A Priceless Childhood Memory

telegraph-key3Larry overslept and he was running late for a very important event.  He was going to a sale, but it wasn’t just any sale.  The contents of the old railroad depot in downtown Noel were being auctioned and Larry had his mind made up that one item in particular would become a prized possession of his.  The article in question was most likely not one of any great value to anyone other than Larry.

Larry, then in his mid-30s, had lived in the small Southwest Missouri town of Noel for at least three decades.  His parents brought the family to the small southwest Missouri town which was nestled deep in the heart of the Ozarks when he was just four years of age.  His parents, at least for a time and while Larry was a child, operated a resort known as Riverside Inn.  The lodge and small grouping of cabins were located just northeast of Noel.  Tree covered bluffs rose up behind the resort and not far from the lodge’s entrance and just across a dusty road flowed the waters of Elk River.

As Larry rushed through the door and out of his home, his thoughts were suddenly carried back to the days of his childhood. He harbored many fond memories of the old railroad station which meant so much to him.  Many of the reasons were intertwined with his mother and the Christmas seasons that all children look forward to.  As Larry made the short drive to the auction site on Noel’s Main Street he recalled a time when he was ten years old.

Christmas day was approaching and for hours Larry could be found sitting on the living room floor near the Christmas tree as he scoured the family’s 1949 Montgomery Ward Christmas catalog.  Larry’s mother spent many evenings, especially during the Christmas holiday season, perusing each and every page of the thick book of wishes.

Although Noel’s Main Street was the site of several stores, the Ben Franklin Five and Dime, Harmon’s Hardware store, a gift shop that sold Ozark themed items to summer tourists, and other locally owned businesses, none could match the variety and quantity of goods offered for sale on the pages of that mail order catalog; and the pictures and glorious illustrations displayed on those pages made every item appear to be so fantastic.

There was one page in particular that captured the young boy’s attention.  That page had a picture of a Louis Marx Electric train.  Any boy lucky enough to get that locomotive, four cars, several feet of track and Marx #309 transformer, all packaged in a single and beautifully decorated box, would indeed be the luckiest boy alive.  What a Christmas it would be if Santa Claus, with the help of Larry’s mother and the Montgomery Ward catalog, would leave the train set under the family’s ornament decorated and resplendently illuminated Christmas tree.

Larry was very familiar with the process used by his mother to retrieve items ordered through the catalog.  The goods were transported to Noel on Kansas City Southern locomotive powered trains.  The trains stopped at the downtown railway station where the catalog purchases were held until the anxious buyers claimed those items.

The boy of ten loved to go to the railroad station with his mother.  The two could sometimes be seen uncomfortably seated on a hard wooden depot bench while the station attendant, Luke Stiles, searched the back room for their packages.  Occasionally, and on what were special days for the young boy, Larry and his mother would arrive at the small station only to find Stiles busy sending and receiving telegraph messages.

Larry was captivated by the tapping of Stiles’ index finger on the telegraph key.  If Larry’s wishes were to come true, his greatest delight would be to sit for hours while the telegraph operator adroitly manipulated that key.  His fascination with the process was unexplainable but none the less real.

An inquisitive child with a youthful and curious nature, Larry always seemed to have many questions, one of which was the science behind the old telegraph key’s operation.  How did the tapping of the key by Luke Stiles’ index finger send messages to faraway places?

Occasionally the curious boy would be treated to another great experience, that of a train passing directly in front of the depot.  If there were no packages to be delivered the train slowed as it passed through Noel and the conductor, while standing on one of the train car’s rear platforms, extended his bent arm and snagged a bag containing mail and railroad documents held by the railroad depot employee.  The same uniform clad conductor then tossed a sack containing mail and assorted business documents onto the ground which was retrieved by the station employee.  The two men always exchanged waves as the train gathered speed leaving Noel and a smiling youngster behind.

Hints were left for Larry’s mother, father and Santa Claus that surely would not go unnoticed.  He wondered how his life could possibly continue if that most desired gift would not find its way under the family Christmas tree on Christmas day morning.

Christmas day came to the family’s home and when Larry’s sister and three brothers gathered in the living room, and around the tree, the presents were passed to those with happy faces who waited to be pleasantly surprised.  Sure enough, one large gift was given to Larry.  As he tore through the sleigh and snow decorated wrapping paper the images of a locomotive and train cars came into view.  It was the Louis Marx electric train set which included a locomotive, four cars, several feet of track and a #309 transformer.

Several items were sold before the old telegraph key was finally raised into the air and in a few words described by the auctioneer.  Larry hadn’t considered a maximum bid amount as he realized the item had very little, if any, intrinsic value but its sentimental worth, its extrinsic value, at least to Larry’s way of thinking, was immeasurable.  After only two or three competing bids the auctioneer’s hammer fell and he voiced the word Larry welcomed, “sold.”  Larry was the owner of a cherished childhood memory.

Noel’s railroad depot closed its doors in the early 1960’s while its contents were sold at auction some years later.  Larry is not one to discard or take memories lightly and, now in his mid-70’s, he still has the Louis Marx electric train set and that train depot’s old telegraph key.

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