Editor’s Note: The following was written by former Hicksville resident Dennis Visco in honor of his late father, Martin.
By Dennis Visco
I love trains. I love everything about them.
I was about 7 when my Pop took me down to the basement early Christmas morning to show me the brand new Lionel electric train set that Santa had supposedly left for me. It was complete with Plaster of Paris mountains and tunnels that my Pop made. He also constructed small towns and villages with traffic cops and mailmen and lots of townspeople that he hand painted all by himself. I don’t know how he found the time since he always worked two jobs, sometimes working through the night. I’m still amazed at how he kept this clandestine project from us, but he did.
My Pop led me to believe that Santa had done all this so he didn’t really receive the credit he deserved, yet he seemed ecstatic just watching me. Perhaps just watching me was his Christmas present.
I can easily recall the exact moment when the toy locomotive raced around the curved track, in and out of tunnels, with a loud whistle and imitation steam almost like a real train. My Mom and Pop stood there watching me in my Davey Crockett flannel pajamas, my eyes aglow and my heart pounding much like a locomotive engine going faster and faster while its passengers waved frantically goodbye.
In later years, my Pop built even bigger and better train sets. One of them ran the entire length of the house. Many of my friends and some of their Dads would come over and ask permission to go down into our basement to witness my Pop, the engineer and his wonder railroad.
Occasionally, kids in the neighborhood would fight over whose dad was stronger or whose was better. It sounds silly now but I remember how confident I felt that, in my opinion, no one’s dad could even come close to mine. After all, my dad drove a train all day and then drove a train when he came home. He had also been in the Navy and helped win WWII. He was a full time dad and a full time engineer. No one came close, with the possible exception of Billy Connolly’s dad, who was a policeman and shot bad guys. Okay, he was cool too, but he needed a train to get to work.
On several occasions, Pop would take me to work with him and sometimes I would bring a friend. We would walk through all the empty passenger cars like ghosts. We’d follow my Pop to the engine where we would listen to train stories. He would then explain all about the buttons and the lights in the engine and how each one meant something. Once, I grabbed a handle while simultaneously asking, “What’s this?” It was an emergency siren and my Pop was not at all pleased, but since he didn’t get fired we all laughed about it weeks later over dinner.
One time during my visit to my Pop’s train we would have to walk across the rails in the dark sooty tunnels. It was really scary but my Pop carried me. He had already warned us about the “third rail” and how you could get electrocuted to death if you weren’t careful. As he carried me through the tunnel and over the third rail it never occurred to me that he could have slipped and we both could have ended up on the front page of The New York Post. It never occurred to me because he was my Pop and he was invincible, or at least that was what I knew then.
As I grew older I found myself loving trains more and more despite the fact that my Pop retired and didn’t work as an engineer any longer, nor did he play engineer in the basement. Nevertheless, I would always visit train museums and old railroads and take pictures and videos of trains to show him. I would boast to railroad buffs about my Pop and tell them some of the train stories he told me.
My Pop smiled several times on the day marking his 69th birthday. I could tell he was pleased that we were all with him, but he was tired and no longer able to tell any train stories. He knew he couldn’t be invincible much longer and so did I. We stayed with him until his birthday was over and left at midnight. About four hours after we left him, he left us.
Two days later, while waiting first in line at a railroad crossing in the eight degree Long Island freeze, I waved to the man driving the old diesel engine. This was something I’ve always done ever since I started loving trains. The engine moved by very slowly with the engineer looking out and waving back, just like they always did.