Read an Excerpt
I'm pregnant," my wife, Ellen, said, and right then I knew I would be building a train layout. I saw a layout as a birthright, since playing with trains had been such a big part of my life as a kid.
When our son, John, was born in June 1982, I remember gazing at his little fingers and thinking that they were scaled down from an adult's in the same way model trains are scaled-down versions of the real thing.
My memories of trains went back to a wooden locomotive that I pushed along tracks spread out across my bedroom floor. At first, I was told to put the tracks away each night, but as I began to make the configurations more complex, I was allowed to leave everything in place, sometimes for weeks at a time. I built stations with my blocks, stuffed books
under the rug to make hills, and designed loops that tunneled under my bed.
When I was four I ran into the living room Christmas morning to discover a locomotive that was made of metal and painted dark blue. A large key lay next to it. My mother showed me how a lever on top of the cab kept the spring mechanism from unwinding until I had the engine positioned on the tracks and its three passenger cars hooked up. Once released, the train accelerated down the straight, then flipped over at the first curve, leaving the wheels spinning in the air until the spring unwound. If I didn't wind it quite so much, the engine stayed on the tracks but expired after a lap, leaving me wishing I had wound it just a little tighter. This was an improvement over my wooden trains, which I had to push, but like most boys my age, I already longed for the next step: electric trains.
The word Lionel was magic. My Lionel train layout in our house in New York gave me the first inklings of an identity I could call my own. For first grade, I was enrolled at Buckley, a school for boys, where you were either a train guy or a fort guy-no one had both trains and a fort. The forts were based on medieval castles. The most elaborate had drawbridges, portcullises, battlements, operating catapults, and moats that held real water. Lead soldiers could be arranged as attackers and defenders. But the only way to play with a fort was to move things around by hand, which recalled the effort that had gone into operating my wooden trains. The moment you sat back to watch, the action stopped. Trains were different.
Once it was established that you were a train guy and not a fort guy, the next choice was between the two major manufacturers of toy trains, Lionel and its archrival, American Flyer. The differences were few but important. American Flyer's engines and cars had a cheap, plastic feel, and their couplers were ungainly hooks that did not even attempt to look like the real thing. Lionel, by contrast, had authentic couplers, and big, solid locomotives and cars. It was their track that was flawed: instead of a realistic two-rail system, Lionel had three rails. The third rail provided the current from the transformer and simplified the wiring of a complex layout, but it looked awful.
None of us kids had made the choice between Lionel and American Flyer ourselves. That was left to our parents. When we argued over our trains, we were doing more than defending their particular features, we were upholding the judgment of people we loved and believed in. My mother had chosen Lionel, and any criticism of Lionel was, to me, a criticism of her.
The name Lionel came from Joshua Lionel Cowen, who had been building toy trains since 1900. Cowen was an inventor who knew his way around electrical devices and manufacturing techniques. He was also an aggressive businessman. He battled his first big competitor, the Ives Corporation, by depicting their trains as weak and flimsy, comparing their least expensive models with his top-of-the-line stuff-without mentioning the price difference. He took out ads showing Lionel track supporting more than one hundred pounds while another brand's broke apart under just twenty.
Cowen combined showmanship with a knack for attracting celebrities. He arranged for Jackie Gleason to do a TV skit in which a Lionel engine towed a flatcar-which carried a drink-out to Gleason on the set. Pope Pius XII, in full ecclesiastical garb, posed with Lionel equipment in the Vatican. Roy Rogers, Tommy Dorsey, and Johnny Weissmuller all appeared with the trains in publicity shots. One of Cowen's few frustrations came from trying to establish a connection between trains and baseball. In 1950 he managed to hire Joe DiMaggio to host a TV series, The Lionel Clubhouse, which aired briefly on NBC but didn't last.
