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Christmas Then and Christmas Now

Ray Blain is a retired pediatrician and medical consultant, and author of a forthcoming autobiography Becoming A Doctor; My Dreams and Nightmares.

I don't remember the exact year or my age but I remember it was the best Christmas of my childhood.

At the time our family consisted of me and four of my siblings, and my parents. I was in elementary school by then and doubting the existence of Santa. We still lived in the same two-story apartment in the Lyman Terrace housing project.

The Depression was slow to give up its grip on families like ours. My dad's income was so meager that he would wait until Christmas Eve to buy our Christmas tree so that he could bargain with the tree lot people and pay sometimes as little as 25 cents for a tree that might have sold for several dollars only a few days before.

Mom and dad would stay up after our bedtime and spend half the night decorating the tree and wrapping the gifts that Santa brought. We didn't have a fireplace for him to enter, but we had the only chimney in the area next to our apartment since the boilers that heated the complex were under the concrete floor of our abode.

The roof of the building was over the bedrooms on the second story and the chimney entrance was at least 30 feet above that roof. Santa's climb up steel bars to the top of the smoke stack and then the slide down the 50 foot interior with his sack would have been quite a thrill for the old gentleman.

That special year my older brother and I had pretended to be asleep until we knew our parents had completed their work and gone to bed exhausted. We waited an eternity longer before sneaking down the dark concrete staircase to see what bounty had arrived, By now we were used to receiving much-needed clothing as most of our gifts. Mom made every penny count. She could squeeze a nickel until the buffalo passed gas.

In the dim light, the miraculous sight of three-rail model train track circled under the tree, An "O" scale Lionel Pacific-class steam engine, tender, box car, oil tanker and red caboose sat on the track begging to be put into action. We were forbidden by my mother to open or use any of our gifts until after attending Christmas Mass. My brother an I were both altar boys but we reassured each other that God would understand our violating the rule this one special time even if mom wouldn't. The huge heavy metal transformer lay within easy reach.

My older brother clicked the switch and move the lever and the train moved forward slowly. Making sure that the path around was clear of obstructions and that the noise level would not be heard upstairs we took turns running the train, in its never ending circle, with great delight. After several hours the transformer was very warm so we decided to stop and go back to bed before we damaged anything. We also made a pact to act surprised when we "first" saw the train in the morning.


All went better than expected since we went off to church before eating breakfast or dad could show us how to run the train. This gave the transformer time to cool back to room temperature so our transgression was not uncovered. We never told our parents about our night-time train exploits during their lifetime.

Several weeks later my brother got a screwdriver and opened up the loco to see what made it work. Some lessons are more expensive than others.

While I was serving in the USAF in San Antonio I rediscovered model railroading at the base hobby facility. I built several ever-enlarging layouts over the years always learning more and dreaming bigger.

My last railroad was a combination of HO and HON3 that was 25 by 21 feet and three levels vertically. There were forty turnouts for switching to sidings, several hundred feet of two-rail track, and over a mile of telephone and other wiring. It could run both direct and alternating current trains, had dozens of scale craftsman buildings and industries which I assembled; and included small details and human figures, a five foot long curved double trestle over a fake resin river, tunnels, and background scenery that looked three-dimensional when photographed.

We had an annual holiday charity party with food in order to gather clothing and other donations for people at Loaves and Fishes and Mary House in Sacramento. My wife and friends would decorate our home with lights, collectibles and foam carved scenery and villages of miniature, lit buildings. I would run my trains in the garage for our guests and their children. It was great fun.

One day we returned from working at Loaves and Fishes to find steaming water flowing down the driveway. During the several hours we were gone, a hose on the water heater had developed a leak and hot steam damaged the railroad beyond repair.

Our first train, over 70 years ago, was a model of a steam locomotive, and steam destroyed my last model railroad about five years ago. All things good and bad eventually end. That is part of life. What counts is the joy while the good things last, and the memories that will last as long as we do.

There will be no party at our house for Loaves and Fishes this year because of COVID-19. COVID has also resulted in more homeless and poor this year. The need is greater but our ability to help has been decreased. Please help this worthy cause if you can.

Happy Holidays to All and to All a Good Life.

~ Raymond Leo Blain














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