Our two-and-a-half-year-old son’s Thomas the Tank Engine obsession was peaking right around the time we learned that a life-size, working Thomas train was coming to Massachusetts for the annual Day Out With Thomas extravaganza. For $20 a pop, we could ride an actual Thomas train, shake hands with Sir Topham Hatt and spend a day with all our “Isle of Sodor friends.”
At the time, I didn’t consider Thomas and his glib, backstabbing crew my friends. In fact, I couldn’t stand them. Long before the lead paint recall, I considered those trains a menace. My son, William, however, was deeply attached. He couldn’t stop talking about Thomas, Gordon, James and Henry. He tinkered at his train table incessantly. He begged for new trains to add to his ever-expanding collection, a request our well-meaning friends and family never refused. His preschool teachers once sent home a note of thinly veiled concern: “William is really into Thomas. We were just curious about how much of it he watches on TV.” Our house was so overrun with Thomas paraphernalia that I was starting to wonder if William was trying to replace us. In my darkest moments, I had to ask, “What is Thomas giving him that we’re not?”
My husband and I faced a crucial decision: we could pretend we’d never heard of Day Out With Thomas, refuse even to speak of it and pray that William would snap out of his mania soon. (This is the strategy I employ regarding Disney World: “Don’t ask, don’t tell.”) Or, we could head straight into the melee and hope to come out safely on the other side: the “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” approach.
My husband, Michael, thought it was a no-brainer.
“What’s the big deal?” he said as we lay in bed one night.
“The big deal is he’s obsessed!” I said.
“Call it ‘passion’ if you want. I think it’s early-onset OCD.”
I realized I sounded nuts, but in the back of my mind lay a niggling fear that William was overly anxious and that his incessant train play was an attempt to soothe himself, a cover for something more serious.
“He’s a boy. He likes trains,” Michael said.
“Okay, let’s say that’s true. Do you really want to spend a whole day with Thomas?”
“That’s a different question.”
In the end, we decided to go, steeling ourselves for a day among pint-sized train fetishists. We arrived at the Edaville Railroad in Carver, Massachusetts, on an overcast Saturday in June. A pimply-faced teenager dressed as a train conductor shook our hands in the parking lot and pointed us toward the fairground, where a huge, grinning face was emerging from the trees. William saw it and vanished behind my legs, clinging to my thigh with his small hands.
Suddenly I saw Thomas for what he was: a big, cheerful distraction, an expression of unadulterated joy in the form of a toy train.“What’s that?” he said, peering out as the train approached.
“That’s Thomas,” I said, groaning inwardly.
“Big,” William said, tentatively.
“He is big,” I said, suddenly thinking that this outing, which we’d planned long in advance and driven over an hour to do, forgoing our usual lazy Saturday at the playground, was about to end in a meltdown.
“But he’s: ” I searched for the word just as the train chugged past. “He’s friendly,” I said, a surprising warmth coming over me as I gazed into Thomas’s huge eyes. Suddenly I saw Thomas for what he was: a big, cheerful distraction, an expression of unadulterated joy in the form of a toy train.
I knelt beside William as Michael watched me, slack-jawed at my newfound enthusiasm.
“And you know what?” I said, beaming excitedly. “Thomas would never hurt us.”
I practically ran us all to the loading platform, half-bullying my way through the morass of Thomas-T-shirt-clad kids and their parents, finally wedging us into a plum spot at the front of the train. The conductor, a forty-something guy with bleached hair and the distinctive aura of a hangover, yelled, “All aboard!” and the train lurched forward.
Just then, the sound of the nauseatingly high-pitched Thomas theme song piped through the speakers above our heads. A few parents started swaying slightly to the music, a foot tapping here, a head bobbing there. The woman next to me managed to get most of the chorus: “They’re two, they’re four, they’re six, they’re eight,” before trailing off. Without thinking, I filled in: “Shunting trucks and hauling freight!” Soon, we were all singing.
As we rode, lush, green branches arched overhead to form a leafy tunnel, and ferns crept from amid the rocks on either side of the tracks. William, sitting between me and Michael, rested his hand on my leg as he looked out the window. He was uncharacteristically quiet.
Now he couldn’t care less about trains, while the sight of his unused Thomas table sometimes makes me wish he did. After circling the fairground, we ate hot dogs, admired the giant Lego Thomas, shook hands with Sir Topham Hatt and bought a bag full of new trains and T-shirts. Before leaving, William clambered atop the front of a big, black locomotive and held up his hand in a proud, strong wave that reminded me of old photographs of people on the decks of ocean liners, about to set sail on their first great voyage. Driving home, he fell asleep in his car seat, and I turned to see him, utterly spent by the excitement of the day, a look of peace on his face.
Over the next few months, William started to let go of his Thomas fixation, and I stopped worrying so much. Maybe seeing the real thing was just what we’d all needed.
Now he couldn’t care less about trains, while the sight of his unused Thomastable, which stands like a museum relic in one corner of our playroom, sometimes makes me wish he did. His passions have turned to other things – basketball, worms, beehives. I’m starting to see why parents of teenagers keep saying kids grow up fast.
Which is why my heart lifted the other day when Jessie, our fifteen-month-old daughter, toddled over to the Thomas table, plucked a long, blue engine from the rubble and began moving it back and forth along a broken bit of track. I crouched next to her, started snapping tracks together and, as the hour unfolded, told her everything I knew.
“That’s Gordon,” I said. “He’s the strongest and fastest engine. That’s Percy. He’s small but very helpful. And this is Henry. I always had a soft spot for Henry . . .”