Cowen lived into his eighties, and his long career spanned both world wars and the Great Depression. Throughout these decades of uncertainty, he offered stability: a world to escape into in which everything was always under control. The trains, and all the Lionel accessories, did what they were told. Semaphores saluted as engines passed, plastic cows shuffled aboard cattle
cars, coal rattled down chutes. Industries thrived-including Cowen's own, which grossed a whopping $33 million in 1953, Lionel's best year.
Cowen's greatest strength was that he understood the mythology of the American family. He used his catalogs to create a world in which Father knew best. Father's role was to watch indulgently as Son operated the trains. Son was destined to assume the traditions of hard work and fair play that had been passed down from generation to generation. Mother and Little Sister (she was always younger), if they appeared in a picture at all, were in the background as an adoring audience, along with the family's dog, which was typically a Scottie or small collie. Everyone was always smiling, and enough love was beaming around to power the trains.
Cowen's catalogs shamelessly exploited parental emotions. Fathers, wearing tweed jackets and smoking pipes, were shown with their arms around their boys, as both father and son gazed fondly at the trains. Another of Cowen's favorite concepts-
illustrated by a picture of a boy sleeping with a Lionel locomotive on his pillow-was to suggest to parents that their boy fell to sleep dreaming of trains. In the years after World War II, Cowen turned Christmas into a marketing event for his products. He made Christmas and Lionel so inseparable you couldn't be sure which came first, the trains or the tree.
Cowen's propaganda meant little to me because, as a kid, I never saw the Lionel catalogs. My mother bought my trains at FAO Schwarz, a large New York toy store, and put them under our Christmas tree, unwrapped. She never pretended the trains came from Santa. Cowen's glorification of the father and son relationship, even had I known about it, would have had little meaning for me, because my father had been killed when I was only eleven months old. He had seen me just once, on a brief leave after D-day, before he was transferred to the Pacific, where a kamikaze struck his ship; his body was never found. As for brothers and sisters with whom to share Cowen's idea of the wholesome fun of trains, I had none until my mother remarried years later.
But the biggest deviation from the perfect Lionel family was that a woman, my mother, wired the layout. She may have been trying to make up for some of what I missed by not having a father, but she genuinely liked trains-and other things that were unusual for a woman at that time. She studied with a professional cabinetmaker and had a shop of her own where she built miniature furniture and refinished antiques. During the war, she drove a truck (stick shift!) up and down the hills of San Francisco. She loved cars and considered herself duty-bound to take any one she owned out for at least one run at top speed.
If someone asked me if I had a train set, I would regard the questioner with scorn. A train set appeared at Christmas, after which it was put away. What I had, what my mother had designed and commissioned a carpenter to build, was a layout. It was permanent. Mine even had a room of its own, on the same floor as the living room. It was part of the action. In fact, in a house that didn't yet have a TV, my train room often was the action.
Stepping through the doorway, you were confronted by two tiers of tracks that stretched from one wall to the other. You either stayed by the door (the choice of most grown-ups) or ducked under the tracks, emerging in the center of the layout, next to the controls. Trains could be run on the lower level, which was wide enough for the main line, plus sidings and accessories, or the upper level, a narrow shelf with space for just one track. Ramps connected the levels. Standing inside the layout, with one train going clockwise along the lower level and another running counterclockwise on the upper, was like being at the center of a universe. At night, the lights of the trains orbited around me as if I were the nucleus of an atom.
Lionel's line of trains and accessories suffered from a split personality because they tried to look like scale models but work like toys. A passenger train appeared authentic moving along a straight-until it reached one of Lionel's turns, which were so sharp that if they had existed in real life, negotiating them would have derailed the engine and flattened the passengers against the walls of the cars. The street lamps, too, looked good until you realized that in order to accommodate actual lightbulbs, they were wildly out of scale. My station was architecturally accurate, but it was painted garishly in red and green in an obvious bid for the Christmas market.
