It was the most incredible train set I’d ever seen. The big black steam engine puffed smoke and whistled loud and long as it pulled swaying coal cars and low-riding flatcars around the shiny silver track.
Boxcars lined the siding, and at each crossing lights flashed while little wooden arms dropped down to warn miniature automobiles and their equally miniature drivers to stop. Towns and farms seemed to tremble at the passing of the mighty engine and its line of clickety-clackety cars. Painted cows watched silently as the train swept past. The Santa Fe Express was coming through!
A tall, well-dressed man stopped and stood beside me. He glanced at the train, the curving lines of track, and the colorful collection of houses and barns. Then he walked over to the salesperson waiting nearby and, in a matter-of-fact voice, said, “I’ll take it.”
“Well, of course you’ll take it,” I muttered under my breath. “Who wouldn’t? It’s just the most wonderful train set in the whole world. Any kid with half a brain would jump clean out of his skin to get it for Christmas.” My 10-year-old stomach almost ached with desire.
Just then my father wandered by, arms filled with odd-shaped packages. “Dad!” I yelled, running to meet him. “I know what I want Santa Claus to bring me for Christmas. Look over there!” I motioned toward the table. “Just look at it.”
My father stared in the direction I was pointing, then glanced down at me with a questioning frown. “You want a baby doll that wets its pants and cries ‘Mama’?”
“No,” I grimaced. “To the right. Over to the right!”
“Oh,” Dad said, walking toward the glory land of whistles and wheels. “What a great train set. Wow. It’s got everything. Little roads, stops signs, cows, houses. And it’s a Lionel, too.” He pointed at the boxes stacked beside the display. “They’re the best, you know. Been around for years. This is really something.”
There, rumbling around on shiny silver tracks, was a steam engine pulling a line of boxcars.
I trailed behind him as he admired the layout from different angles. “And Dad? See that man over there? He just walked up to the salesperson and said, ‘I’ll take it.’ You can do that too. Just go up to him and say, ‘I’ll take it.’”
“What?” My father looked surprised. “And leave poor old Saint Nick with nothing to lug down our chimney on Christmas Eve? That wouldn’t be right.”
OK. So I knew there would be no jolly fat man from the North Pole stopping by our house on Christmas Eve. I knew that was all just kid stuff. “Sure, Dad,” I whispered with a wink. “I’ll leave this great, incredible, amazing gift for ‘Santa’ to bring. He knows what I want. He’s a very smart man.”
Walking away, I glanced back to see my dad bending low, studying the price tag hanging from the little red station house by the freight yard. I smiled. Yup. Santa was no dummy.
I continued shopping, hunting for special gifts for Mom, Dad, and my little sister Susan. Mom was easy. What kitchen wizard could resist a new frying pan? Dad would receive his yearly dose of aftershave—the one with the ship on the bottle.
Susan was another matter. What do you get a girl whose idea of fun is peeling the clothes off of dolls and leaving their tiny, bleached bodies lying around the bedroom like casualties in some cosmic fashion war? I decided that the most loving thing I could do was buy her another doll to undress.
As I shopped, the echo of the train whistle and the rumble of those mighty wheels kept crowding into my thoughts. Yes, sir. I was going to get a Lionel train set in just a few short days. The world was sweet. I Merry Christmas’d everyone in sight.
Snow was falling by the time we were ready to leave the shopping plaza. Fluffy flakes floated through the glow of the tall parking lot lights, and somewhere a Salvation Army bell rang into the crisp late-evening air, inviting shoppers to leave a few coins to help the poor.
As I was walking to where we’d parked, a long, sleek automobile pulled up to the stop sign guarding the exit. I glanced over at the driver and froze in my tracks. There, behind the wheel of a brand-new Cadillac, sat Santa Claus—white beard, stocking cap, corncob pipe, the works! His head nodded to the beat of a popular rock tune pounding against the thick, rolled-up windows of his big, cherry-red car.
