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Jardine: Long-derailed train back on track

It sat all but forgotten for decades in its original cardboard box, tucked away in a closet in my parents' home.

Yep, a black diesel-style locomotive engine, a couple of freight cars, an oil tanker and, of course, a red caboose, all tucked into their slots, along with the transformer.

Our great-grandparents gave us the Louis Marx electric train a half-century ago, and we played with it regularly for a few years, older brother Ed and I.

Then one day in 1961 or maybe 1962, the train stopped dead in its tracks (explaining, if nothing else, the genus of the cliché). The transformer gave off a burning smell, though no smoke. At the time, we lived in a company- owned home built about 1915 or so in Standard, east of Sonora. The house had old-fashioned cloth-covered wiring, the kind that spawned so many building code changes over the years. Perhaps a lack of proper grounding caused the transformer to overheat.

No matter. Our options were pretty limited. Risk getting jolted or setting the house aflame by trying to fix it? Nada.

A new transformer back then would have cost about $10 or $15, equal to $70 to $106 today, according to one online inflation calculator. It doesn't seem so insurmountable now. But saving that kind of money back then as little kids? Pretty unlikely.

Charge it on a credit card? What, in 1962, was a credit card?

The box-top promotions from Kellogg's Corn Flakes, Frosted Flakes or Cheerios cereals shilled only new toys, not replacement electric train transformers.

So the train set was sidetracked, sentenced to someday's to-do or fix-it list. We simply moved on to the stuff young boys did in the days before cable TV, DVDs, video games and text messaging. We rode our bikes. We played baseball. We hiked all over the hills and climbed trees.

We didn't lack for trains. A retired Shay steam engine stood at the edge of town with its unmistakable creosote smell. We played on it at least once a week, arguing over who got to sit in the engineer or brakeman's seats.

Or we could ride the working train that came out of the mountains every afternoon, hauling logs to Pickering Lumber Co.'s millpond. The engineer would stop the train east of town and let us aboard for the last half-mile or so into town, stopping again to drop us off near the company's warehouse.

Occasionally, we'd bring out the electric train set, hoping it somehow had healed itself and would magically start going again. No such luck. It never worked.

As time passed, it faded out of sight and out of mind. We grew up, went off to college and started our respective families, with Ed eventually moving his to Phoenix.

One day, my mom reminded me she still had the old electric train set. So I took it home with me, intending to buy a new transformer and get it running again. It also needed new track, since someone had borrowed the original pieces for a school project and never returned them.

Typically, the box sat in my garage for four years or so. I think maybe the ghost of old Louis Marx simply lost patience with me, because whenever I went to fetch something in the garage, the train set always seemed to be in the way. Its way of saying, "take the hint, you knucklehead!"

Last spring, though, I finally got off my, well, caboose. I called one of the hobby stores and a clerk referred me to the Square Roundhouse, a toy train specialty shop in Turlock.

I dropped off the train set with shop owner Harold Lindquist and explained its history. He promised to clean and lube the engine and its motor. He would look to see if he had any old freight cars to add to the set, since it came with only a few pieces. He wanted to take a crack at fixing the old transformer, too, before selling me a new, foreign-made one.

He called a few days later, and our conversation went something like this:

"It's ready to go," he said.

Great! How much will the new transformer cost?

"There was nothing wrong with the old one," he said. "I cleaned it up, put it back together and it works just fine."

Huh?

"Yep."

Really ... .

"Yep."

So I went to pick it up. I bought all new track, about three times as much as we had before. Lindquist found three or four cars with the right kind of hitch.

During a pack trip last summer, Ed mentioned that he and his family would be returning at Christmas. I decided to surprise him by having the train running when he arrived at our house. His sons and daughter never knew it existed, or the story behind it.

A couple of weeks ago, I assembled the pieces of track and mounted them to a piece of plywood. I covered the area inside the tracks with white felt to give it that wintry look. I arranged a Main Street out of some clay buildings I made during a college pottery class. They're supposed look like buildings from the eastern Sierra ghost town of Bodie, or at least that's what I intended them to be. Clearly, pottery never would be a career option.

Tuesday evening, Ed and his family arrived at my home. He walked in and saw the train making its way around the track. He did a double take.

"Is that ... ?"

Yep.

"It's got to be about 50 years old," he said. He always was good at math.

Yep.

An all-but-forgotten electric train that is back on track made a couple of 50-somethings feel like kids again.

Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at 578-2383 or jjardine@modbee.com

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