This is also not the definitive piece on my relationship with my father.
My Father, Trains, and the Soap Crayon
If you knew Larry McNeil, you knew he had a love of trains. Well, toy trains. I guess the proper term is scale model trains, but if they truly are something more than toys – and ones that require an immense amount of set-up and can only be played within a type of circle – I have been unable to realize it. He was an O-Gauge and Lionel train enthusiast, though he was never one to restrict his enthusiasms. He had big, powerful, and (by the time I came on the scene) old trains that made an appearance around Christmas time. He eventually built a train board, but given his love of trains and surprisingly superior skills with all varieties of tools, it really was an oddly sparse and sad board; there was a single switch from the main circle that could allow the train to run up and down a series of low trestles (and no serious length of train could take this route). On the other hand, it sat underneath a plastic Christmas tree and needed space to allow for presents. And it did work.
At his home in Colorado, he took this many steps farther. He set up the walls – and ledges built into them – to serve as a more complete train board. Trains would appear from holes in the wall, chug along the ledges, and disappear once more. The tracks would always be visible; they would shout that the man who made this house his home was the kind who took his hobbies quite seriously. The average man would not cut holes in his walls or rework those walls so as to allow the tracks, and only the most committed would undertake the challenge of wiring up that system. It is not something so out there as the rooms given over just to the little metal and plastic toys as can be seen on I Love Toy Trains. I have a feeling that it was meant, in some small way, to create a sense of festiveness that he associated with the trains.
In Colorado, however, those same trains didn't really run. The tracks didn't quite line up with where the cutouts had been placed in the wall. There were innumerable problems with the wiring. He ran the trains a handful of times, never without complication. Then he put them away, leaving the tracks and holes in place as a permanent reminder of both the promise of seeing a model train come powering along the walls of the basement and the reality of unrealized aspiration and potential.
My father never lost his love of those trains. His children – my brother Brett and me – also developed an interest in trains. I made the mistake of favoring HO trains. Joke trains. Little plastic monstrosities that are to toy trains what Duplo blocks are to Erector sets. No serious enthusiast gets involved with HO trains, or so I came to believe.
My brother made the better choice, all around really, of getting involved with N scale trains. We had already seen what could be done with train boards for N scale – Andy Pempek built a miniature city complete with switching yards, a passenger depot, and little California suburban homes sitting on a hill in one corner. The detail on the trains seemed so much more impressive because they were so small. Unlike the perpetually uncool HO scale trains, N scale didn't package up discount sets that would become last minute Christmas gifts. N scale was for serious people. My father may have paid some degree of attention to my HO interest – we picked out an engine that was supposed to puff smoke, but through an improper application of the oil that allowed for said puffing we burnt out the motor instead – but he was full bore into helping my brother bring about an N scale collection.
It was Christmas morning – I don't rightly remember which year, whether I was seven or eight – and my brother and I had somehow managed to not go thundering downstairs as soon as consciousness entered our little minds. We showed some small amount of restraint. With bated breath, we listened for the first signs of stirring from our parents' room. It wasn't just that we had been admonished for past Christmas mornings where we tore through our presents at an unreasonable pre-dawn hour; we had come to appreciate that half the joy (maybe not half, but some) in getting presents was seeing the pleasure in the eyes of the person doing the giving. Our parents' may have still labeled presents as being from Santa – actually, my mother continues that conceit to this day – but we knew who they were from. After what seemed like an insufferable amount of time, our mother could be heard out in the hallway. We sprang from our beds and rushed down the green shag carpet covered stairs.
A minute, maybe two, later, all of us were downstairs in the family room. There were a fair amount of presents under the tree, but many of these were guaranteed to be socks and underwear. It served to counteract the toys we received the night before at the greater McNeil Family Christmas Eve party. The best bellwether of what awaited us would be in our stockings. We were a family that took Christmas seriously, which is to say that my father liked to give and be acknowledged as giving gifts. Stocking stuffers to us were not the myriad of crappy afterthoughts that are pushed nowadays. Well, they weren't supposed to be.
Brett got to his stocking first. It was stuffed full of presents, maybe ten in total. Ten! A level of jackpot never before seen in the McNeil household. He took the first one out and slowly unwrapped it, savoring being the first to open a present. His tiny little hands eventually revealed the glory of this first gift, an N scale steam locomotive engine. Our collective appetite whetted, he tore into the rest of the collection with increased speed. A diesel engine. The passenger cars that matched the diesel engine. A bright red caboose. A black oil tank car. A silver livestock car. A coal car for the steam engine; it must have shifted down when Brett brought the stocking down to begin this serious work. Another passenger car, but one fit for the steam engine. It was about as good as one could ever expect, and this was just the stocking. My father was beaming like the sun. His love of trains was intersecting with his son's interest in trains. It was shared glory, love reflected back on himself.
