Sunday, December 23, 2012

A holiday feast

Christmastime is a feast for the senses, full of sights, sounds, smells and tastes.

So what is the one thing that sensuously stands out in my mind?

I miss the smell of ozone. Specifically, electric ozone. And more specifically, the electric ozone that wafted from the Lionel HO scale train that circled endlessly underneath the Christmas tree.

When we lived in Fountain Hill, Pa., back in the 1950s, and Santa Claus was still a believable annual visitor to our house (What, you mean he isn't?), one of the things he brought was the train set.

No, wait. You don't understand me. He brought the train set, along with the gifts. And the tree. Each year. Yep, that's how Santa worked at our house. My brother and I would go to sleep on Christmas Eve in an undecorated house, save for a single wreath on the front door, only to wake up in the morning with a fully lighted tree in the living room soaring from a mound of gifts. Oh, yeah, and with a six-car Lionel steam locomotive chasing its caboose — and nearly catching it — around the tree.

I can't imagine how my parents hustled to get all this stuff together in a single night. I mean, a tree? With lights and tinsel and glass balls and all those other ornaments? C'mon. Really. A different time, I guess. A different era.

Anyway, dad was the engineer of this train. After the presents were opened, we'd sit by the tree. Dad would flick on the control box, and the little engine that could sprang immediately into life, jumping into full speed like a sprinter from a cloud of blue ozone.


The thing was, my brother and I could never operate it ourselves. That was dad's domain.

Over the years, as we got older and Santa was less believable, the train display grew. It eventually took over our living room year-round, set up as it was on an old Ping Pong table, and included scenery: tunnels, trestles, crossing gates, water towers and train stations. There were two trains: the original steam locomotive, and a diesel. It was great. I wonder how mom ever let dad get away with it. I don't recall us ever entertaining guests, other than dad bringing in his male friends to the house to check out his train display. They could play with it — but we couldn't.

There is one other vivid memory I have. A few years later — maybe our last in Fountain Hill, around 1958 — and I was beginning to understand that Santa was more of a Christmas sentiment than a Christmas sentinel — dad had the entire family trudge through our quaint little hillside village to purchase a tree a few days before Christmas. It was snowing, and it was in the evening. It could have been a scene stolen straight from the Norman Rockwell collection.

But we bought our tree, put it on the sled we brought with us and lugged it back to the house, snowflakes kissing our faces along the way. How could I know then that this would stay with me for more than 50 years?

We set the tree up that night, without Santa's help, and turned on the string of colored lights. The ozone was gone, but the Fraser Fir more than compensated.

So did the Tollhouse cookies and the hot chocolate.

Merry Christmas all.

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