The biggest challenge to realism had less to do with appearance than awkwardness of operation. At the gate crossing hut, the door snapped open and the guard popped out like a jack-in-the-box. Plastic cows being shunted aboard a cattle car frequently tipped over, jamming at the door. Lionel's smoke was produced by a pill dropped into the engine's smokestack, but the pills were too small, and engines raced along emitting a pale effluvium that was less convincing than my mother's Kool. The coal-dumping car would get stuck in middump, then revive, hurling coal across the layout. The log loader's conveyor belt made a grinding noise as loud as a garbage disposal.
One sound Lionel got dead right, however, was the whistle of their steam locomotives. It even trailed off hauntingly-in accordance with the Doppler effect-as the locomotive went away from you. Cowen's designers achieved the lonely, evocative sound with a fan that blew air through miniature organ pipes.
I couldn't do much about the third rail, or the hairpin turns, or the eccentric accessories, but when it came to operating the trains the degree of realism was up to me. Each spring, my family traveled by train to Florida, and those trips gave me a chance to see how things were done by real railroads. I took what I observed and applied it to my layout. I eased my engines away from the station. I kept them to sensible speeds on the straights, slowed well in advance of the curves, and coasted into the station, always coming to a smooth stop.
I also observed the correct whistle signals for each situation, guided by a typed card that was placed next to the controls. It was a railroader's Morse code: a short toot was a dot, a long one a dash. Dot: apply brakes and stop. Dash, dash: release brakes and proceed. Dash, dash, dot, dash: approaching highway or grade crossing. One long blast: approaching station.
Sometimes, however, all this conscientious operation and righteous whistle-blowing was just too much, and I'd crank the throttle wide open and watch a train go hurtling down a straight and, like my old windup engine, flip over at the first curve it came to. Or I would position a herd of the plastic cows on the tracks, then plow through them, meanwhile blowing the whistle like mad. I also enjoyed crashing into the back of a hapless freight that had stopped along the main line, scattering boxcars across the tracks. I knew Lionel's equipment was tough and could take quite a beating without showing a scratch, but I made sure nothing ever took the big fall from the layout to the floor.
I saw trains as serious business. On my visits to FAO Schwarz, I studied their layout, imprinting the track plan in my mind and memorizing the placement of the accessories. I was already doing badly at school, the first intimations that my academic career (if it could be called that) was headed for trouble, and my train room had become a sanctuary, a place where I was in control, away from the bewilderment of the classroom. If I pulled the lever for a switch, a green light would blink off and a red one come on, and from across the room I would hear a buzz and know that the switch was now set for a curve instead of a straight and that a train would be turning off the main line and climbing the ramp to the upper level. I didn't have to see it, I knew it was happening.
I could couple and uncouple cars without touching them. I could load and unload logs, cattle, milk cans, and coal. I could raise or lower our bascule bridge. I could leave a train running and go down the hall to the living room to chat with my mother, and when I came back, the train would be circling the layout exactly as I had left it. Remote control; it was one of Joshua Cowen's most cherished concepts, relentlessly promoted as instilling in young boys a sense of responsibility for their actions. As Ron Hollander wrote in All Aboard!, his history of Lionel, "Remote control became symbolic of the button-pushing and emotional distancing that would be required of men in the real world."
Most of the switching and activating of accessories was a simple choice of on or off, but when it came to controlling the trains themselves you had forward or reverse plus the choice of how fast you wanted to go. You could make incremental adjustments in speed by moving the twin throttles of what Lionel called the transformer. On my layout the transformer was the 275-watt ZW, the biggest Lionel made.
The ZW was a black cube, rounded at the edges, with a large L for Lionel on the top and cone-shaped protrusions extending horizontally from either side. The cones were the throttles, and sticking up out of each was a plastic lever that I could move with just the slightest pressure. The ZW had the look of something pagan, a dark eminence through which electric power flowed in mysterious ways. Even my mother had no idea what went on inside. But to me the real magic of the ZW was that something happened in there that took my idea of how fast I wanted my train to go and turned it into movement many feet away. To Joshua Cowen, this was remote control. To me, it was something more: power without effort-the sensation I had sought without success back in the days of my wooden trains, and something I have pursued in one form or another for most of my life.