Harry Jackson hunkered down to put the finishing touches on his display.
“You have to have your rank structure,” he explains, pointing out the different color hats of the miniature men clambering up tiny ladders into pint-sized buildings emitting clouds of orange-and-black cotton balls.
The hats are part of the story Jackson wants the public to know. Namely, that behind every extinguished fire is a team of specialists – blue-hatted lieutenants, yellow-hatted rookies, black-hatted veterans, red-hatted captains, white-hatted chiefs – who work as a unit against a dangerous and elusive enemy.
Momentarily distracted by a Lionel train highballing past him, Jackson straightens up and laughs, “OK, you have to make it as realistic as possible without getting too crazy.”
His “Baltimore working fire scene,” replete with a whirling truck ladder and flashing lights about 1/50 the size of the real thing, is one of a dozen displays handmade by the men of Engine Company 45.
Now in its 57th year, the Holiday Train Garden is a tribute to countless volunteer hours put in by the firefighters at an empty bay in their stationhouse in the far Northwest neighborhood of Cheswolde.
“It started out as a four-by-eight foot sheet of plywood in 1956, and it’s evolved to this,” says Captain Jason Turner, standing next to the 12-by-40 foot display beneath 580 twinkling fiber-optic lights embedded in an overhead awning.
This year will mark the biggest display ever. The display table was rebuilt over the spring and summer and there are three levels of Lionel train operations, plus a new line rolling around the perimeter of the overhead awning.
Who: BCFD Engine Company 45
What: Holiday Train Garden
Where: Firehouse at 2700 Glen Ave. at Cross Country Blvd.
Hours: 9 a.m. – 9 p.m., Dec. 1 to Jan. 6, 2013
Price: Free (donations are welcome and are used to equip next year’s display)
The set is filled with eye-catching displays aimed for children, including a miniature set of pirate ships, an old-fashioned circus, a Halloween-themed “spooky town” and an array of Dr. Seuss Grinches.
What’s impressive is the animation of many of the displays, such as a break dancer spinning on his head and shoulders and a low-rider bouncing up and down while waiting for a street light to turn green.
Captain Turner’s display features a tribute to the New York firefighters who perished at the Twin Towers on 9/11.
“Being from a third-generation Baltimore city firefighting family, I wanted to pay my respects to the men who died.” The display contains replicas of the blue-lighted Twin Tower’s Memorial Reflecting Pools (emitting dry ice fog) and a subway stop (with police apprehending bad guys).
Firefighter Tyrone Alford decided on a homage to war veterans for his exhibit.
He used tongue depressors coated with sand and gray paint to represent gravestones at a military cemetery.
“There are stories here among the dead,” Alford chuckles.
He points to a burial service attended by a handful of figures.
“That’s the family and the widow, and here” – he nods at a solitary figure with golden blond hair on the other side of the fence – “is the mourning mistress.”
According to Turner, the train display attracts about 10,000 visitors a year, ranging from neighborhood kids who stop by after school to a family that has been coming to the display since it opened.
“We do this as a fire company tradition, and people come here as a family holiday tradition,” Turner says. “There’s a family that’s been at every holiday display since it started in 1956. Four generations come through now.”