Wednesday, December 26, 2018

I Believe in Santa Claus. And Santa Trains, too!

Until a few years ago, I didn’t know that Santa Trains were a thing. But they are; there are tons of them. Every scenic railroad and some not so scenic railroads have one.

They're simple really: add Santa Claus to a train ride, you’ve got a Santa Train.

Unlike flying, train travel is still fun; there's no TSA, no tray tables in the upright and locked position, and no possibility of sitting next to someone toting an emotional support peacock.

And who doesn’t like Santa Claus?

A couple of years ago when my brother Jim invited me along with the rest of the family to take a ride on the Western Maryland Scenic Railroad with Santa and maybe an elf or two, I had my Santa Train baptism.

That particular train—an old locomotive--chugs from Cumberland to Frostburg, Maryland. There the engine is put on a turntable and turned around to take the train back to Cumberland.

Santa, with a comely elf in tow, walks through the train ho ho ho-ing, and gladhanding, having the time of his life as he takes a day off from supervising the toy-making elves at the North Pole.

It was fun and the scenery was beautiful, but doing it once seemed like enough. Trust me, I do believe in Santa and I like trains. It just wasn’t a one plus one equals three sort of experience.

A few weeks ago Jim offered me a spot on the 2018 family Santa train trip. This version was fancier than the earlier trip. The trip was from Ashland, Virginia to Williamsburg via a private train car. Visions of Cornelius Vanderbilt danced in my head. We were moving from the minors to the bigs!

So there we were, almost the entire east-of-the-Mississippi edition of the Bryant family on a Saturday morning on a train platform in Ashland, Virginia. We were on the platform plenty early, as Bryants tend to be, though neither Amtrak nor Santa Claus ever arrive early.

The platform was crowded with lots of Moms and Dads with little kids, some in strollers.

I think we were the only family with coolers of hors d’oeuvres and champagne, and a case of beer glasses my brother purchased at the last minute in case the train didn't have enough glasses.

After what seemed like an eternity (i.e. at least 20 minutes), Santa arrived by fire truck. I’m not sure why Santa arrives just about everywhere in a fire truck, but that seems to be his thing. Surely he could come in a stretch limo, Megabus, Segway, or even a used Popemobile. (I don’t know why the Catholic church doesn’t raise a little money by selling a few…)

Once he stepped down from the firetruck, I saw that Santa’s helper wasn’t an elf, but a little boy dressed as a train conductor. He was cute, but when I see a little kid in a costume so well done nice that it makes him (or her) look like a miniature adult, I’m creeped out just a bit. I suppose this is a result of reading too many People magazine articles about Jon Benet Ramsey.

Unlike the standard-issue Santa, this one carried a staff, an accessory right out of The Ten Commandments starring Charleton Heston and Yul Brynner. Moses would have loved this particular model since it came with an attached GoPro camera. I can only imagine the viral sensation a YouTube video of parting the Red Sea would have been.

Santa's posse include an elf who made some interesting fashion choices, right down to the shoes...

...Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer, complete with blinking nose....

 ...and a couple of large bears, the American version of Japanese kabuki figure.

Santa's main squeeze was a lounge singer named Christmas Carol, a woman who probably never said, "Does this crinoline make my ass look fat?"

Since the train was so late, there was plenty of time for a quick walk through the nearby campus of Randolph-Macon University, not to be confused with the former Randolph-Macon Woman's College, which is in Lynchburg. The student union was quite handsome and, even better, there was no line in its coffee shop.

Finally our train arrived and we could get on with our day.

According to the internet, our car, named the Salisbury Beach, was a Pullman sleeper with six roomettes, four bedrooms, and six sections. It was built in 1954 for Boston and Maine Railroad for service between Concord, New Hampshire and New York City on the "State of Maine Express".  The car subsequently was assigned to first class trains throughout the United States until it was sold to the Canadian National Railway in 1966. In 1982, the car was put out to pasture, but it’s now restored and for the right amount of money, you can charter it. Santa, of course, costs extra.

We were in the “open section” of the car. We sat in the rail car equivalent of a restaurant booth—benches facing each other with a table—covered in a jolly holiday plastic tablecloth—in between. Back in the day, these booths could be converted to bunk beds.

There were lots of switches and stainless steel fittings whose purpose is still a mystery to me. Our car was the epitome of railroad technology of the 1950s, but except for the bathroom, the technology was as unfamiliar as that of a clipper ship.

In the unlikely event that we got peckish during the ride, the steward had a tray of Christmas cookies for us.

Santa and his light up staff, complete with GoPro, came by to press the flesh. He carried a chest containing a reindeer antler that you could rub for good luck, or perhaps to improve your virility. Why he thought this was a good idea is beyond me.

The ride went quickly as we enjoyed the traditional view from a train of the back of everything. Greater Richmond covered more area than I expected, and as we neared Williamsburg we went through lots of swampy forests.

When the train stopped in Williamsburg, special buses were waiting at the train station to take all the Santa Train passengers to the historic district. The everyday Amtrak passengers stayed on the train as it continued on to Newport News.

