You know what? Barrels.
It’s amazing to me, when I think about it, how much barrels had something to do with my upbringing. Some of the happiest times of my childhood had something to do with barrels, and I remember them fondly. The barrel was the menacing and relentless weapon of choice of the enraged ape Donkey Kong. It was the container of sweet, orange fluid I would drink for lunch (Little Hugs. You know what I mean). And it was the centerpiece of one of my most fondly remembered toys.
I loved trains as a kid, which would prove to be a rather dubious statement if you had seen the way I treated them back then: neglected, broken, and on the floor. Regardless, they held an endless charm for me. One of the earliest trains I remember having was a Lionel O-Scale set, and one of the features that came with it was the Barrel Loader. This, to me, represented the point of trains: to get something from one place to another.
What was in the barrels? What would become of the contents when they got there? Well, this was make-believe, so, really, it didn’t matter what was in the barrels as much as they get to where they needed to go, get offloaded, and then re-loaded onto the building for another go-round. Barrels, after all, were good things, with good, important stuff in them. Whatever the contents, what mattered was that the train and the loader-guy did their duty to get the barrels where they belonged.
The brilliance of the toy is in its design. Assembly was rather simple, and as I can recall, fairly sturdy in the hands of a six-year-old. The piece did not necessarily have to be connected to the track. The building is adorned with a number of molded decorations, such as a coil of rope, a mallet, a flight of stairs, and even a little shack that the workman “lives” in when he’s not on the clock. Though these may seem insignificant – particularly since everything is one uniform shade of red or brown – they really actually add to the pretend factor. The little bits of detail nestled into the “background” of a toy really fueled my imagination.
The key element that really makes the piece stand out in my memory is its playability. The problem with toy trains and small children is that the more elaborate the train becomes, the less kid-friendly it becomes as well. Some model trains, after all, are meant to be set up and then simply observed. The joy for certain collectors may be in arranging tracks and scenery in new and different ways, or sculpting mountain ranges and replicating towns and such, but a child’s first instinct is to get his/her hands on the thing and actually play with it, crash it into something, and cheerfully destroy its value as a collectable.
The Lionel Barrel Loader, on the other hand, clearly says “Play with me” in a sweet-natured tone. There’s a big ol’ lever right on the side of the thing that’s the perfect size for a child’s hands. The barrels are loaded into the bay up top. You then pushed the barrel down the ramp, and then, by pressing the lever, had the workman shove the barrel into a gondola car waiting on the track below. You did this as many times as you had barrels, and then you sent the train on its way.
This was a solid-red definition of simplicity, and I’m a bit astonished how easily I could fit the operation of the thing in one small paragraph. This is because I remember being fascinated by this operation, which I would perform over and over again. This wasn’t just an articulated piece of plastic that dropped plastic into a car made of plastic; it was a workplace, an early 20th century establishment of industry had a schedule to keep, a place where things needed to get done, so I had to hop to it!
I’m not sure what became of the model train industry. Oftentimes I would try to indulge in my enjoyment of the hobby, only to leave the poor things sitting broken and unused time and again. Honestly, I think Lionel, Bachmann, and the others may have gotten sick of me. Perusing different hobby and retail websites, I rarely ever see accessories that offered the interactivity that you see with the barrel loader, log loader, et cetera. Of course, I’m sure that there are plenty of enthusiasts who would disagree with me, and rightly so: The train I had was not necessarily a model train, but a children’s toy. It was meant to be touched by clumsy hands and played with. Play with it I did. And I shouldn’t be so quick to write off Lionel – they have a version of the product listed on their site, this one fully painted, and featuring and exterior light!
Old school as I am, I may just have to upgrade.