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86-year-old 'kid' plays in his garden

Milt Berry's blue eyes sparkle, and he wears a constant grin. The remote-control device - putty in his hand - fuels the kid in him.

But Berry, 86, is no couch potato watching TV. He has invented his own entertainment: a 15-foot by 9-foot, L-shaped, trestle-held landscape whose corner mountain challenges a chugging G gauge model train.

The tiniest streetcar zips around another track that runs in an oval around a hand-built gazebo. Skaters blithely waltz on two icy ponds. A circling merry-go-round with up-and-down horses plays a background of Christmas carols and show tunes.

It's all set in a sprawling village of some 32 lighted and decorated houses along with a railroad depot and a Cracker Barrel restaurant replica.

The architect and electrical engineer for the project calls it a Christmas garden. It is reminiscent of Berry's growing up in Baltimore, where all of the fire stations and many families erected elaborate train displays for the holiday season, he says. They invited all to gaze and gasp with wonder.

Berry and his wife of 65 years, Marie, are putting out the welcome mat this year beyond their Timber Pines neighbors. They want to make their production available to other model train enthusiasts and those who enjoy an energized holiday snow scene.

This is at least the third major Christmas garden Milt Berry has established. When he retired to Florida 33 years ago, he thought there would be no reason to re-create his lavish HO train village from Baltimore. He pitched all of the pieces, now admitting, "They'd be worth a lot today."

Remembrances prompted him to reinvent a model train display at his new home in Florida. But it was a lot of work to set it up every year. After six years, Berry said, he cut it up and tossed it in the trash.

Then his granddaughter, Kara Svehla of Baltimore, gave him a miniature ceramic house she had painted and fired, perfect for a train layout. Berry acknowledges she probably made the gift to tantalize him. That was 15 years ago, one year after he'd said: "Never again."

Svehla's two-story house with dormer windows - lights glowing through the window panes and a sleigh-bound Santa with reindeer on the roof - has center stage in the display.

All the buildings are lighted, as well as surrounding lamp posts, the mountain tunnel and mounds of faux snow.

Berry's background as an electrical engineer was critical to his being able to put the display together and make everything work: bells, whistles, all the moving parts, electrical circuits that operate magnets beneath the skating ponds to make the figures move.

"There's wiring and all kind of transformers," he said.

And there's maintenance. The streetcar, running on the smallest model track - an N gauge not more than an inch wide - contains such tiny gears and parts that they tend to get clogged, Berry said.

Last year, the family cat, attempting to leap from a perch to the living room couch, landed on the Styrofoam-based platform of the display and plunged right through. Berry had major reconstruction to undertake. Partly because of that accident, this year the extravaganza has been set up in the garage. The couple's pristine 1992 Chrysler sits in the driveway.

Marie Berry claims her contributions to the project are minimal. "She made it snow," her husband said. Yes, she applies the cotton to the winter landscape. "I maybe rearrange a few houses," she said.

He has painted probably 100 pine cones, gathered from his and neighboring lawns and a golf course, to create trees in the landscape. They're green tipped with white "snow."

Even though Berry said erecting the display and getting it operable takes about two weeks of off-and-on labor, he maintains that the most difficult chore is getting it back into the attic.

It appears he will keep doing it because trains run nearly 80 years in his history.

"I can remember, 7 or 8 years old - you didn't get toys all year; you got them at Christmas. Christmas Eve I went to bed at 8 o'clock, and I could hear my dad and brother downstairs sawing and pounding. I got up next morning, and there was my first Lionel train."

Beth Gray can be contacted at graybethn@earthlink.net.

FAST FACTS

All aboard

Milt and Marie Berry ask that visitors call in advance for an appointment to visit their Christmas garden, which will be open for viewing through mid January. Call 683-5681.

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