All Aboard!

“Seven dollars,” the smiling white haired woman with round wire glasses said to me as I approached the entrance desk of Omaha’s Durham Museum with my son in my left arm. It was the second time I had been there in three days. Over the weekend, the infamous Dr. Sanchez and I had fought surprisingly (at least to us) large crowds on the last day of a two month long traveling Abraham Lincoln exhibit. Apparently we weren’t the only procrastinators in town. We bypassed the slow moving line and headed straight for the end of the exhibit before working our way backwards through the winding halls, occasionally squeezing our way between bored, chubby mid-western baby boomers, their elderly anchors and preoccupied teenagers in tow, to inch a few feet closer to catch a glimpse at a handwritten letter, the contents of Lincoln’s pockets when he was assassinated, or an old photograph of his legendary beard. It didn’t take long before we were done with Abe, or at least done with the crowd and the whole awkward scene. Wanting to squeeze a little more out of our entrance fee, we perused the surrounding exhibit which focused mostly on the privileged upbringing of pretty much every person elected president since Lincoln. I stubbornly crossed that off the list of Jack’s possible careers as we left the main exhibit through the two open doors and entered the bright, windowed first floor atrium. It was then that I knew I’d be coming back soon, and it wouldn’t be for presidents.

Directly in front of us was an old, matte black locomotive, a bright yellow Union Pacific caboose, and four retired train cars of various styles on display, including the fancy Cornhusker Club car, that you could walk on, in, and around. There was also an interactive model train setup that no average home basement could hold behind six large windows, complete with multiple tracks, multiple engines, a huge station with turntable, bridges, caves, towns, little plastic trees and people, a drive in movie theater, and even a derailed train accident. There were buttons you could press to get in on the action yourself, starting the trains, turning on lights, and switching tracks. If the retired real trains and the gratuitous display of toy trains wasn’t enough, behind and in between the antique train cars were huge windows looking out onto the real train tracks of the old station, some still in use. I couldn’t believe it was all just sitting down here in the basement of the museum unbeknownst to me.  Dr. Sanchez wasn’t that impressed, but I was already thinking about my return trip. It was a train fanatic’s wet dream, and I just happened to change the diapers of a budding choo-choo fanatic.

Two days later, I was back again trying to kill part of a cloudy and cold spring afternoon by feeding that same toddler fanatic’s recent obsession with all things trains. Sure I had just been there, and I knew we weren’t going to spend much time at the museum to warrant the full admission price, but I had to show Jack the trains. I set him down as I retrieved my wallet from my front right pocket and despite now having my own debit card to my wife’s account, I took out all of my cash. Seven dollars exactly, four of which I had just yanked out of the bottom of my son’s ceramic frog bank in order to pay for our excursion. I handed the mostly crinkled bills to the old woman, who seemed slightly surprised that someone not only paid in cash but with exact change. She smiled at the two of us as I picked Jack up and headed through the empty, cavernous main station lobby of what was once probably a crowded and bustling gateway to the city of Omaha and beyond. I pointed out the old station benches and let him climb upon them while I directed his attention to the elaborate high ceilings, the old soda fountain, and the one time ticket counters which were now transformed into a tourist trap gift shop. We hadn’t even gotten to the trains downstairs, the huge model train setup, or the window looking out onto the junction tracks, but the look on Jack’s face was enough to make me realize I had made the right decision. Seven dollars is a small price to pay for blowing your son’s mind.

In his short time as a walking, talking toddler, Jack has been infatuated by and attracted to many things:  from butterflies to baseballs, books to buses, guitars togarbage trucks, sticks to squirrels, birds, fish, fire engines, and police cars. He couldn’t get enough of that fucking Pillow Pet (until I actually bought him one). But this ballgame is not the same. Jack and trains is a sixteen year old me and Pearl Jam sort of passion. Absolutely nothing up to this point has ignited his desires like “choo-choo” trains do. He is a little boy with a man-sized obsession. If Katy Perry recorded a version of “Locomotion,” it would be his favorite song. As it stands, the one song he voluntarily sings on a daily basis is the theme to Dinosaur Train on PBS.

