Christmas Eve... The great Rolling Stock Hall of the Railroad Museum was cold, dark, and silent as Joe completed the first of his nightly rounds.
Nothing colder than the cold steel of silent locomotives resting on untraveled track, he thought sadly as he sat down at his makeshift desk and rummaged in his lunch box for a snack. Outside, in the train yard where many more locomotives and cars stood silent, it would be even colder when the wind began to blow.
Earlier, in the afternoon, when all the kids were there for a special celebration, the museum had been a warm and happy place. As he had predicted, most of the youngsters seemed particularly thrilled by the steam engines, but his gloom deepened when he reminded himself that none of the kids had ever actually seen a locomotive running out on the main line. A short ride on the Strasburg Rail Road was about as close as most of them had ever come to the real thing.
Too bad, he thought, they hadn't been allowed to go out to the train yard where the good engines were. Not that there was anything wrong with the indoor engines. They had all seen their day in the sun, like the mighty GG1. Even though it wasn't a steam engine, it was still a real beauty. But who could compare any of the inside locomotives with the Pennsy K4 out there in the yard. Now there was an engine! One of only two remaining out of more than 400.
Yes sir, that old K4 sure set the standard for the "Standard Railroad of the World." In fact, he could have sworn that he actually heard that big brass bell on top of old 3750 trying to summon the kids to the yard at dusk when they were getting ready to go home. But he figured that was just one more trick of advancing years. Imaginary engine bells. Too bad those kids didn't know what they were missing.
Work as the Museum's night watchman was kind of dull when you got right down to it, but at least it gave him lots of time to reflect on the days when he'd had a real job on the Pennsy. Lowering the light a bit and turning up the little heater at his feet, Joe settled back in his chair. Yeah, he mused, kids probably could care less that 3750 had been passed off as 1737 -- the first K4 built back in 1914 - when she arrived at the Museum bearing the old number plate, the only thing left of 1737. To kids, they probably all look alike. Too bad, too bad.
Despite the little heater, he shivered in the cold and pulled his old coat a little tighter around his shoulders. He remembered the roundhouse where he had spent so many happy hours. A welcoming warm place it was on those long winter evenings, the engines, fires banked for the night, quietly throbbing like giant cats purring by a cheery fire.
Joe recalled the many times he'd had to work the Christmas Eve shift. Tilting back in his chair, he remembered one Christmas Eve when he climbed up in the cab of a K4 and pretended he was the engineer out on the main line, driving a Christmas Special full of toys for all the kids in town.
How he loved kids, all kids, his own now long grown and gone from home. He missed them now. In the quiet of the looming hall, his mind was at peace with thoughts of Christmas, children, and the trains. It seemed then that it should have gone on forever, the majesty of those great iron creations that had served so well. . .
Oh, he dreamed, what a wonderful world it had been then...
Old 3750 was an engine of joy, rolling down one of the four parallel tracks that formed the Great Broad Way, hauling a single P70 coach crammed full of Christmas goodies for children, bell and whistle calling to kids along the way. Elflike figures in the coach were busy wrapping gifts as the special roared through the night, steaming, vibrating, thundering along, spilling not coal from its rocking tender but candy! Candy canes, chocolate drops, sugarplums, and all kinds of other sweet morsels.
The engine's pounding pistons drove it faster and faster, until it seemed to leap from the tracks and soar into the sky, far above the neat farms and cozy homes of the Pennsylvania countryside, like a giant sleigh! Children remembered seeing a Santa that night who was covered with coal soot and muttered something about keeping on schedule.
Somewhere west of Harrisburg, a sleepy tower man thought his signals were acting up. He could have sworn he saw an E7, Pennsy's first passenger diesel, now long gone except for one on display back in Strasburg.
Or was it? Could that have been it, racing toward Detroit, back on its old run again, looking for its missing number plate, 5901?