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The following articles and photographs are provided by member Clem Clement. Click on any of the thumbnail photographs to see the full size pictures (this will take a few seconds longer to download). Use your browsers Back Button to return to this page. Enjoy!
Shuttin Off The Trains
Over the years, I have heard about the task of "Shuttin off the Trains." I have always been busy, or had a feeble excuse not to suit up at 10 PM and struggle to get into Washington DC and do what ever the tasks are. And to get home cold and late. Well, spank me hard, for I have missed a wonderful opportunity.
In talking to Thom McKinney and Bill Bushmeyer of the National Capital Trackers, I was invited to shut down the trains. I'm so sorry I haven't gone before. Thom picked me up assuring I was bundled up with long johns, heavy shirts hat and gloves. He had his niece Kaitland with us and we entered the city around 10: PM on Saturday night. The city was winding down from Saturday night activities and the traffic was minimal. We were just another car in the line of traffic till we turned into the special gate at the Ellipse. Security is so tight now as we are at war. Men and women serving this great country, at the ready for any silliness to our National Buildings and grounds. But once we cleared that entryway and our credentials were accepted, we were THE TRAIN PEOPLE. With our identifications, we were most welcomed.
The National Christmas Tree is stunning from a distance and and more special as we got closer. Thom parked in the Park Service area and we approached the scene as any other tourist. There was a quiet crowd of about 500 folks of all colors and languages enjoying the chilly and breezy night. Probably the must magical part for me: Our country is at war, lights were still on in office buildings as leaders and staffers work the monumental problems besetting the greatest nation ever in the world. Yet outside on the ellipse, the tree shone so brightly that you couldn't help but feel that peace and fairness will soon return to the world. Even the newly shined Washington monument seemed to wink her aviation lights in friendship.
We walked to the 53 trees circle surrounding the Christmas tree and all were ablaze with lights. Each State, territory and DC tree is the same size and not permanent. The big tree is alive and has been there since the mid eighties. Each State tree is decorated exactly the same with lights and shinnies and plastic spheres about the size of a grapefruit. These are very special. Inside the globe, the decoration was made by the children of that particular state. I saw origami, beards and all manor of special ornaments hand made. Imagine the joy of coming to Washington and finding your little ornament in one of the globes. They are sealed to keep the rain and snow off the decoration and swing cheerfully in the breeze. And always the glow of the main tree shines over all. She is netted in green lights (about a bizillion) and covered with lit wreaths. All are in awe of her stature. And on the top a wrapped and lit present (I think that is what it is). Even the leashed dogs seem to sense something neat. We walked around the tree outside the protecting fence and Thom said, notice we are just one of the crowd and nothing more. Then we entered the train area and suddenly we were THE TRAIN PEOPLE. Lots of questions and interest about the trains and everything about the scene.
Did I mention the trains? I kinda expected a few running or maybe a circle or two. Golly seems like over a hundred pieces of G gauge. Two loops circled the tree at it's base. One loop circled the outside near the fence and the B&O streamliner was running hard on schedule. Several villages were set up and an over and under setup was managing a freight consist working hard to make deliveries. Several other loops trace thru villages and grassland. The trains run morning to night with out supervision. The Park Service people will try and fix something if it stops, but that is no their duty. We found the metroliner on her side and a General type train had met an 18 wheeler at the crossing. The wind and the odds had caught up with these trains. We righted them to the cheers of the watchers. We also attend to some buildings bothered by the wind and Kaitland chased up the church steeple and reset it. My trains run for ten minutes or so and crash, but these run from morning to night with minimal problems. And the faces of the watchers were so intent and interested in seeing us fulfill our tasks. Oh, also a windmill had taken a dive in the night air.
We finished setting things right and went around to enjoy the rest of the display. Again we were just another group in the crowd. The Creshe is beautiful and reminds us all of what Christmas is all about. Then to the Yule log. I didn't know about that display. They have a deep pit with huge tree trunks ablaze. A tradition from way before Christendom started by the Norse. It was so warm and inviting to watch the flames dance and the sparks fly. There just hasta be Peace.
And then Thom said it is time - the magic is over. We reentered the train area. And sadly shot down each train. The trains used to have to be carried to a shed for night protection, but not any more. They just stop in place. Thom is constructing snow sheds for them so at least the locos can park inside and be protected. So quickly quietness and emptiness descends on the scene. The visitors are ushered out of the area, the pups head home with their masters, the tree goes dark, the White House facade lights go dark and we are thanked and depart. THE TRAIN PEOPLE have finished and the Park Service folks say they can go home to their families (Our US Park Service folks are the greatest and give so much for us in this country). Oh so quickly we depart with a wave and the scene morfs into darkness-till the morning light and a new day for the world, Washington, DC, the Christmas Tree and the Trains.
