Second Chances


Certainly not colder than usual in this part of Germany in late December, but not just now, not just because of this rainy evening.  It felt like the whole year had been, well, cold.  With his jacket pulled tight against his shoulders the man shuffled briskly toward the next store awning, the next shelter from the chilly December rain. 

He couldn't remember the last time it had rained so on Christmas Eve.  Last year it has snowed, he recalled. The year before.  He could not remember.  This will *not* be a year to remember, he thought grimly. 

It seemed like forever since he hadn't worried about money, about food for his family, about their future.  Truth was, he had only been unemployed for about a year, but it seemed like so much longer.  Funny how fragile security can be, he thought, as he glanced ahead on the sidewalk, busy with holiday shoppers.   Their shoes clicked on the cobblestones, their voices light with Christmas anticipation. 

An old carol played somewhere nearby.  He strained to recall the words, but they wouldn't come.  He watched shoppers scurry out of the rain, into the next store or towards the parking garage.  The store lights danced off the wet stones, giving the street scene an unreal twinkle.  Yes, it was Christmas. With a shiver against the cold, he started ahead once again.

For the umpteenth time he reached into his pocket, feeling the fifty-Deutschmark-bill hidden there.  Fifty Marks!  That was all they could afford this Christmas!  A meager fifty DM to buy some Christmas cheer for his twelve-year-old daughter, a son two years younger, and his wife.  Gloria had been a champ, telling him not to worry about her, but to spend every last Pfennig on something for the kids.  Still, with every window he passed, with every price tag he laid eyes upon, his heart would sink and he would sadly walk on.  Yes, this was certainly going to be a cold, long night. It was after five o'clock when the streets began to empty.  The Christmas Eve services would be starting soon, and stragglers and procrastinators were dashing home with their last minute gifts. 

He didn't mind being alone on the street.  In fact, he enjoyed the solitude.  For the past year, he had drawn further and further from his family and friends.  It seemed like the family spent very little time together recently, with him spending so much time working long hours at odd jobs.  When he was home, he felt too ashamed to look his wife and children in the eyes, let alone spend any quality time with them.  Television had replaced conversation, and only in its distractions did he feel he could set aside the worries and regrets that had amassed over the past year, even if for just a few hours. Next to him the store lights went out, surprising him.  He glanced at his watch.  Six o'clock.  The stores would all be closing now.  No sooner had the store light gone out when the proprietor popped through the door, hastily locked it, and scurried through the rain towards home.  Again alone, the man resumed his walk along the sidewalk.  Across the way another storefront went dark.  No problem, the magazine and tobacco store at the Hauptbahnhof would be open late.  A sports magazine for his son, perhaps one of those teenage-girl magazines for Sophia - he would probably have enough left to pick up something for his wife.  Heck, he might even treat himself to a hot cup of coffee.

Not exactly the Christmas gifts he had anticipated. He looked up past a row of white lights strung across the roadway at the black sky above.  The rain intensity was picking up.  Still, only another twenty minutes' walk and he would be at the station.  He quickened his pace. The streets were completely deserted as he turned the corner some minutes later and headed down the Bahnhofstrasse.  The shops had long since closed, the shutters rolled down across the storefront windows. The man stopped briefly at the next intersection as a city bus, deserted but for the driver, drove past, the heavy diesel motor kicking out fumes that pierced his nostrils in the cold air. 

Ahead he saw light reflecting off the sidewalk from a storefront picture window still lit.  Perhaps the store was open, and he could spend a few precious minutes drying off and warming up in its interior.  As he approached the lighted window the man realized what the store was - the toy store where he and his kids had spent happier times. His eyes widened as he approached - A large train layout had been built in the window, a mountainous layout with high peaks, deep valleys, and perilous bridges crossing deep gorges.  Trains popped out of tunnels to cross the long spans, then disappeared into the next mountainside, only to reappear a short time later from another portal.  He stood, mesmerized, watching the trains run.  A short ICE and a container train passed on a high bridge, while down in the valley a local passenger train behind a small steam locomotive rolled past a circus, complete with lights, rotating carousel, bumper cars, and other attractions.  At the higher elevations snow had been applied, and a gondola slowly worked its way up and down the mountainside. A Swiss train rolled into view, stopped briefly at the mountain station, and disappeared into the next tunnel. The man thought warmly back to his childhood, when trains would be set up around the Christmas tree and throughout the room, when his parents and his two brothers would join him in running the trains for hours.  Sometimes they would switch off, running freight trains or passenger trains, blasting through the station or rolling gently to a stop.  Then they would pull apart a section of track, relaying the pieces to form a new, exciting route for their trains to ply.  Those Christmas layouts had really been something!  A few years ago he had considered rekindling his love of model trains, but had not done so. There always seemed to be something more worthwhile to do with the money- a new VCR, some new video games.  Still, those memories of running the trains remained so vivid, so comforting.  A blue switcher appeared on the layout in the window, similar, the man noted, to one owned by his brother many, many years ago.  He chuckled, remembering the "race" he and his brother had staged on their tabletop layout, when his brother's blue engine had tumbled to the floor after jumping out of a curve.  Their father had scolded them mercilessly when he found the engine with its railings bent out of shape and the blue housing scuffed and chipped!  Unconsciously the man began making chuff-chuff sounds at the display in the window, watching a long string of freight cars work its way up a mountainside behind a tough-looking steam engine.  "Woo-woo!" he called, as the engine entered a long tunnel.  For a moment his heart felt lighter, his problems not insurmountable and, if for but a second, the warmth of the Holidays filled his body.

