a church, industrial buildings …
“I can’t run it all myself,” its owner said with a wink at my granddaughter Chloe, who is eight. “I have to have help.”
She was happy to oblige, throwing switches and operating accessories as if she’d been doing it all her life. He likes showing children how to run his trains because he wants kids of the digital age to experience what once was at or near the top of countless kids’ Christmas lists.
“The heyday was in the 1950s,” he said. “There are actually more trains being sold today than there were then, but the population is larger now.”
So the market penetration is smaller now. A lot smaller. Today, most buyers of electric trains are men who had them as boys. Relatively few contemporary kids have them, which is why I wanted Chloe to see them. But there was an ulterior motive as well, namely that all the trains in the show are Lionels.
That’s a bit unusual. Most of the enthusiasts I’ve known prefer American Flyer brand trains, which use realistic-looking, two-rail tracks. Lionels use three-rail tracks and are larger and more durable. A Lionel locomotive is like a ’56 Buick – solid, heavy, built to last. In the neighborhood of my youth, it was Lionels that made kids’ eyes dance and our hearts beat faster.
In those days, every boy either had an electric train or wanted one. If you were lucky enough to have one, you wanted more – more cars, more tracks and switches, more everything. And a display like the one Myers lovingly assembles every November would have been almost beyond imagining – a Lionel Nirvana. Until he and Chloe put them through their paces, I had no idea of all the things electric trains could do.
They loaded cows into a cattle car. (The cows mooed.)
They unloaded logs from a freight car and dropped them into a sawmill, Chloe giggled as boards came out the other end.
They supplied a train with water from a tower.
They loaded and unloaded coal, milk cans, culverts, barrels … Chloe got to throw switches, operate a crane, drive a fork lift.
“It was fun,” she said. “I liked it.”
But she wasn’t bewitched the way kids used to be, which isn’t surprising. When Myers was a boy, trains were an everyday part of life. Now a lot of kids who can do everything but back flips with a Smartphone or a tablet have never seen a train outside of a movie, let alone had a chance to play with a toy train.
A retired Air Force pilot, Myers credits model railroading with teaching him much of what he knows about electricity and mechanics. His father bought him his first locomotive when he was five.
“It cost $3.50,” he said. “But that was a lot then. Dad was only making $14 a week.”
My dad got me my first train, too. He helped me install it on a ping pong table in the basement. Some of the happiest memories of my childhood are of running the train at night with the lights off, which, coincidentally, is one of Myers’s pastimes.
“Let’s turn the lights off now,” he said toward the end of the one-hour show, switching off the lights and turning back time.
It was deja vu – the electric smell, the glow of the train lights pushing back the darkness, the clatter of wheels on tracks … And to that nostalgic brew he added sounds of nocturnal animals – frogs, crickets, owls, an occasional watchdog. It was wonderful.
And, increasingly, it’s an anachronism.
Today’s children, he said, “do not seem to have much interest in trains. … In all the years I’ve done train shows, I can’t point to even one child who has become an enthusiast as a result of seeing our show. They love the show, but that doesn’t translate into a lifelong hobby.”
Casualties of modern life, toy trains just can’t compete in the digital world. That’s a shame because, once upon a time, they were magical.