Startin Up The Trains
Another unexpected and great pleasure has occurred. I got to start up the trains. From my previous article on "Shuttin Down the Trains," I figured I needed to try the start up procedure. Jack Frost was kind enough to let me tag along and again it was a special time.
We arrived at the gentlemanly hour of 10:30 am and passed thru the very tight security. Once properly identified and inside, the Park people were glad to see THE TRAIN PEOPLE. Daytime is so different. Night is the same as day except you can't see. Now you can see all the wires and hooks. We policed up the area of the usual: cigarette butts, trash, baby gloves, a watch and money. (And the government has plenty of trash cans around.) We righted several people and two cows, fixed a errant steeple and chased those lightweight grave stones from the model cemetery. It was a grey day with a fair wind. No crowd as the ellipse and the tree doesn't open till 11:00 AM. A few folks began to line up as the clock approached eleven.
The Park Service folks are so nice to talk to and surely enjoy the trains. Of course as you know me, I hadda ask a bizilion questions as I thought I knew a bit about trees. Silly me. The tree can't be lit 24X7. Know why? The heat and light screws up the transpiration process. The tree thinks it is summer and should be growing instead of hunkering down and resting for the winter. As it is they have to water the tree during dry spells in the summer. They lost several trees over the years and have come to understand that they must baby the tree. So no lights during the day. Also there is a steel rod inserted in the ground near the trunk to hold the weight of the extension cords. Over a thousand I understand. The top of the shaft secures a net over the tree. This net hold the tree still and keeps the lights from falling inside the tree. Then the strings of light are placed on the tree outside the net. Then the wreaths and special lights. Orange is the color this year and the topknot is a star, not a package, as I reported earlier. The tree is held tight by all the strings of lights and netting. Anyway it takes weeks to get the beautiful tree ready for the annual show. And on top of that it turns out the the Park Service lady had had a ride in a Model A years ago by one of my Club's members. Jack rolled his eyes- Clem and his flappin jaw learns all kinds of neat stuff. So we were doubly welcome.
It is now past eleven and the kids are pouring in. Field trips from everywhere coming to see the tree and the trains and the White House. And the hollering about "Look it's THE TRAIN PEOPLE." Such excitement is either because it is Christmas or because a day outa class is a joyous day no matter where you go.
Now to the trains: we started each up separately and checked to see that they were happy and ready for another day. Some squeaking and squawking in the chilly air. I got to do several of the 8 loops of trains. Bill Frank arrived about this time. The trains and buildings are his. What a wonderful gift he gives the city each year- beautiful trains and villages around the National tree. (by the by the other tree, the one that is from a different state each year, is by the Capital.)
And the kids. So many questions and so much glee on seeing the trains. And teach says "see everything, because you will have to write about it when you get back." Isn't that just like a good teacher- wanting the kids to learn sumthin on a field trip...good on her. Well there was much excitement as the trains creaked into action. We made some changes and set things amotion.
Then here comes this little boy telling of a horrendous crash about to happen. He was so concerned. We thanked him and Jack and I went separate ways around the tree to find the disaster. Everything looks fine till the boy, who followed Jack outside the fence, pointed to chewing gun on the tracks. Turned out all was not as it seemed. He had inadvertently tossed the gum on the tracks and his teacher who saw him do it and made him tell the train people about it. The gum could have ready messed up a set of gears or wheels. Jack picked it up and thanked all for telling us. The little boy was genuinely upset about the possible disaster he had started and was so relieved that the train people could rescue him and even thanked him for fessing up. Maybe his paper will have a couple of good lessons learned today.
We had a wheel on a caboose come off the track. I set it back on the track, but I did not get the couplings right, so the caboose stayed behind when the train was restarted. The kids were so delighted to see this and hollered with glee. When the train can around again, I stopped it and asked the kids which way the caboose belonged on the track --- forward or backward. They got to yell their choices and the loudest voices won. With the cabby set right, she roared off to do her duty as the last car on the train.
The yule log was ablaze. A warm and welcome sight. And the crowd enjoyed it, the crèche and the state trees as well. We could hear " here's the Kansas tree" or "Where's the Louisiana tree?" Such pleasure for all with the White House in one direction and the Washington Monument the other. Do try and get down to see Christmas and the Trains at the Ellipse. We are so lucky to live so close. If I had to choose, I like the night scene better, with the hushed stillness and moon's mystique, but both are stunning.