Sam Boyd’s eyes got big after sundown Thursday when a train called the Sonora Area Foundation Polar Express for Tuolumne County Children lurched out of the station at Railtown 1897 State Historic Park.
“I like all the cars going to the North Pole,” 5-year-old Sam said in his reindeer-patterned pajamas.
Sam was riding in Passenger Car 12, a rickety relic made back in the 1920s, under an arched ceiling swaying back and forth with pastel lamp glow from dim light fixtures and glitter from ice-jeweled lights and light purple ribbons.
Piped-in tunes from the 1940s, 1950s and early 1960s – including “Here Comes Santa Claus” cooed by the Andrews Sisters, “Better Watch Out, Better Not Cry” by Bing Crosby, “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire” by Nat King Cole and “Have a Holly Jolly Christmas” by Burl Ives – plus a cacophony of tinkling sleigh bells and clapping, singing volunteers transformed Car 12 into rolling riot of giggling, shouting youngsters and parents in their jammies.
Sam’s mom, Davanie Boyd, said Sam had been on the Polar Express train before, most recently with his brothers, ages 8, 11 and 13. Thursday was a special day, though, for little ones 5 and under only.
Sam kept his eyes glued to the windows at times and at one point took the initiative to stand up and unlatch the upper glass so he could stand and poke his head outside. He clutched a red-and-white-striped blanket and gazed up at the silver moon and silver clouds in a dark sky, at skeletons of leafless trees, and at dim lights from people’s backyards as the Polar Express creaked and screeched and hissed on its clanking journey.
Erika Goldson brought her 19-month-old daughter Charlotte and Kaitlynn Johansen brought her daughters Harper, 3, and Paislee, 4 months. Harper wore a Minnie Mouse bathrobe and enjoyed standing at a window of Car 12 when the Polar Express reached its destination, decorated with gifts and lights and crowded with present-wrapping, Teddy bear-hugging elves.
Sam left his seat to share his Polar Express book with a reporter on the train. Later, he turned the pages slowly in time with a recording of a man reading the short story aloud to everyone on the tinsel-lighted train.
Lin Freer with the Sonora Area Foundation says this year is the third or fourth year her group has donated $15,000 to Railtown to help fund the Polar Express for Tuolumne County Children. They distributed fliers at preschools, paid for advertising in this newspaper, made public service announcements on local radio, and promoted on their Facebook page to get 188 age-eligible applicants.
Then they drew names from a box to pare the number down to 114 lucky youngsters. Freer said she was expecting 114 children plus 3 “laptop” size toddlers and 114 adults for Thursday night’s Polar Express.
Volunteers dressed like chefs brought out paper cups of hot chocolate and plastic-wrapped snickerdoodle cookies. Volunteer Jeannie Teschke of Jamestown said they had about 350 cups of cocoa and 350 snickerdoodles to hand out on Thursday night’s train.
Tommy Johnson, 84, of Sonora, was conductor and he sported silver hair with his dark blue, silver-buttoned uniform, a vintage conductor’s lamp on his elbow, and a 1951 B.W. Raymond pocket watch.
When Sam asked for a photo with Tommy it was hard to tell who was smiling bigger and broader for the camera.
A bit later Sam’s train ticket flitted away in the wind outside so his mom gave him her ticket in its place. Then Santa Claus came through Car 12 handing out real, jingling sleigh bells with leather tassels and Sam asked Santa if he could get three extra bells for his older brothers. Santa obliged and Sam told his mom he believes Santa will bring him back his train ticket on Christmas Day.
Unseen by most Thursday was Sierra Railway diesel locomotive 1265, a former warhorse made in 1955 that operated as a yard switcher at the old Riverbank Army Ammunition Plant before it came to Railtown in 1982. Old 1265 pushed the Polar Express out to the North Pole and pulled the giddy, grateful trainful of revelers back.