A Christmas train rides again

By Fr. John Girotti | Special To The Compass | December 2, 2020

I like to fix things. It’s not that I enjoy broken things, but, rather, when I see something broken or askew, I am driven to make it right again. And I am so enormously happy when something which was once in pieces is now restored back to its original form. Indeed, I have been quite busy these days.

During the “recent unpleasantness,” amidst lockdowns and masks and unbridled fear, I have begun yet another restoration. While everything around us has seemingly dissolved, I have embarked upon something new — and yet very old! I have found and restored my father’s electric train set.

When my father was but 10 years old, his parents bought him an American Flyer electric train. It had some track, a few cars, one accessory and a magnificent cast-iron locomotive. With smoke! What else could a young boy want? The set was given to him during the Christmas of 1947 and has been treasured by him his whole life. It is really the only thing left from his childhood, and he has kept it safely in its box for almost 75 years.

Rediscovering the train, I first had to take it out of the box and clean off the mildew. I set up the track and oiled the locomotive. I then read through the instructions to try and determine how this thing would actually run. Old electric trains are purely mechanical — no computers, no microchips; just wires and solenoids and brass connectors. And sparks and electric shocks, too!

With the help of a good friend, I eventually got the train running. And through the glories of the internet, I have added to the set and made a magnificent train layout — circa 1950. Everything is built out of metal, proudly made in the USA, and requiring some patience to assemble and operate. I did make lots of mistakes, but I eventually got it running. And through this restoration, I learned something.

As we come to the end of this momentous year, and as we think about where we have been and where we are going, the time has come for us to decide; are we going to wallow in fear and uncertainty for another year or are we going to pick up the pieces and begin the restoration? Our society and country looks like a gigantic anthill that has been kicked to pieces by some unseen giant. We hurt. And yet, we all individually and collectively need to begin again.

This could be a project around the house or the rediscovery of a long-lost hobby. This might be the mending of our relationships strained through distance or too much time together. Perhaps it might be rebuilding trust in our neighbor, which must overcome the fear of viral or political contagion. Most importantly, we need to restore our relationship with Jesus and his church.

We have been through a lot. But we have to pick up the pieces, dust them off, re-read the instructions and start putting things back together. Just like my father’s train! The restoration starts now. And we need God to help us — we cannot do this alone. Have we learned our lesson and decided to let God back into our lives?

After getting the train set up, with many additional locomotives, railroad cars and accessories, I invited my thoroughly octogenarian father to come and see the surprise. When he saw his train, augmented now and restored, I could see reflected in his moistened eyes that Christmas of 1947, two years after the war, living with his parents and his train going around the Christmas tree. He smiled and simply said, “My old train is new again.” Indeed it was. And so will things be for us. Jesus says, “Behold, I make all things new.” Let us begin again.

Fr. Girotti is vicar for canonical services and associate moderator of the Curia for the Diocese of Green Bay.

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