The Polar Express

A little boy gets a "train set" for Christmas and gets to relive his favorite movie

For several days, the cold had put a choke hold on the train's pipes. No bathrooms, no showers, no laundry. And this train couldn't stop for repairs.

The 19 volunteers aboard were quickly changing from cheery elves to stinky ones. They had traveled through eight states and 20 stops and had seen thousands of children and parents and grandparents who had waited hours to visit Santa Claus, tour the decorated train cars and ooh and ahh at hundreds of animated Christmas figures.

But working 14-hour days since before Thanksgiving was taking its toll. The volunteers were fatigued and missing their families.

Then came an announcement about one little boy.

In an arrangement with the Elves of Christmas Present, a group of area residents who work anonymously to create miracles each holiday season, Kansas City Southern executives had agreed to a once-in-a-lifetime gift.

For the first time in the eight years of the Holiday Express, the train would welcome a child aboard. Santos Arreola, age 5, would ride the train, eat supper with the Clauses and even spend the night in a berth.

One little boy's dream come true.

Santos has been fighting brain cancer. After a bone-marrow transplant last year, the cancer came back. He kept fighting. Through weeks of radiation and chemotherapy, Santos watched one movie again and again: "The Polar Express." A movie that made him giggle and stare wide-eyed, that set his imagination on overdrive for all things Christmas and trains and magic.

Santos believes with all his 5-year-old strength.

In October, when he was getting radiation therapy, his father took a photo that has made its way around the Web. It shows a mysterious light rising like a flame from Santos' covered face as he lay on a table.

Some people see a flash of a light. Others see a presence.

Santos' mother, Leticia Garcia of Kansas City, Kan., sees an angel. She also believes the photo is a lot like the sleigh bell in "The Polar Express."

"You only hear it (or see it) if you believe," she said.

For now, she's happy that her little boy is cancer-free. For now, that is her most precious gift, one she holds dear every minute and hour and day that passes until he is tested again next week.

But for a Christmas gift, to ride on a real train, a special Christmas train, she couldn't imagine a more wonderful memory for her son.

* * * * *

One morning last week, Kansas City Southern's chief elf, Willis Kilpatrick, announced Santos' visit. The news seemed to change everything.

The volunteer elves would stay in character for Santos and his cousins. They would wear their green-and-red pointy caps and their elf smocks tied with ropes from Friday midday until night, and on Saturday. Santa and Mrs. Claus would dine with Santos and his family. Everyone was told to brush up on their North Pole stories, to be ready for any question.

One elf, Austin Bell, would be assigned to Santos and treat him with as much care as if he were the president of the United States.

The train's chef wanted to know Santos' favorite supper (barbecued chicken) and breakfast (pancakes with lots of syrup). The engineer wanted to know whether he could bring Santos up front to play with the train's lights.

The lift in the crew's spirits seemed to make the 10,000 lights on the train glow a little brighter, a little warmer.

And within hours of the announcement about Santos, the train's pipes unfroze, too.

* * * * *

Not far from the depot in Slater, Mo., is a consignment shop called Trinkets & Trim. Owner Saundra Brownfield had just unlocked the door when elf Michael Day of Kansas City stepped in.

Brownfield remembered him from when the train stopped at Slater last year.

Day told her about Santos and how the boy wanted to find some Thomas the Tank Engine bedsheets.

No sheets, Brownfield said, but she found him a Thomas train figurine and some other toys.

She looked at Day as he waited for her to ring up the purchases. She thought about Santos, in the fight of his life. She hoped that if it were her family, someone might do this for her child, too. Christmas memories are precious, she thought.

No charge, she said. Merry Christmas. We'll keep him in our prayers.

Day suddenly felt warm despite the cold.

He went across the street to the Slater General Store. Maybe he could find a Christmas stocking and some glue and silver sparkles to write Santos' name.

The woman behind the counter listened to Day's request. She began to tear up. Finally, she told him that her son had suffered a brain tumor, too. He was now 25.

Take whatever you need, she said.

Back on the train, in Compartment B, Day set up a small Christmas tree. He strung Christmas lights around the ceiling. He placed the Christmas stocking just so on the desk, along with the Thomas figurine and a tiny caboose that was also a pencil sharpener. The final touch was a Thomas lantern that glowed softly with the push of a button.

