Auburn - Christmas rolled into Auburn on Saturday morning, hitching a ride aboard the 1,100-foot BNSF Holiday Express train as it made its first visit to the Northwest.
The silver-colored train with its dome cars, café car and bi-level passenger cars stopped at the Sounder commuter station to pick up a group of passengers waiting in the chill: military families from Joint Base Lewis-McChord.
Among them were Spc. Jaci Ladewig, a single mom with her two girls, Laila, 6, and Londyn, 4, and their friend Lisa Schmidt, 6, who also lives on the base.
The free tickets for the train ride were a promotion gift from Ladewig’s sergeant at I Corps, where she works in early-warning systems for missile defense.
The train ride will be a good holiday memory, she said, adding that she planned to take lots of photographs.
“I wasn’t here last Christmas,” Ladewig said. Deployed to Iraq for 13 months with the 17th Fires Brigade, she returned to her kids in August.
“It was rough,” she said of the separation and missing the holidays.
Like many of the parents participating Saturday, she hadn’t ever been on a train. Neither had the kids. And she didn’t know it was going to be a vintage train with Santa Claus aboard.
“We’re going on a special Santa train, an old train,” she told the kids at the station. They screeched approval.
Kenyda Mayes said she didn’t know why she was in Auburn that morning.
“I wanted it to be a surprise,” said her husband, Sgt. 1st Class Christopher Mayes, who works in operations at Madigan Army Medical Center.
Kenya Mayes liked the surprise. Judging by her wide-open eyes and smile, so did their 18-month-old daughter, Journei.
Within 20 minutes and under sunny skies, the Holiday Express, with BNSF engineer Shahraim Allen of Tacoma at the controls, was ready to roll south toward Tacoma with its nearly 200 passengers. The round-trip ride extended as far south as Chambers Bay Golf Course and lasted 21/2 hours.
Each car was decorated inside with lights and boughs. Holiday music played over the speakers. There were hot chocolate and other snacks served by car attendants.
“The purpose of this Holiday Train is to show our appreciation for all that the military and their families do for all of us,” said Gus Melonas, a spokesman for the rail company.
The Holiday Express started Thursday in Hauser, Idaho, with a trip to nearby North Pole, Idaho. In Spokane, it brought holiday cheer to families from Fairchild Air Force Base. Next came the Navy base at Everett. After Lewis-McChord, it will travel to Vancouver, Wash.
Melonas said that as part of the Northwest visit, the company is distributing $90,000 to military affiliates along the way.
At Lewis-McChord, $10,000 checks from the company were presented for the Minuteman Emergency Fund, Service and Airmen Employment Fund, Army Emergency Relief and Association of the United States Army.
Santa Claus, aka Rick Lehn, 55, a BNSF employee from Lincoln, Neb., waited patiently for the train to get rolling so he could begin his parade through the cars.
“My goal is to visit every kid,” he said. Each person on the train also got a gift in a gold box: a metal ornament showing the Holiday Train. There were free photographs with Santa and family portraits.
Spc. James Havel with the 110th Chemical Battalion and his wife, Amanda, brought 6-month-old Benjamin for his first train ride.
The Lacey couple said the trip turned out to be much more than they expected.
“It’s been a good time,” he said.
Air Force Staff Sgt. Brian Patnode, 34, and his wife, Kristi, from Lacey agreed.
“The kids are really enjoying this,” he said. “They’ve never been on a train. We got to see Santa.”
Patnode thinks he might need the memory of this special trip next Christmas. He deploys again in May, this time to Afghanistan.
“I’ll probably miss next Christmas,” he said.
Mike Archbold: 253-597-8692 firstname.lastname@example.org