My son is a train. I know how it happened. I know when it happened. I know who did it to him. But none of that changes the fact that my son is a train. More than a year ago, his grandparents – Nancy’s parents – took our sweet, blond-haired, blue-eyed baby human boy to the Strasberg Railroad in Lancaster County, PA. They left him ride in a car coupled up to an old black steam engine called Old Ninety. They took him in the Thomas the Train Gift Shop and got him a present. Then they took him home to their place, and thought it had been a nice day. A cute, once in a lifetime (or every few years) experience for a small boy. They thought nothing more of it. They couldn’t have been more wrong.
It’s been going on two years now, and my son is a train. He “woo woos” and “chugga chuggas” around the house. He couples up with his parents and grandparents with a resounding “da-doom!” He watches (for hours) videos of trains – steamies and diesels – on the Nabi, or kids iPad, that his grandparents got for him whenever we go in the car. We have at least six motorized Thomas and Friends engines and their respective coal cars that zip under our sofa in fear and despair. He has at least thirty Steam Team “minis” that he plays with religiously and knows all, ALL, their names! Not a day goes by that Thomas isn’t on our TV, learning how to be “really useful” and getting smacked around by railroad owner-manager and iron-fisted mob boss Sir Topham Hat. Occasionally, it’s Chuggington or Dino-Trains, but most days, hours, minutes. It’s THOMAS!!! Making tracks to new destinations.
Mr. Perkins, the live-action engine driver that serves as a comic relief pitcher between Thomas episodes, feels like an old family friend that comes over for a visit, but never leaves. He’s constantly on the phone with Sir Topham Hatt, (and always shocked by this) sweeps up the Engine Driver’s Common Room, washes dishes, can’t get a vacation, works on his days off (Thanks, Boss Hatt) and makes cakes that look like Thomas the Train. John Adams’s Nanny has already bought the cake pan and, rest assured, next week when our son-turned-train turns three on Sept. 11, he will do so with a Thomas shaped cake as well as Thomas cupcakes. John Adams decided this mind you, and Nanny willingly complied.
We sleep in Thomas jammies, we wear Thomas shirts, we pee in Thomas pull-ups, we eat from Thomas plates. I am reminded of my own stint with Under-roos, but I was more culturally diverse, you see. I ranged from Spider-Man to Yoda proudly and without irony. I could wear a Superman sleep shirt with Batman underwear and not feel conflicted. Not so my son. And as for Strasberg, well, he’s there again today for his umpteenth time. We have all lost count. He has been to “Day Out with Thomas” there three times! He visits Old Ninety like an old friend. He watches eagerly as the trains couple up. He names the parts – boiler, cow catcher, funnel – with ease. His grandparents lament that they didn’t purchase a season pass. The people that work at Strasberg recognize him and call him by name, like Norm from Cheers. That’s how frequently he is there. He fancies himself to be Sir Topham Hat, and at two years old no one can tell him different. He is the boss of the place.
All kidding aside, my son, not quite three, has a tremendous imagination. He talks in first person both to and as his trains. He has voices for each one of them, and holds real if simple conversations. We hear him in his bed rallying the team before slumber, and sometimes stifle the heartiest of laughs while eavesdropping. Nancy and I have voices that we must do when we are his trains – Old 90 is a wise Southern-drawled streamie from Strasburg, Charlie of Thomas fame must laugh before each sentence, Gordon sounds a bit like pompous Stan Smith from American Dad – and the list goes on. As the child of actor parents he has picked up our gift of voices and when he does his trains they often have distinct dialects of their own from out of his head. The whole thing is as wonderful as it is exhausting. Sit on a hard wood floor for hours at a time, trying to second guess the hyper-imaginative needs of a two-year old and you’ll see what I mean.
Next Sunday my little steamie will turn three. I couldn’t be prouder of him. He is handsome and headstrong; intelligent and healthy. He has gifted me with his love for almost three years, and with that gift have come the additional presents of play and imagination. I didn’t play much in the years prior to his arrival. And I pretty much saved my imagination for onstage, where I liked to be paid for its usage. My little man has changed all that, at least for the time being. And I’ve laughed and loved a lot more as a result.
Yes, my son is a train. Nancy gave birth to a 7 pound steamie that day, complete with coal car, and pink tiny, shiny caboose. Maybe someday, like Pinocchio, he’ll have aspirations of turning into a Real Boy. But I don’t see that day coming anytime soon. So if you happen to see my son next week for his birthday, make sure to give him a hearty Happy Birthday Woo Woo from you. And as for me, I’ll probably be hovering somewhere near the edge of the tracks trying to make myself “Really Useful.”
Oh, the indignity!!!