The five oversized model trains clickety-clacked along 321 feet of circular track amid the holiday hustle and bustle inside the Maine Mall. But Carl Churchill, standing at the controls, had a word of advice for a visitor who was mesmerized by the perpetual motion.

“The story’s not in here,” Churchill said Wednesday with an I’ve-got-a-secret smile. Pointing outside the white picket fence that surrounds his 768-square-foot labor of love, he added, “The story’s out there.”

Not to mention the memories.

Before the holiday shopping season ends in a week or two, a sizeable percentage of Maine’s residents will have squeezed their cars into the Maine Mall’s jam-packed parking lots, grabbed their gift lists and walked smack dab into a flashback. The Garden Railway Society of Maine’s first-ever Christmas display, conceived as a backdrop to the mall’s Santa Claus photo booth, instead has become a study in mass hypnosis.

“This right here has done more for my blood pressure today than anything else I’ve seen. It’s just amazing,” marveled Hollis Ward of Winslow as he watched a Santa Fe Railway locomotive roll past a perfect replica of the old Gorham Station. “I’m not thinking about Christmas right now.”

Really? Then where are your thoughts?

“Sixty or 70 years ago,” replied Ward, still staring.

It all started last summer, when Craig Gorris, the mall’s general manager, went looking for a replacement for the aging (and, to be frank, boring) Santa Claus booth and someone suggested the Garden Railway Society of Maine. The next thing Gorris knew, he was staring slack-jawed at the Overlook Railroad, a massive model railroad/garden that consumes most of Carl and Patricia Churchill’s sprawling backyard in Buxton.

Three or four times each week during the summer, the Churchills invite residents from the Maine Veterans Home in Scarborough and an ever-growing number of nursing homes to come and watch the trains meander through the miniature evergreens, the lush lavender and the small city of scale-model buildings built by Carl (a retired contractor) and painted by Pat (who keeps the plants thriving).

“Can we make this work at the mall?” Gorris asked Churchill, president of the nine-year-old society, and Mac McLaughlin, Churchill’s next-door neighbor and one of the society’s 140 members.

Piece of cake, they replied.

It had to be big — the so-called G-scale trains, twice as big as the old Lionel models that once topped many a Christmas wish list, need at least eight feet of track to make a turn. In other words, in making room for the 24-foot-by-32-foot train display, the mall sacrificed some valuable retail real estate.

What’s more, Gorris said, the mall donated $2,000 to the society to show its appreciation not just for the trains, but for the 30 or so volunteer members who spend five-hour shifts fielding nonstop questions and, of course, keeping the trains running on time.

Talk about money well spent.

“I had a feeling it was going to go over great,” said Churchill.

Day after hectic day, gift-laden shoppers approach the epicenter of the mall at warp speed, battling their way from gloves for Grandma to an iPod for Junior. The trains — whistles blowing, smokestacks puffing — inevitably stop them in their tracks.

“This is the highlight of the mall, right here,” declared Nicole Bellino of South Portland as 2½-year-old Jacob fell under the spell of five separate locomotives traversing five separate tracks.

Jacob’s favorite?

“Thomas!” he bellowed, pointing to the blue Thomas the Tank Engine locomotive, complete with the moving-headlight eyes.

A few stations down, Lynne Fasulo of Westbrook found herself reliving that sad day back in 1961 when Portland’s Union Station fell in the name of urban renewal. Then she flashed on her son Brian, now 23, who once had a complete Thomas the Tank Engine set, complete with a case that itself was shaped like a train.

“I wish I had a little kid to bring here,” lamented Fasulo. “Can you rent a kid for the day?”

Shari DeKoning of Scarborough took the trains all the way back to 1948.

“My brother’s six years older and he got a train for Christmas,” she recalled wistfully. “He set it up in his bedroom and I went in there and we turned out all the lights and the train — it was a Lionel — it had a light … it had smoke. And I just lay there on the floor and watched the train go around and around and around … I loved it.”

Then there was Hollis Ward, the guy from Winslow, standing all by himself down by Conway Station with that faraway look on his face.

A retired Scott Paper Co. millwright, Ward figured that when he left central Maine with his wife Wednesday morning, this would be just another day at the mall.

“The wife has a black belt in shopping,” he explained. “It was 2 to 3 inches of snow at home, so I said, ‘I’ll drive you down.’“

Then, without warning, he was a kid again.

“My dad came home from the service (after World War II) and got me a Lionel for Christmas,” Ward said. “I remember I was one of the luckiest kids in the neighborhood. They used to have those aspirins that you’d dump in the exhaust and it would smoke …”

Ward, it turns out, still has the train set. And, last time he checked, it still works.

He also has a workshop. And, last but by no means least, he’s got nine grandchildren and a great-grandchild on the way.

Put more simply, Grandpa feels a project coming on.

“You take life for granted,” Ward mused over the not-so-distant whistle of the Santa Fe. “And the simple things go right by.”

Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at:

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