Toy Trains

Pat and Joe Cahalan at ages 14 and 10

February / March 2014

An excerpt from the memoir “Tipperary to Tibet,” a collection of Irish stories by Joseph M. Cahalan.

It had all the earmarks of a classic sibling rivalry. My sister, Pat – or Patsy as she was called until adolescence – was born four years earlier than me and had our parents all to herself for those early formative years. When I came along, things changed dramatically in all the usual ways. She had to learn to share Mom and Dad. The new baby received disproportionate attention. And, to add insult to injury, she was expected to help care for me as well.

So you would expect some rivalry, some jealousy, some acting out.  And indeed, there is one often-told family story. When I was about one and a half years old, my mother put me outside in a playpen in the shade of the old crab apple tree in the garden. Patsy was asked to keep an eye on me. Within minutes, she was in the house reporting that I had taken my diaper off and was standing naked in the playpen.

This was before Pampers and Huggies when diapers were cotton and fastened by safety pins so this seemed odd. But not to worry. My mother replaced the diaper, made sure the pins were safely and securely fastened and went back in the house. Within minutes, Patsy was back to report that I had taken my diaper off once again and was standing naked in the playpen.

My mother was mystified, but again replaced the diaper, making it a little more snug and securing it with not one but two sets of safety pins. After a slightly longer interlude, Patsy was back to report that Joey, as I was called then, had done it yet again.

At that point, my mother must have been thinking of renaming me Houdini. She was beside herself, not able to make sense out of what was happening. Until, that is, a neighbor who had been watching the entire incident explained to my mother what was going on. The culprit was not Joey, but Patsy.

What’s remarkable about this incident is not that it happened, but that it is the single story I have of my sister doing something even remotely against me (never mind that she can sometimes portray a gruff exterior). She is – at her core and in her bones – a wonderfully loving and giving person.

And my confidant as well – the only person I could truly rely on to keep a secret. Our longest running one was around a Christmas gift I coveted, but thought I’d never get.

When I was ten years old and Pat fourteen, I confided that what I really wanted for Christmas was out of the family’s reach – a set of electric trains complete with a steam locomotive, caboose, milk car, tracks, tunnel, and railroad station. The cost, I figured, was prohibitive.

So I made my sister promise she wouldn’t tell a soul what I really wanted. It would be our secret and maybe, well just maybe, miracles really do happen.

In this case, there were no miracles. Christmas came and went with no toy trains in evidence. But I knew, at least, my secret desire was safe.

As you might expect, Christmas in our Irish Catholic family was special, and it was Patsy who never let us forget the holiday’s true meaning. Not very far from us was the New York Foundling Home for Children – a Catholic orphanage where hundreds of young children were cared for. Every Christmas for years, Patsy arranged for our family to “adopt” a child for the holidays. They lived with us for about a week, ate with us, slept with us, went to Church with us, and shared Christmas with us.

Usually, the children were black or Hispanic and my father would take great delight in having them shadow him at work in the office building above our apartment – a six-year-old carrying his large toolbox as my father, the super, went from office to office fixing an electrical switch or getting a stubborn desk drawer to open and close more easily. And invariably he would introduce the young lad as his own, leaving people stunned and up to their own devices to figure out what was going on.

Patsy contributed to my materialistic appreciation for Christmas as well. Having grown up in Kilnaleck and Borrisokane, our parents weren’t familiar with the concept of store-bought toys. That’s where Patsy came in. I would tell her what I wanted – things like a Hopalong Cassidy outfit and six-shooter, or a pair of ice skates and a hockey stick – and she would convince Mom and Dad that these were better ideas than a new sweater or a pair of boots.

Everything except toy trains. She kept that secret as she promised and while that first Christmas came and went, my hunger for the trains did not. Yet I had accepted the fact that the nearest I would ever come to playing engineer over my own train empire was occasionally playing with Joe Andronico’s set across the street. The only two sources of such a gift would be my parents or the employees of 1 East 79th Street where we lived.

I had sworn Patsy to secrecy when it came to my parents and knew she wouldn’t violate the trust between us. The employees of the Institute of Radio Engineers were a different story. Every year they chipped in and gave us each a gift and it was usually something quite special. So I held out a modicum of hope that maybe, just maybe, Patsy had told them of my dream.

Their gift presentation took place at the office Christmas Party – a beautiful affair that took place in the enormous lobby and surrounding sitting rooms of our building, overlooking Fifth Avenue and Central Park. Uniformed bartenders mixed cocktails and waitresses passed food and music played in the background and office romances were born and people laughed and danced and sang Christmas carols.

Our family was always decked out in our finest – Mom in a dress fit for a wedding, Dad in his navy blue suit and crisp white shirt, Patsy in a beautiful party dress, her long hair in ringlets, and me in my trousers, blazer, shirt and tie. It was important to my parents at these events that we dressed to the nines, that we fit in, that we showed we had class.

Halfway through the party, one of the employees would go to the microphone and present my parents with a check and Patsy and I with our gifts. And they were among the finest Christmas gifts I could imagine. At eleven years old, I knew enough to know that a train set would come in a very large box, so my heart began to race when I saw my gift – about three feet high and two feet wide and wrapped in shiny silver paper with a huge red bow.

The employee making the presentation this year was Rudy Spatarello, the enormously likeable and popular manager of the in-house printing plant. He usually had a hand in planning the party and in organizing the office softball team that played in an industrial league in Central Park. In his mid-thirties, he was also the kind of guy who would know what a kid would want.

So I held my breath as Rudy began to make my gift presentation.

“And now for Joey’s gift,” he said. “We’ve got something very special… something that we hope will give you long hours of enjoyment…something I always wanted myself when I was a boy your age. Why don’t you come up here and open your Christmas present. Maybe you’ll even let me play with it a little myself!”

A big box? Something to play with? Something he wanted when he was a kid? Could it be? I opened the big box slowly, hoping against hope that I would find my trains, but fearing in the pit of my stomach that I would not.

So it was with decidedly mixed emotions that I discovered the box contained a New York Yankees baseball uniform, a new baseball glove, and a Louisville Slugger bearing the name of none other than the great Mickey Mantle. I cried when I discovered the contents. My sister grinned.

Christmas morning dawned four days later and was filled with the usual bustle and anticipation. Our large – at least it seemed large to me – Christmas tree sparkled, its base surrounded by boxes wrapped in green and red, gold and silver. A fair share of the gifts were for me. New sneakers at a time when they came in two varieties, high tops and regulars. Mine were high tops. Good. There was a new baseball “signed” by Whitey Ford, the Yankee star pitcher. Excellent. And some new clothes. Okay.

And then one big box remained – a present from my big sister Patsy. The box was heavy and hard to unwrap. Eventually I just tore the paper off. On the side of the big cardboard box were the words “American Flyer,” together with a picture of a train.

Slowly, very slowly, the reality set in. I had my toy trains. I cried and this time there was no ambivalence about the source of my tears. This time, they came from pure joy. As I explored the contents of the box, I found everything I had dreamed of – a beautiful black locomotive and red caboose, a silver mild car and a brown gravel one, dozens of feet of track, a railway station, and a card from Patsy that read simply, “To Joey, the best brother in the world. Love, Patsy.”

And what an act of love it was. My mother was quick to explain what Patsy was reluctant to take credit for. For more than a year – ever since I had shared my secret desire – Patsy had been saving the money she made from babysitting to buy the trains. My parents had offered to help, but she wouldn’t accept.

“She was on a mission,” my mother said. “This is something she wanted to do for you. It’s really quite a gift.”

Quite a gift? It’s the best Christmas gift I ever received.




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