It all started with a Hallmark Christmas ornament from 1989. Growing up, my mom worked for the greeting card giant and our home was inundated with every single ornament the company made for about twenty years. When I cherry picked “my” ornaments from the stash of hundreds before moving out of the house, I never imagined that the old train one would factor so heavily into a later part of my life.  But, the small green, blue, and red metal train with a smokestack, a tiny gold bell, and movable wheels drew him in before we could even hang it on our artificial tree inside our Omaha living room. Jack’s tree trimming was officially over at that point as far as he was concerned, and off he went on his one track mind trip with his new “Choo-Choo.” Little did the Professor and I know as we continued to hang up the rest of the ornaments that that was only the beginning.

Back home for the holidays, his first gift was a small Thomas the Train engine and circle track from one of his grandmothers. A few days later the tank engine that would soon be known as “Baddis” was followed up with a small set of wooden Target dollar bin trains from his other grandma. They were the right gifts at the right moment. The little blue and red train with the smiley face and the red wooden engine wouldn’t leave his hands for the remainder of the trip and most of the following months. In fact, it pretty much became a given from that point on that Jack needed to have a train car in each hand at all possible times. There were to be no exceptions. He made that perfectly clear every chance he could. “Choo-Choo!” was his new mantra.

Soon there couldn’t be a trip to Target without him suckering me into a new train car from the dollar bins. Days where I would do nothing but help him push trains around imaginary tracks throughout the house and neighborhood, draw trains with crayons and baby Etch a Sketch’s, and sculpt trains out of Play Doh became a slightly annoying regularity. We took him on a train to a Chicago White Sox baseball game with his grandparents and we even spent a Saturday afternoon at the worthless Council Bluffs, Iowa, railroad museum just trying to feed his fascination.

Eventually a Thomas The Tank Engine bath set featuring three different rubber trains would enter the picture thanks to another trip to Grandma Pat’s. Screw bath time, “The Three Amigos,” as the Professor and I would begin to call them, were in his possession from the moment he woke up until the moment he went to bed. The four of them always together, one train never without the others. He even started saying their names, “Baddis (Thomas), Allie (Salty), and Percy,” and would yell for them from his crib at night. We even made a rule between parents that we had to account for the three little fuckers before we went to bed to avoid any unpleasant pre-coffee searches come morning. We now own three sets of them.

Then came the “The Alphabet Train.”

Tucked inside a three pack of children’s educational DVDs Jack received as a gift from his aunt was a documentary for kids about trains that focused on the letters of the alphabet. The film contained real live train footage with a narrator who talked about every aspect of trains and railroads you could think of while matching them to the corresponding letter. I really didn’t think much of it at the time as I put it in the player hoping for a few uninterrupted minutes to finish my morning coffee in peace. Not much of a television watcher up to that point, I was amazed at how quickly he desired to sit and watch the entire thing over and over again, even asking for the “choo choo show” with his morning milk and cheerios. Against our better judgement and our parental paranoia over letting a television raise our child, pressing play became easier than dealing with a whiny toddler at the crack of dawn. We would try to make up for it by immediately cancelling our DirecTV, but the “choo choo show” maintained its status as a daily staple of our day.

One glorious choo-choo filled day something unexpected happened.  Jack started saying letters and words we didn’t even know he knew. After a few weeks and a few hundred viewings of that stinking DVD, he would walk into the kitchen and grab an alphabet letter magnet from off the dishwasher and hand it to us saying the name of the letter clear as day. Very soon not only did he know about trains, locomotives, diesel engines, steam, tracks, crossings, headlights, tickets, turntables, cabooses, and stations, he knew all of the letters in the alphabet by sight. Needless to say, we’ve softened our stance on educational television just a bit, though it pains us to do so. You just can’t argue with progress. Trains were no longer just something Jack liked to pester us about, his obsession was helping him learn things I wasn’t sure how to even begin to teach him. If I wasn’t completely on board with his choo-choo habit before, I was quickly becoming the conductor.  

