My Uncle Pete was a telephone technician by day and a tinkerer by night. Like many young men of his generation, he had learned his skills in the Navy during WWII. After the war, he married his high-school sweetheart and started a family, eventually fathering five daughters.
Maybe it was all those female voices that drove Pete to the basement. It was dusty and dank, dimly lit and drafty — and it was always the first place I went whenever we visited his modest Baltimore home. Pete’s shop like the lair of a mad scientist, with various half-finished inventions scattered across his workbench. Those were interesting, but what I most wanted to see was the latest incarnation of Uncle Pete’s Christmas Garden.
None of his daughters were much interested in his basement madness. My father had died when I was nine and Uncle Pete reached out to me. Perhaps he needed a son as much as I needed a father.
The Christmas Garden began as a bucolic little village that Uncle Pete constructed every year beneath his Christmas tree. There were small houses, shops and a church situated around a picturesque town square. Miniature trees grew beside quiet streets scattered with a few tiny cars and trucks.
Pete had constructed everything by hand from scraps of cardboard and balsa wood, lovingly painting each structure to look like the real thing. He covered the ground with cotton batting to look like snow and sprayed the rooftops with fake snow from an aerosol can. It was quite impressive.
But what really set the whole thing off were the tiny lights Pete had wired inside of each little building. When the lights in the living room were turned off, the little Christmas village glistened and seemed to come alive.
One year, Pete apparently got bored with cute little houses and decided to add a model train to his town. And that seems to be when his genius for tinkering really began to show itself.
The Christmas Garden of 1962 was shaping up to be his best yet. Pete had modeled it after some Life magazine photos of a village in the Swiss Alps. In Pete’s version, a train track wound its way through tight switchback curves up a craggy mountain slope to the top of a peak. Only a small, 4-wheeled electric trolley could make the trip, groaning as it labored up the long incline. At the very top, the little trolley moved out onto a platform where, with a click of some hidden relays, it automatically stopped.
Then there was a whirring sound and a small cable started moving. The platform became a descending elevator, lowering the trolley slowly from the top of the mountain to the floor of the valley. Once it had arrived at the bottom, the elevator stopped and the trolley began moving again, starting its arduous journey back up the mountain. Meanwhile, the elevator reversed direction and ascended to the summit to await its next load.
It was mesmerizing. When I first saw it, Pete had not yet hidden the structure with the papier-mâché covering he would layer on to simulate the mountain slopes. He patiently explained how it all worked, the leaf-switches that pulled in the multi-contact relays, which latched closed through a feedback loop and turned on a small DC motor. He explained the more basic principles of AC and DC current, transformers and rectifiers, make- and break-contact switches. He sketched out schematics for me, showing me how to trace the path of the current from source to switch to relay to motor.
And when he was finished, he presented me with a box of electrical gadgets that I could use on my own model railroad.
That started my own tradition of setting up a model railroading Christmas Garden every Christmas. It’s not a tradition that I’ve continued as an adult, though I do still have a box filled with some of my old trains. My son and I enjoyed playing with them when he was young.
A boy needs a relationship with an adult male. I’m not sure it has to be a traditional father/son relationship — obviously, that’s the ideal. But what a boy really needs is to be on a man’s radar screen. He needs to know that he matters to another man. He needs a man to stimulate his mind and open the doors to the secret knowledge of adults.
Uncle Pete did that for me. I wrote letters to him describing my latest projects and the technical problems I was encountering. He took my letters seriously and wrote back, offering suggestions and encouragement. It was a remarkable thing when I think about it. He worked long hours to keep his family of seven warm and fed, but he found the time to answer my letters.
We know that many young men today are growing up without fathers. All the research tells us that it’s bad for them, and for society. Uncle Pete sowed seeds that in all probability led me to my career as a computer consultant. But more importantly, he took a risk and reached out to me. In doing so, he gave me a shot at normalcy.
Thanks, Uncle Pete.
(The photo is of a New Haven passenger train speeding by on one of my earliest Christmas gardens.)