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Alfred M. Albers

Author & Magician

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The Gift

By Al Albers



It was a Saturday afternoon when my Dad and I left the ground-floor apartment where we lived, in the West Bronx.  Mr. Devlin, an elderly gentleman and widower who lived in a brownstone house – one of a dozen – directly across the street, was expecting us.


* * * * * * * * * *


Every Saturday, around 11-ish, when us neighborhood kids were spiritedly playing stickball in the street, Mr. Devlin left his residence.  He’d return an hour or so later with two large Grand Union grocery bags.  He was a quiet man who only spoke when spoken too.  All the ballplayers saw him, but only one greeted him.




My friends never understood, or perhaps didn’t care to understand, the lesson my Dad taught me at an early age.  “Son, a simple greeting is a small gesture that doesn’t go unnoticed.  It’s also a sign of a well-mannered boy.”


* * * * * * * * * *


We walked in silence to Mr. Devlin’s front door.  “Ring the doorbell, son,” my Dad said.


I did and a moment later the door opened.  After greeting us, Mr. Devlin invited us inside.  As we entered the kitchen, Mr. Devlin said, “Please sit at the table.  Can I get you something to drink, Alfred?” he then asked.


“No thank you, Mr. Devlin,” I replied.




My Dad replied similarly.


I quietly sat as Mr. Devlin and my Dad conversed.  When the conversation ended, Mr. Devlin looked at me.


“Alfred,” he began, “I’ve known your father for quite a few years and I always make it a point of telling him how much I appreciate your kindness when you see me.”


I looked at my Dad; he smiled and nodded.


“Last week, I told him I had something I wanted to give you, but I wanted his permission first.”


Mr. Devlin paused.  I maintained eye-contact with him.


He pointed to two cardboard boxes in the kitchen corner and said, “I’m sure you’ll have fun with the things in those boxes.  Go ahead, look inside them.”


Inside one box were two sets of Lionel trains, a beacon tower with red and green lights, and a 1960 Lionel train catalog.  The second box contained tracks, switches and two transformers.  It was a gift like no other; especially for an eight-year-old boy.


“Thank you, Mr. Devlin!” I excitedly said.


“My two boys had a lot of fun with those trains, but they’re adults now and, well, the trains are no longer wanted.  They’re your trains now.”


While eating dinner that evening, my Dad said, “Son, do you remember me telling you that a simple greeting is a small gesture that doesn’t go unnoticed?”


“Yes,” I replied.


“That kindness – a simple hello – got you those Lionel trains.”


Mr. Devlin left the Bronx the following year.  Five years later, my Dad gave the Lionel trains to a family with two young boys.  When I asked why, he said, “Your afterschool pastimes have changed; a lot.  The trains haven’t been touched in two years.  I did what Mr. Devlin did for you; that is, I gave the trains to Harry Smith.  His boys are six- and eight-years-old.”


Except for the age difference, I had followed a similar path as Mr. Devlin’s sons.  New interests meant old hobbies were set aside (oftentimes forever).


* * * * * * * * * *


Fifty years would pass before I renewed my interest in Lionel trains.  I attended my first train show at the local convention center and stayed for four hours.  So many things to look at and, in my case, reminisce.  In addition to 100-vendors, there were nine different train layouts from Z-scale to G-scale, hands-on workshops, “special convention prices” on most everything being sold, and a “train doctor” repair station.


What caught my eye was a Lionel Halloween train set complete with tracks and a transformer.  “Sold,” I silently whispered as I removed it from the shelf and waited for the vendor to finish the transaction with another buyer.


“Are you a hobbyist or a collector?” the vendor asked.


“A returning hobbyist,” I replied.


“You got the last one, my friend,” he said.  “Enjoy.”


“Another hobby?” my wife asked when I returned home with my new treasure. 


“One can never have too many hobbies.  Besides, I can’t think of a better hobby to share with our two grandsons.”


* * * * * * * * * *


Two months ago, I learned that a co-worker’s seven-year-old daughter was infatuated with trains.  Yes, there are girls who enjoy this hobby as much as the boys.  After learning that I had trains, he stopped by my office and asked for suggestions.  We spoke for 30 minutes and I related what I relearned over the past decade.  As I drove home that day, my thoughts drifted back to that hot summer day when I got my first trains.  I knew, right then, how I could help.


That weekend, I packed a medium-sized box with Lionel HO trains, enough track for a 4x8 foot layout and a transformer.  As I looked over the contents, I muttered, “It’s a great starter set; his daughter is going to love it.”


On Monday, I left my co-worker a voicemail, asking him to stop in my office before he left for the day. 


He did.


“I have a quick story to tell you.”  When I finished, I said, “Today I have the profound honor to ‘Pay It Forward’ as did my Dad.  I truly hope you and your daughter have many years of fun with this train set.”


The broad smile on his face said everything I needed to hear.


* * * * * * * * * *


Saturday, April 28, 2018 is “Pay It Forward Day.”  Any random act of kindness – for example, compliment someone; do something special that you know your significant other will appreciate; donate something you no longer use; call a friend you haven’t spoken to in quite some time – is all it takes to make a difference in someone’s life.


By the way, you don’t have to wait until 2018 to pay it forward.  Any day is a good day.  More importantly, when you “Pay it Forward” the joy it brings is mutually shared by your kindness.