* * * * *

Friday afternoon in Grain Valley the weather had turned bitterly cold. An arctic front had settled in throughout Missouri.

The Holiday Express idled, keeping its touring cars warm. Despite the cold, at 4 p.m. the lines of families waiting were long, filled with little children bundled in layers with only their tiny faces peering out.

Police officers managed the traffic. The Grain Valley High School jazz band performed. The elves passed out hot chocolate.

Each child would have the chance to talk with Santa Claus and his wife, and take a quick tour through three of the train cars decorated from floor to ceiling with model trains, mechanical Santas, silver tinsel and glass ornaments.

Before the tours were through that night, more than 1,000 people would visit.

But the guest of honor was a little late.

* * * * *

At 4:41 p.m., a large, white limousine pulled up next to the train. The limo ride was another gift to Santos, this time from a family friend, Michael Quijas, whose 16-year-old daughter had leukemia.

"They're here!" yelled a man wearing a green elf hat. "They're here! Get ready!"

Santos, his mother, four little cousins and a few adults stepped out of the car. Santos looked very small as he stared at the train.

A crowd gathered around him.

"Hi, Santos! Welcome! Do you want to see Santa now?"

The little boy looked from stranger to stranger. His mother grabbed his hand, and the elves parted to let Santos board.

Santos, wide-eyed, seemed swallowed up by the strangers and the activity and the music. Suddenly, there was Santa Claus, wanting to talk with Santos.

The little boy, overwhelmed, retreated inside himself. He wouldn't say a word.

Bell knew the little boy was probably cold. A little afraid. The crowd was noisy.

He scooped up Santos as if he were Tiny Tim and carried him past the touring cars into the train's toasty-warm passenger section. The walnut-paneled walls and leather seats offered a peaceful break.

Then it was on to the front of the train.

To get to the engineer's cab, visitors must squeeze past giant engines, noisy black and gray machines that loom like giants, like a transformer world that threatens to change at any moment, especially perhaps to a small child. Finally they climb steps so narrow that most adults must turn sideways to fit.

Santos' smile grew. This was a real train!

With the door closed, the massive engine of the Southern Belle pulsed with energy. Engineer Vic Sirna watched Santos' face. Sirna is the father of three boys and two grandchildren. But it was almost as if he were a kid again himself, wanting to show off his coolest toy.

"Would you like to sit in the driver's seat?" he asked. Santos nodded.

"This is what I see when I drive the train," Sirna said. Through the windshield, train tracks curved ever so slightly, disappearing around the bend.

Santos nodded again, but his hands were touching every knob, every button.

Finally, Sirna asked Santos the words he was waiting to hear: "Would you like to pull the train whistle?"

Santos stood on the seat, reaching for the cable. Sirna showed him how to pull. Santos paused and looked at his mother. Then with all his strength, he pulled.

A great tone sounded. Like a half-mile organ. A Duke Ellington orchestration, a major seventh chord plus a ninth.

Again and again, Santos pulled the whistle, four times, a dozen, 15 and then too many to count.

Finally, it was time for him to go back. Sirna wiped a tear from his eye.

"It's a privilege to do this. ... I've heard that whistle a bazillion times, but when I saw that gleam in his eyes, it sounded like the very first time all over again."

* * * * *

In the next few hours, Santos and his cousins would change the Lake Charles executive dining car into a play zone, with games of tag and wrestling, hide-and-seek and massive tickling matches.

Michael Day would zip out of the train once more, this time in his elf uniform. Rushing to the Wal-Mart in Blue Springs to buy -- what else? --"The Polar Express" and a Play-Doh six-pack. There would be a feast of barbecue chicken, Bell would find himself tackled by Santos and all his cousins, and Santa and Mrs. Claus would get to hold and cuddle them all and tell them endless stories about how much food the reindeer liked to eat.

When the children were growing sleepy, sipping hot chocolate in the darkened train, Santos' mother would turn to several volunteers and whisper a heartfelt thank you.

Only later would the people realize that the real gift had not been what they had done for Santos, but what he had done for them. All of them, from a gift shop in Salter to a railway company's executive offices in downtown Kansas City.

"He gave us back our Christmas spirit," said Day. "Santos left a trail of smiles behind him."

LEE HILL KAVANAUGH, The Kansas City Star