Oak Bay’s Spencer Manning was five years old in 1954 when his parents gave him a Lionel electric train for Christmas.
“It got set up in its own room in the basement. Over our childhood years, my younger brother and I spent untold hours in that room,” Manning recalls. “We made tunnels and bridges for the train; we made cranes to lift things onto it; we crafted roads on the old door it was on and ran toy cars on them; and we devised innumerable uses for each of the train cars. Most lasted no more than a few days.
“Every day was different, requiring new thought, new construction and new execution,” Manning says.
The boys grew up, mom and dad moved from the family home, and then moved again, and Manning left Alberta for B.C.
“Now and then I thought about the train, but assumed it had been lost or given away in one of the moves. How I began to wish that I had kept track of it,” he says.
“In 1981, I got married in Victoria and took my bride, Kathleen, to our old family cottage near Edmonton for our honeymoon. In the rafters above one of the bedrooms I discovered a box which had probably been there untouched for 20 years. To my great surprised and delight, it contained my old train.
“After my younger brother and I had outgrown the train, my wise old mom did not dispose of it, but packed it in a box and simply put it away. I’ll always be indebted to her for that. Despite the hundreds of hours it had been used over the years, it still worked. A new wife and my old train, what more could I have asked for?” Manning reflects.
“When our three children came along, Kathleen and I devised a use for the train at Christmas by putting it on an old door on the floor of our living room. The Christmas tree stood in the middle of the door and the train travelled around it. My kids enjoyed it almost as much as I did. My Christmas train was back in action.
“We began having our Christmas dinner on Boxing Day. First it was just family, but as the years went by, the numbers increased as we started inviting a few friends – primarily those without children who were alone at Christmas. It got to the point that we had to put two tables together in the dining room.”
The increasing numbers also meant the train was vying for space with valuable seating room.
“In a very clever act of negotiation (for which I did not hold much hope), I offered to move the train out of the living room if I could put it on the dinner table. To my surprise, Kathleen agreed,” Manning says.
“I built a new track, custom designed to fit the configuration of the two joined dining tables. Our guests now number about 15 and the track runs in front of all of them. The train has been put to work. Under the charge of the chosen engineer, it delivers salt and pepper, buns, butter, cranberry sauce and anything else which may come to mind.
“Everybody loves it.
“We will never forget one Christmas dinner several years ago which included 96-year-old Ernie and his girlfriend, 94-year-old Renee. We knew Renee as a quiet and reserved guest with impeccable manners. She was so small, she sat on two pillows at the table. At one point during dinner, the train struggled by Renee with an extra heavy load. As the train went by, Renee clenched her fist and shouted ‘Come on baby, you can make it.’
“We all laughed so hard she nearly fell off her pillows.
“So my old train continues to be a big part of Christmas, just as it was when I got it 60 years ago.”