My mind refused to accept what my eyes were seeing. Where were Dancer and Prancer? Where was Rudolph with his rosy nose? Santa doesn’t drive a car! He . . . he drives a sleigh—a fast, gift-packed, reindeer-powered, starburstin’ sleigh! What was Kris Kringle doing in a Cadillac?
In a moment he was gone.
“What’s the matter?” Dad asked, noticing my shocked condition. “You look as if you’ve seen a ghost—which, I may add, is difficult, because there are none.”
“Yeah,” I muttered. “No ghosts.”
There are some images that a 10-year-old boy has in his mind that aren’t supposed to be challenged—like how Columbus looked when he stepped on American soil for the first time, the shape of the world’s fastest airplane, what it’s like to skydive, and how Santa Claus gets from point A to point B.
Yes, I knew Santa wasn’t a real person. But if he were real, he’d be flying through the sky in his sleigh, not plowing around a parking lot in a big red Cadillac. That’s just not part of the picture. That’s not how it’s done!
Christmas Eve finally arrived. We sang carols, popped corn, ate ice cream, played board games, ate ice cream, wrapped presents, ate ice cream, built a fire in the fireplace, looked at the Christmas tree, and ate ice cream.
When bedtime finally rolled around, I dragged my tired, stuffed body up to my room, eager for the morning to come when we’d open presents. I soon fell into a restless sleep. Steam engines and Cadillacs chased each other around and around in my dreams.
“Wake up, wake up, it’s Christmas!” My sister’s cheery voice rang out from the doorway. I opened my eyes. Yes. YES! The wait was over. The magic hour had arrived. At long last it was time to graciously accept my wonderful, awesome, exciting, eat-your-heart-out, willing-to-die-for Lionel train set.
I paused at the top of the stairs. I must present a proper mixture of surprise and pleasure without actually fainting, I told myself. Parents like to see their children’s faces overflow with looks of joy and wonder on Christmas morning. Yes, I could do that.
Striking a curious yet innocent pose, I crept down the stairs. Dad was waiting at the bottom, a broad smile wrinkling his cheeks. “Merry Christmas, Charlie Boy,” he said when I reached the landing. “We have a surprise for you.”
“Oh?” I gasped. “A surprise for me?”
Dad motioned toward the tree waiting across the living room. There, rumbling around on shiny silver tracks, was a steam engine pulling a line of boxcars.
I rushed across the room and dropped to my knees beside the rolling train. “Oh, Dad,” I gushed. “It’s . . . it’s beautiful! It’s just what I . . .”
Wait a minute. There’s something wrong here. The engine isn’t as magnificent as I remembered. The wheels aren’t as detailed; the cars not as colorful and real-looking. Even the little station has painted-on windows, not the cut-out ones I’d seen in the store. This isn’t my train. This isn’t a Lionel!
“Do you like it?” Dad was saying. “I wanted to buy the one you showed me, but it cost far more than we could afford. With your brothers in college and you and Susie in church school, we don’t have any extra money.”
I sat in stunned silence.
“Besides,” Dad continued. “
I think it’s a nice set. Look, it came with a couple logs for the flatcar.” He paused. “I know it’s not a Lionel, but it’s a train.”
My Christmas dreams had been shattered. First, I see Santa Claus driving a Cadillac, and now this. But a little voice seemed to be speaking to me from somewhere deep in my disappointment. It was saying how 10-year-old boys must sometimes accept what’s real even when dreams are more fun, more exciting. Things can’t always be the way you want them to be. Maybe a kid like me needs to learn that a father’s sacrifice is more valuable than a son’s desire.
I watched the little train puff its way around the base of our Christmas tree. The whistle blew long and loud. “Dad,” I said, looking into the face of the man who had given me the very best he could, “it’s the most wonderful train set in the whole world.”
Charles Mills, author, radio show host, and media producer, has published several books, including Religion in the Real World, Refreshed Parables, and Surprising Nature.