We’d already decided that as far as the historic district was concerned, it was every family for itself, so once the bus stopped near the Capitol building, we were all free to explore. We were to meet the train at 5:45 for the return trip.

My first stop was Basset Hall, the home of Williamsburg’s founding benefactor, John D Rockefeller, Jr. and his wife Abby. The docent ushered me into the tiny theatre to watch a short video about the Rockefellers—it wasn’t too long before I realized that I’d seen it on YouTube.

At the end of the video, we went over to the house; there were just two of us, I was the only one on the tour. I should have taken a photo of the docent’s nametag, since she really was topnotch. She was informative, engaging, and even humorous. She took the time to figure out what I was interested in and customized the tour on the spot to accommodate my interests.

By today’s standards Basset Hall would be a middling McMansion at 7,000-ish square feet, but compared to the Rockefellers’ usual digs, this was camping. As you might expect, the place is decorated in a 1930s Colonial Revival style. The Rockefellers were hardly minimalists. At his wife's death, Mr. Rockefeller took an inventory of the contents at Bassett Hall: it was 50 pages long.

The house reminded me of a nicer version of my grandparents’ house.

One of the most remarkable things the docent told me was that the Rockefellers would arrive in Williamsburg with only their chauffeur. Their household help consisted of a Swedish couple who lived in Basset Hall year-round. That was it. No chief of staff, no security men, no hangers on, no nothing. Today Santa, Congressmen, and even the lesser Kardashians have larger entourages.

For people of their social stature and wealth, the Rockefellers were a good approximation of just plain folks. They went to a different church in Williamsburg each week and often invited folks from church over to dinner, followed by a movie in the theatre—air conditioned!—that Mr. R had built in downtown Williamsburg.

I especially liked the dining table and bowls of plastic cream of mushroom soup representing the first course at one of the Rockefellers' holiday dinners (Yes, they have written documentation of the menu.) The pineapple salad—which reminded me of something my grandmother would have served—was ready to go on the counter in the butler’s pantry.
The tour ended in the comfortable apartment of the Swedish live-in couple. The docent explained to me that at their retirement, Mr. Rockefeller matched the Swedish couple's savings in sort of a primitive 401-k plan.

After wandering around the garden at Basset Hall, I walked to the Capitol building to learn about Colonial government. The guide there, who I think would have made a kick-ass drag queen, was great, but perhaps not quite as good as the guide at Basset Hall. Then again, he didn’t have plastic cream of mushroom soup to work with.

There were five people on the tour. Perhaps the crowd was sparse since the fife and drum corps was mustering a few blocks away at the same time.

I’ve read I don’t know how many times that visitation at historic sites is declining. Here was the proof right before my very eyes. Williamsburg in its Christmas finery used to be a hot ticket. It wasn’t the day we were there. Living history doesn’t stand a chance when competing with the trifecta of over scheduled kids, the instant gratification offered by a device screen, and the idea that history and civic education isn’t important. Argh.

After doing the Capitol, I walked into a couple of shoppes, and took a selfie in front of R. Bryant, Ltd., the traditional clothing store. I walked in, browsed, and loitered, but no one waited on me.

Instead of a crowded restaurant, I ate in the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum's café. The art museum was great, even though I lost my warm hat there. However, the lovely ladies of the museum shop let me charge my nearly dead phone behind the counter while I browsed the museum galleries. You don’t come by that customer service just anywhere.

After the museum, I went to the George Wythe House. In my memory docents showed you through the place, today you wander through on your own. It felt little forlorn without a woman in a long dress sharing the story of how Mr. Wythe was probably poisoned with arsenic by his wastrel great nephew.

I would have done the Governor’s Palace had I not lost my ticket someplace between the Wythe House and the Palace.  Apparently losing my hat at the art museum wasn’t enough! Oh well, I can go there on the next trip.

Unfortunately the axe range was closed. I could have lost some fingers to go with my lost hat and ticket. 

At the appointed hour I walked back to the train station, which had filled up with Santa train passengers tuckered out by their day in Williamsburg.

I waited outside, enjoying some peace and quiet, and attempting not to lose my gloves. 

Our Christmas elf and his co-worker in holiday merriment passed out Christmas eyeglasses to all the passengers. Lots of families wore them for photos; we’d already done our first family photo in a billion years, we weren’t going to try our luck with another.

The train was late, but that wasn’t so bad, everyone was too tired to be cranky, and on his or her best behavior.

On the ride home, we got out the champagne to celebrate my niece-in-law Marcy’s recent doctoral degree. With chilled champagne to hand out, it was easy to make friends with the family across the aisle. Yes, we appalled them just a bit, but they did their share of laughing, too.

Christmas Carol and came by to sing some carols. We couldn’t have been a less enthusiastic audience, but after some joking about which of the musical instruments she handed out could be used as sex toys (Correct answer: All of them), we were singing along enthusiastically. It was a Christmas miracle.

Soon enough, we were back in Ashland, filled with the Christmas spirit and at least a soupçon of American history.

There was still time for me to lose something else. I left my favorite fleece on the train.

But the guy who owned the railroad car mailed it back--the second miracle of the Christmas season.

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