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The Gift

By | September 1, 2001

A surprise offer on the platform at Newark's Penn Station

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The gift By Curtis L.Katz

I have always been fascinated with trains. My kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Bannister, a grandmotherly woman wiry and wise, once told my mother that most little children go through a phase when they are interested in trains or ships or trucks, “but with Curtis, trains are a hobby.” Had my 5-yeard-old vocabulary included the word “hobby,” I could have told them that. Obviously Mrs. Bannister had noticed that every Friday I brought to school another piece of my American Flyer trainset for “show and tell.” Every holiday season I looked forward to receiving another car or accessory to add to my S-gauge empire. What I really hoped for, of course, was a second locomotive, so I could run two trains instead of one, but such a gift was never forthcoming.

No one could account for my love of trains. My mom ascribed it to pre-natal influence. When my parents were first married, they lived along the New York & Long Branch in Red Bank, N.J., while my dad, an Army draftee, spent the Korean War at Fort Monmouth. When I was born, we lived in Vestal, N.Y., literally across the street from the Erie main line. We never lived out of earshot of a railroad. I grew up in Wayne, a northern New Jersey farm town that was reluctantly changing into a suburb, and I would awaken on cool dawns to the distant horns of Lackawanna Alco road-switchers sounding for bridges on the Passaic River, four or five miles away. What such mornings must have sounded like when those were steam locomotives! I was born a few years too late to know.

The Lackawanna was my hometown railroad. Of course I knew of the Phoebe Snow, but I was most familiar with the Boonton Line locals. On family outings to New York we often rode these trains, with their quaint open-vestibule coaches. The local railfans referred to those coaches as “Wyatt Earp cars,” for their fancied resemblance to the antique rolling stock seen in TV Westerns. I remember their walkover rattan seats, the colorful car-card ads, and the lethargic ceiling fans that seemed barely capable of stirring the files on muggy summer afternoons. Trips to Manhattan culminated in a ferry ride across the Hudson River from Hoboken, but I always preferred when we paid the extra fare and rode the Hudson Tubes (now PATH) into the city. After all, that was a train, not a boat.

While I was intimately acquainted with the Lackawanna, the railroad I admired from afar was Pennsylvania. Generally I got only glimpses of the Pennsy’s yards and main line during trips on the DL&W, or on drives to Long Island to visit relatives, but even as a child I could tell this was not a railroad of pokey locals and antique coaches, rather of long freights and fancy passenger trains that went to unimaginably distant places such as Washington, ST. Louis, and Chicago. I was already aware of Pennsy’s distinctive sleek electric locomotives and their alpha-numeric designation, “GG1,” when I received my first copy of Trains Magazine, the March 1964 issue, whose cover story promised “17 pages on America’s most famous electric!” This article confirmed the GG1 as my locomotive of choice, and on those auto trips to Long Island I eagerly anticipated our crossings of the Jersey Meadows in the hope of glimpsing one of the great motor. “G”-sightings brightened many a tedious visit with some insufferable cousin.

For each of several years, December would bring an eagerly anticipated opportunity for close inspection of the PRR. We would drive our family dentist and his wife to Penn Station in Newark to see them off on their annual winter pilgrimage to Florida. Mrs. Green was scared to fly, especially in those new DC-8’s and 707’s, so there was nothing for Dr. Green to do but take his wife to the sunny South by rail.

On the most memorable of these occasions, my mom was left to bid adieu to the parting Greens while Dad trotted me down the platform to where he anticipated the locomotive would stop when the Florida train pulled in. Peering down the length of the drafty train-shed, I could see through the portal to the east that the swirling snow had graced signals, catenary, and the truss-work of the Passaic River drawbridges with a festive decorative look befitting the holiday season. After what seemed an interminable wait, the snow was set aglow by a headlight, and moments later a GG1 leading a train of silver cars rumbled to a stop before us. I was all agog. Up close, a GG1 looked more brawny than sleek. And wasn’t an electric locomotive supposed to be silent? Even at rest, this one roared with the sounds of blowers, compressors, and transformer hum. The whole affair smelled like a thunderstorm.

While Dad and I were inspecting the big engine, the fireman, clad in overalls, descended from the cab into our midst. He had me sized up faster than had old Mrs. Bannister. With a genial smile he nodded toward his engine and casually asked, “How’d you like to have one of these under your Christmas tree?”

How would I like to have… Was he serious? Was he talking to me? It was fantastic beyond imagining! A GG1? You bet I’d like it!

My heart rang with these thoughts, but speech stuck in my throat. I couldn’t say a word. I just stared in slack-jawed, stupefied wonder.

Sensing his holiday mission here was complete, the fireman bade my dad and me a good Yule and ascended back to his post. In a moment, the fireman, my gift engine, and the dentist and his wife were all lost in a wild flurry of snow and excited musings.

For the entire 20-mile drive home through snowy New Jersey town, I remained quietly transfixed by that fireman’s proffered gift. A GG1 under my Christmas tree…

The only thing that perturbed my innocent but practical child-thought on the matter was not so much that our family was Jewish and thus had no Christmas tree, but rather… how would I have gotten the darn thing home?

One thought on “The Gift

  1. 18 years have gone by since this was first published. I love the fact that one can still go to that same Newark platform some 60 years later and see Florida trains stop there, just as in this story. No GG1s any more, but Amtrak’s sleek Sprinters are handsome and capable machines in their own right.

    What a wonderful tale, Curtis! It’s clear how profound that moment must have been. Many of us have had similar moments. As a former New Jerseyan, I particularly appreciated your description of the trains of your youth in the 50s and 60s. Thank you for sharing.

    Happy Chanukah Curtis! Happy Chanukah, Happy Holidays, and Merry Christmas to all! Highball 2020.

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