With redone Christmas garden, it's full steam ahead for fun

December 28, 1997|By Jacques Kelly

IT'S ONLY IN THE PERIOD after Dec. 25 that I can unwind. I enjoy these short days and long nights when the house is clean and cozy and the doorbell doesn't stop ringing.

Friends and neighbors show up on my porch because they know that by now the Christmas garden is ready for lookers. After all, it takes a goodly chunk of the fall to make all those little toy trains and streetcars run on schedule. And there are plenty of street lamps to burn out. And what was a green pastoral scene of farm and field last year is in the winter of 1997 an icy white ski slope.

Christmas gardening demands a lot of weekends because no matter how much advance effort you devote to construction, something always goes wrong. And that tiny disaster invariably happens when you have a ready and enthusiastic audience of 4-year-olds.

My nightmare happened about three weeks ago. The most elderly electric engine started making funny noises. Its wheels spun in useless agony. It was paralyzed on the tracks, not at all the sprinter it usually is.

I tore off to the train hospital to deposit that big green engine.

Bless the repair man. He had it fixed in a few short days.

When I went to retrieve it, he said I was lucky. It didn't need parts. Then he pulled out a 6-inch strip of greasy cotton batting that the freight express had sucked up in its gears as it encircled my new mountain resort. A strip of white fabric had fallen off the mountain from the ski slope that went in this year.

It was a little mishap. Let's just say the train was delayed by falling snow.

Christmas gardens are worth their mountain paper and sawdust grass if something doesn't go wrong.

We had a tradition in our family that each year the Christmas garden design was new -- always the same, in one sense, but with some fresh feature. (We tried live goldfish and turtles in 1953 but never again. Too many floods, dead fish and escaped amphibians.)

I don't have the time to change the entire layout each year (besides, I like to run the trains in July), but I can add to it.

So earlier this fall, a new board went up adjacent to the old tables. I decided that what I needed was a miniature version of Baltimore's harbor with the Domino sugar plant and the watercraft of the Chesapeake region.

I got the idea that if I ran steam locomotives, I should have some steamboats, too. After all, wasn't my grandfather's brother, Uncle Will Kelly, the chief engineer on the City of Norfolk?

You don't exactly pull a Light Street steamboat off the shelves of the neighborhood hobby shop, so I called up my friend Joe Walters in Parkville. He's a retired Waverly postman who translates my ideas into wood, sheet metal and paint.

I asked for one steamboat, but he supplied four side-wheelers -- each duly named for my four sisters -- the Ellen Cora, the Mary Stewart, the Ann Rose and the Josephine.

Joe supplied each shipping line and its colors, too. There's a Tolchester Line, a White Star Line (after all, this is the year of the Titanic), the Oriole Line (orange and black, of course) and the Kelly Line, white and emerald green.

His son Donald consulted the family album for snapshots of what people wore on an outing in the era when people dressed for a summertime excursion down the bay. It doesn't matter that the ladies in white dresses and the men in straw hats are but 12 feet (Pimlico Race Course and Park Heights Avenue are in the middle) away from the ski slopes that can stop a train.

In keeping with the make-believe theme, the rules of air pollution have been eased in my cellar. This year, I'm running a new Pennsy steam locomotive with a smoke machine worthy of the burning of Rome. It serves a true educational purpose. You can see why the clean air act was drafted.

In a Christmas garden, the best of all worlds are possible. Time knows no boundaries and there is always a matinee at the Avalon theater. Everyone's a winner at Pimlico and the steamboat is ready to leave for Tolchester.

And, occasionally, the trains run on time.

Pub Date: 12/28/97

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