I sat and watched with amazement as my brother achieved what must have been perfect satisfaction for a child. He had gotten everything he wanted, and all of it up front. Everything after the stocking would be gravy. My stocking sat in my lap. It had only one present in it, but where Brett's had all been small – such is the nature of N gauge trains – this one was huge. It was bigger than my tiny little forearm. The benchmark had been set. This was an awesome Christmas and we were assured there would be no disappointments. As soon as my brother stopped fussing with his newly acquired treasure, I pulled out my single wrapped package and went to work on it. Though it speaks quite poorly of my intellect or deductive abilities, I could not divine what it was by its shape. I tore off the paper as hurriedly as I could manage. And there it was. Staring back at me.
A Soap Crayon.
A giant yellow piece of soap in the shape of a crayon. I can't be sure if it was said at the time, or shortly thereafter (or even if I imagined it much later), but my recollection was looking up to my father for some kind of explanation. How could Brett get everything he wanted and I end up with a giant piece of soap? A piece of low grade soap? And why was it in the shape of a crayon? How could my father betray the promise of this Christmas? And there he sat, beaming as proudly as he did as Brett revealed each car for his train. "Hey, wash up, Stinky."
I received a piece of soap as my only gift in my stocking. It wasn't a crayon. It wasn't a set of crayons. It wasn't a set of colored pencils. My father thought it appropriate to give his child a novelty soap for Christmas. A small child, one with no ability to appreciate the irony of the situation. To make matters worse, it was the worst kind of soap. We tried to make use of it, but it was the kind of soap that would dry out and turn hard. It could cut through our wet skin when my brother or I tried to use it when we took a bath. Further insult was added when we learned that this Soap Crayon was part of a promotional packet of give-away items my parents had received as salespeople. It cost absolutely nothing. And the Soap Crayon was the worst thing included in the assortment.
When my brother tells this story, he notes that the rest of the Christmas presents favored me. He got all of his good stuff up front. That is not how I remember it. I remember it as the Christmas of the Soap Crayon. I'm sure I got something worthwhile, but it was all obliterated by the Soap Crayon.
Years later, most likely 1994, while out shopping for gifts for the greater McNeil Family Christmas Eve – which by this point may have been happening as early as the 22nd – I happened across a set of soap crayons. A four pack. Of course, these actually worked as some sort of crayon for children in the bathtub; they had some functionality. Soap crayons! I could revisit the absolute absurdity of giving this ultimate in non-presents to my father, and publicly. There had never been any kind of apology; he stood by the decision of giving the free/worthless Soap Crayon as an actual gift. It could be addressed once and for all.
I got lucky. The soap crayons were one of the first handful of presents distributed. There was not much to distract from it. I don't know if everyone knew about the Soap Crayon Christmas; it may not have been a prominent bit of McNeil family lore, but it was not a secret. My dad unwrapped the present and looked up. "Soap crayons?" Yeah, soap crayons. The worst present ever. He smiled knowingly and quietly handed them over to the small children. It would be an appropriate gift for their age. They were happy; an extra present, and crayons on top of that. And Larry McNeil managed to avoid the stigma of being stuck with soap crayons. He remained forever free of any consequences of his actions.
And that, largely, was my relationship with my father. If you were lucky enough to share in his enthusiasms, he could be your best friend and closest ally. He wasn't fond of letting obstacles stand between him and what he wanted, and if he could further justify it by having some compatriots, so much the better. When it came to youth sports – Palos Youth Baseball (PYB) or soccer – he was there, giving his time and channeling his energies to make even the athletically challenged into contributing players. When it came to Scouts – Cub and Boy – he was more into it than my brother and I combined. But my life wasn't just full of activities for which he had his own interest. And on those accounts, I feel that he had as little trouble excusing himself from my life as he did in handing off those soap crayons. He could step off with a smile and no sense of remorse.
But I have come away with other lessons, too. While I may still throw my money away on ridiculous pastimes, I try to restrict them to ones that don't need to be packaged away and brought out only at Christmas or require cutting holes in the wall to enjoy. I have also learned to go beyond the simple and easy parts of a relationship where agreement on the trivial can prevent any level of compromise or understanding. Most importantly, I have learned to not give shitty Christmas presents – especially to children – and if I even suspect that I have, to apologize immediately and try to make amends. There is undoubtedly more to this life than seeking to satisfy one's id through the accumulation of items that speak to and make feasible one's hobbies.
It would be something if that was the lesson inherent to the Soap Crayon itself; you can get by without getting everything you want. Maybe I should view it that way. Instead, the Soap Crayon is forever a reminder that even those who love you can betray you, even in small and innocent seeming ways.