Something moved out of the corner of his eye, and when the man turned he jumped in surprise, as an elderly man had appeared next to him at the window.

"Pretty trains, aren't they?" the elderly gentleman commented, "Do you like the way I decorated the window this year?"

The man quickly collected himself.  "Yes, it's breathtaking.  I used to have some trains just like those, too.  I wish I had kept them."

The old man introduced himself as Gerhard, the store's owner.  Gerhard's eyes twinkled with child-like glee as he talked about his beloved trains. "Why not start a fresh collection?"  Gerhard offered, and shuffled to the door.  He returned with a large cardboard box in his arms.  "I have a private collection here that I was planning to sell.  Interested?"

The man frowned.  "I'm sorry, I'm not."

The old man persisted.  "It's all in pretty good shape.  The trains are used, but everything runs fine.  There's lots of track and even a pair of transformers.  I'd let it go for a very reasonable price, say, three hundred marks?"

The man dropped his head.  "No, thank you.  I. I think I'd better be going".

Without another word the man turned and headed down the street towards the station, head low, and hands thrust into pockets.  A train pulled into the station, now only a few hundred feet ahead.  The squeal of its brakes echoed up the deserted streets.  It was then that something delicate brushed against the man's cheek.  He looked up to find that, instead of rain, large, bright snowflakes were drifting down from the sky.  In an instant the rain had turned to snow.  The big flakes floated gently to the black, glistening cobblestones below his feet and vanished as they melted in an instant.  Awed by this sight the man began walking towards the station again, when suddenly he tripped across and very nearly fell over a large cardboard box on the sidewalk.  He instantly recognized the box as the one Gerhard had offered him.  Hastily the man picked up the box, grunting under its weight and marveling at the ease with which Gerhard had carried it earlier.  The man hastened back up the Bahnhofstrasse to the toy store.  When he arrived minutes later, the shutters had been closed across the picture window and the lights had been turned off.  The man set down the box, stepped into the entry way and rang the bell.  A woman appeared at the door.

"Ja? Can I help you?"

"Yes, is the owner., er, is Gerhard available?  I have something of his."

"Gerhard?  Gerhard Struble?"

"Yes, I suppose.  The toy store owner."

The woman frowned.  "Herr Struble and his wife passed away three years ago. Toys haven't been sold here for nearly two years."

It was the man's turn to frown.  "Perhaps his son, then?"

"The Strubles had no children.  I'm sorry, I don't mean to be rude, but we are about to start our Bescherung."

"But I saw."  The man's puzzled expression remained.  "Of course, I'm sorry to bother you."

The door closed and the man turned back to the box on the street.  He looked around to find himself again alone on the Bahnhofstrasse.  Still puzzled, he looked down at the box.  One flap had opened, and the man spotted a wad of tissue paper sitting on top of the rest of the box's contents.   Something blue peeked out of one side of the wad of tissue.  Curious, he picked up the tissue and unwrapped it.  His heart began racing, as his eyes grew wide in disbelief.

There, cupped in his hands, sat a blue switch engine, the railings bent, the housing scuffed and chipped.


It would be another hour before the man would arrive home with his treasure of trains.  It would be days before his wife would stop asking him how he came upon such a wonderful Christmas gift.  After a month of trying to understand what had transpired on that cold Christmas Eve the man would finally realize that some things are not meant to be understood.  Years later, with his children grown, his grandchildren would come to the house, and there would be those same trains, coursing around the Christmas tree. And if a particular blue switch engine happened to be going too fast and fly out of the curve, the gentle scolding by Grandpa would serve as a reminder that, like kindness and generosity, some things are truly eternal.