Christmas Eve, 1954.
Billy sat at the kitchen table with mom, dad, and little sis. The family was sharing some of his mother"s wonderful, mint-seasoned hot chocolate. It was Christmas Eve, and little sis was fidgety, thinking about the fine gifts Santa Claus would leave. Billy was a bit old for Santa, but he played along. Mom and dad were calm and happy.
"Care for a warm-up, Billy?" his mother asked.
"Yes, please, mom." Billy responded. His mother took the mug and filled it with more steaming chocolate, and added some mint. "Mom, can I go outside for a little while?"
"Of course, son," she said. "But bundle up. It is very cold."
"Want some company, son?" his dad asked.
Billy and his father put on boots, gloves, ski cap, and heavy coat and stepped out of the front door of the family farmhouse into a bitterly cold Wisconsin night. He and his father left Mom and little sis sitting at the kitchen table and drinking their hot chocolate.
New snow blanketed the farm. The night was clear and cold. The moon was large, round, and silver-white. It"s reflection on the snow made the night very bright. The stars twinkled like fine gold and silver specks in the night sky. Billy took a sip of his chocolate and leaned against the old oak in the front of the yard, he and his father gazing across the road in front of the farmhouse and sipping their steamy drinks.
Billy thought about Christmas day. He and dad would awaken early tomorrow. The cows had to be milked, and the livestock had to be fed. Mom would cook them a hearty breakfast to eat after they had tended the farm. Next it was Sunday-best suit time and off to church. After church, they would head back home. Sis would be a bundle of energy. They would change clothes and load the family car with gifts to be distributed. They would head to Grandma and Grandpa"s place for Christmas dinner. Dinner would be turkey with all of the trimmings. And Billy grinned; he would give and receive gifts from the various cousins and such that would be at Grandma"s celebrating Christmas.
Billy heard the double-chimed baritone of the air horn before he ever saw the train. Then he saw the twin headlights flicker. The lead diesel electric locomotive started in the turn, and the headlights steadied. The horn sounded again, and the train straightened out, running parallel to the road in front of the farm. Billy would, as usual, see the train broadside. He could see that three EMD F7"s in an A-B-A hookup was pulling it.
"It"s the Christmas Eve run of the Empire Builder, son," his dad said.
"Grandpa"s old train?"
"Yes, son. But in Grandpa"s day, it was pulled by steam. Now, we have the diesels." Here his father sipped some more chocolate. "It will be about twelve cars or so tonight. Mostly sleepers, a few coaches, and a dining car."
"No mail cars?" Billy asked.
"No, no mail tonight," his dad said. "Just folks hurrying home for the holiday. Seems like the Empire Builder has been running forever on the Great Northern, and the route has never changed. Chicago, via the Twin Cities, to Seattle."
Billy and his dad watched as the three stainless-steel diesels, pulling matching cars, passed by the farm. It sparkled in the bright moonlight. The train passed the farm, and the three engines growled as it began its climb up a snow-covered hillside.
"You know, dad," Billy said, "it looks like a single strand of tinsel on a white tree."
"That it does, son, that it does."
"May God be with you, and Merry Christmas to all of you!" Billy shouted, and he lifted his mug of chocolate in a Christmas toast. He finished the drink in one gulp. He watched as the last car disappeared from view, its red lights twinkling. Then he and his dad headed back into the warm and cozy farmhouse to be with mom and sis. It was time for Christmas.