In 1929, Charles Aurand received a Lionel train set for Christmas - a green engine and a couple of railroad cars which sold for about 85 cents each. The gift started a lifelong love of model railroading that one day would fill his family's attic and then basement.
In 1959, Charles Aurand gave his son, Charles, a Lionel train set for Christmas. The 6-year-old's train was much like the gift his father received 30 years earlier. This time the engine was blue. There was also a caboose and a boxcar. The train had a military theme, and each year, young Charles received an additional car. One year it was a car carrying a rocket. The next year a car carrying a submarine. Another year it was a car carrying a helicopter.
The son, like his father, developed a lifelong love of model trains.
The two shared other passions. The elder Aurand was a pastor in Huntington, W.Va., for 35 years. His son is the pastor at the Abiding Presence Lutheran Church on Congress Street in York.
The 57-year-old Aurand has found a way to combine faith and model railroading. During the week between Christmas and New Year's Day, he displays his trains at the church. Admission to see the trains run is an item of nonperishable food. Everything collected goes to area food banks, he said, including the 14 cans of food that hold up the second level of the train layout.
Attendance and donations have been down this year, but Aurand hopes both will pick up. This is the third year he has held the train display-food donation drive at the York church. He did it previously at a church he served in Newberry.
"We hope to fill the tables with food," he said.
Faith, however, is not required for admission.
"You can come to the church and still be an atheist," Aurand said. "We won't be handing out tracts."
He sees the event as a community service, giving families something to do together between Christmas and New Year's Day. It is a chance to involve the children of the church in an event.
Most of all, it is a chance to hand out fun. Children are sometimes invited to run the trains. People who have old "O" gauge trains in boxes in garages and attics can bring them to see if they still run.
Aurand hopes some who attend these train sessions will return for other church events, that being in the house of the Lord sparks something in their heart.
For Aurand, it is a chance for the self-professed train geek to be a child again.
From boxes emerge cars and engines, trees, trestles and transformers. From other boxes come buildings, people, cars, trucks and airplanes. Strips of beige carpet are clamped to several long tables. The carpet provides a good grip for the "O" gauge, three-rail track and other accessories. Black cardboard paper is cut for roads. Light cords are hidden when possible.
Putting the display together requires some city planning skills - the villages have to look believable - some railroad engineering, large doses of imagination.
And time, about two weeks' worth to set everything up.
Aurand still has the train set he found under the Christmas tree in 1959. That set seldom comes out of the boxes for display at the church. But a 1935 Lionel train set owned by his uncle, Dean Tyson, does.
The 1935 set is made of tin plate. (Today's sets are made of plastic.) Among the cars are a boxcar carrying the Baby Ruth candy logo, a flat car carrying logs and a tanker with the Shell Oil logo.
He has a replica of the 1958 Lionel "girls" train set. Lionel, which once was the dominant name in toy trains, decided it wanted to expand its market share. Trains were the toys for boys. Lionel made a train set it hoped would appeal to girls. A steam engine was painted pink and cars in various pastel colors.
The idea bombed. So few sets were sold that the girls train set is one of the most-valued Lionel collectible.
"Model railroading is a boys thing," Aurand said. "Boys like things that move; it's a God-given thing."
Aurand will occasionally run a replica pink engine and the pastel-colored cars, but it is clear he likes trains of authentic livery - the colors and logos of the railroads that once crisscrossed this country.
A green passenger train with markings of the Southern Railroad rolls along one loop of track. Aurand notes this "Crescent" train once was the prime connection between Washington, D.C., and Charlotte and then on to New Orleans. A Santa Fe railroad passenger train with "dome" cars loops on another track. The glass dome on the car's roof allowed great views of the western scenery traveled by the Santa Fe railroad.
A freight train is so long that its caboose barely clears the intersection as its diesel engine bears down through a figure 8 loop. Among the cars on the freight train are two tanker cars, one marked "Hades Hot Sauce," and the other "Heavenly Jalapeños." Aurand is convinced there is a sermon in there somewhere.
The towns that line the tracks are as detailed as the trains.
One village features the Plasticville buildings once sold by Lionel. There is the Plasticville barn, the Plasticville TV station, WPLA, assorted stores and even a police station. Outside the Plasticville Depot, a couple is getting married. There are two very detailed hobo shacks - you can't have a railroad without hobos - and an outhouse. "Theonly thing missing is the smell," he said.
Another section of the layout features porcelain houses and buildings. A theater marquee advertises a showing of "White Christmas." There is an S&H Green Stamps redemption store, gas stations, and diners such as Skip's. Some of the houses are illuminated by LEDs that give the layout a twinkling shimmer when the overhead lights are turned off.
And yes, there is a nativity scene.
Women, often immune to the charms of the trains, like the details of the villages, he said.
After the last person has left the display, Aurand will sometimes pull up a chair and dim the lights and let the trains roll - the layout can accommodate up to six trains at a time. He listens to the clack of the train wheels, reacts to the "electric" smell of the engines and gazes at the lighted houses and buildings. It is a peaceful revelry.
"If you don't have an imagination," he said, "this hobby isn't going to work."