Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

The little engine that could

After a health scare almost derailed him, Bill Taylor has his annual Christmas train ride back on track

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For 15 years, it's been a Christmas tradition for Winnipeg families to ride the miniature trains at the Taylors' place and enjoy a dazzling light display.

This season, the festive wonderland is lit up, but it's also scaled down. Some 50,000 lights, instead of 100,000, are festooned around the seven-acre, aspen-forested Taylor property.

Only one of the Assiniboine Valley Railway's two rail lines is operating. There hasn't been enough manpower to clear and decorate the walking trails.

It's frustrating for Bill Taylor, who normally drives the whole project like an unstoppable steam locomotive. But the Charleswood Santa Claus is grateful to have escaped the darkness of a long medical ordeal that nearly derailed him for good this year.

The song I'll Be Home for Christmas took on new meaning for Taylor, 66, when he managed to get released from hospital on Nov. 17, in time to oversee the folksy holiday project.

"I'm alive, by the grace of God," says the grandfatherly president of the 60-member railway club. "I don't recommend eight months in hospital to anybody."

Back in mid-March, Taylor was on a road trip, returning from California with his wife and mother-in-law, when he was stricken by excruciating pain. He was rushed to hospital in Wyoming with what doctors believed was a blockage of the duct that connects several major organs. His liver, pancreas and kidneys started to shut down.

"They didn't think I was going to make it," he says.

After three touch-and-go weeks, he was airlifted to Winnipeg. He remained in intensive care for months, suffered a heart attack and had surgery on his infected organs.

He has lost 45 pounds, is very weak and uses a walker. "I couldn't even carry a candy cane," he says about installing the display.

But every night since last Friday, when the battery-powered Christmas trains started chugging, Taylor has insisted on going out to the replica station at 6 p.m. to flip on the lights and make sure everything's on track.

"I like to get the hot chocolate on," he says about the drink that sells for 75 cents.

Once the rides start, he goes back to the house to lie down, then returns to shut down the station at 9 p.m.

An average of 400 to 700 people per night come for the $2, seven-minute rides. The all-time record is 1,050 in one night.

"Christmas at the Taylors'" usually opens in early December. Normally, Taylor would start installing the illuminated arches, candy canes, wreaths, poinsettias, carollers and much more in mid-October.

Semi-retired from his own refrigeration business, he would typically spend about 10 hours every day for six weeks, obsessively erecting and trouble-shooting the lights. Club members would help him on weekends.

Snow-clearing also takes countless hours. There's a snowblower that runs along the track, but a person with a shovel has to follow it. The property has three parking lots to keep clear.

Without Taylor's hundreds of hours of labour, about 20 active club members have done what they can to make "the Christmas run" a reality this year. "We've got a good crew that are pretty loyal," says Taylor, who's not given to gushy words.

Club vice-president Vic St. Germain says being sidelined has been tough on Taylor. "His railroad is very precious to him. It must be killing him that we shortened it up."

Asked if there's anything the public can do, Taylor mentions that he takes donations of Christmas lights -- old-style, not LEDs -- and yard ornaments. "One fellow came by with four mechanical deer. None of them were working. Within four or five hours, I had all of them working."

The rail gang has been battling persistent saboteurs of the lights: squirrels that think the plug ends of the wires are nuts and chew them off.

"The last two years, we've been experimenting with hot sauce," says Taylor. "It seems to be slowing it down."

Taylor vows to be back, brighter than ever, next Christmas. His strong religious faith has helped carry him through. "I think I've become more humble... I realized that I can't do everything myself," he says.

The homecare nurse might have to keep an eye on the old elf, though. He's sleeping on the main floor of his house because he's not ready for stairs. Yet he admits to slipping down to the basement.

"I had to go reset a circuit breaker a couple of times," he says.

alison.mayes@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 23, 2010 D1

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