I used to know jack shit about trains, but I’ve always liked them. I know a bit more about them now thanks to a thousand plus viewings of that damn DVD, our various train rides, and all of our museum trips. But even before Jack came along, trains have always had a place in my heart and a place in a weird old recurring dream I used to have when I was younger and can barely recall. Most of my childhood was spent in houses by train tracks. My grandparents had train tracks practically in their backyard. I fell in love with the ease and romance of train travel during a brief stint in Europe and my many rides on the Metra and L trains during my time in Chicago.  I’ve always loved the idea of trains and the hobo lifestyle. I’m not alone. Think of all the stories, poems, paintings, songs, and movies about or influenced by trains. There should be more trains. I’m sure my son would agree. We are both primed and ready for a brand new era of train travel.

Trains are the perfect thing to get into when you are one, two, or thirty-three years old.  My son may focus on the wheels “going round and round,” but I love how they represent all the possibilty of life and its limitlessness. So many different tracks and directions to go but always with new mysteries in front of you, something familiar behind you, and the excitement and fear of running off the rails at any second. Being on a train is to constantly be a part of something. Sometimes you get to be the locomotive, sometimes you’re the caboose, sometimes you spend way too much time in the club car, and sometimes you’re just lucky enough to hitch a free ride on one of the box cars along the line. It doesn’t really matter when or how you got on, because you’re always going somewhere. Trains and what they can represent are fucking incredible. It took a two year old to show me that.

So, my life right now is trains, trains, and more trains. He’s into them, so I’m into them. But it could just as easily be tap dancing or taxidermy and I’d still have to be all about it. Especially since I’m with him all day, every day.  Whatever it is he’s into, I want to be into. I want to support it. I want to love it. I want to encourage it and provide it. But I know there is a fine line. I don’t want to let him focus all of his energy on one thing, and I don’t want to push him further into something that he may be ready to move on from. I know that at the drop of a hat he could be on to the next thing and I can’t hold him back, no matter how into being into him into whatever he’s currently into I am. I have to remember to be interested, supportive, and motivating, but not directing, smothering, or controlling. I can make my feelings known, but then I have to forget them and transfer lines if I have to.

I know there will be times that even when I’m fully behind him, it won’t be easy. Raising my son to be who he is and not who I am is going to be the greatest challenge I’ve ever faced. Sure, it all sounds good on the computer screen, but speeding headlong on the tracks to who knows where, I know it’s not always going to be the smoothest ride. Yet again on this parenting trip, I’m reminded that it’s not about me. I suppose that’s half the reason I’m writing all this shit anyways: so I don’t forget the way. I just have to remember the Choo-Choo trains.

“Ground! Ground! Now! Off! Off! Ground! Off!” Jack screamed. He was in the middle of a breakdown at the beginning of a train ride. We were spending yet another morning at the Omaha zoo and for the past hour all Jack would say was, “ride the choo choo train,” over and over again.  He brushed off the petting zoo, basically ignored a gorilla in his face, and feigned slight interest in a big brown bear. “Ackie and Dada ride the choo choo train,” he repeated.

“Are you sure you want to ride the train?” I asked.

“Yeah, yeah, choo choo,” he responded.

I pushed his stroller towards the zoo station, parked it with the rest of the child transporters and carried Jack to the ticket booth. I handed the teenage zoo employee a crinkled five dollar bill in exchange for a red raffle ticket to ride the train. As we waited in line to board, the steam engine announced its arrival with a loud toot from the whistle. Jack jumped in my arms and a frightened look of surprise swept over his face.

“Loud! Loud!” Jack yelled to the amusement of a few people around us. He was not so delighted. I could see it in his eyes. His desire to ride on the train was fleeting fast as we boarded a bench seat towards the back of the train. My instincts told me to abandon the ship right then, but I was invested and I gave him the benefit of the doubt. I put him on my lap and tried to distract him with questions about the train and the zoo. I got through about three calming questions before he started to refuse me answers.

“No. No. Down,” he pleaded as the steam engine roared to life and our train car shook on the tracks and jerked forward.

“Hey buddy, we’re riding the choo-choo. Here we go,” I said in my most soothing tone.

“No! No! Ground! Ground! Off! Down! No!” he bawled. Things were spiraling out of control. Tears were flowing, quickly turning the train ride into Splash Mountain. “Ground! Ground! Ground!” he squealed, louder than the steam engine. Jack was waiting for me to make my move. Passengers in front of and behind us were also waiting for said move. I waited with them trying to point at pink flamingos and rhinos in one last desperate attempt to distract him from his sudden fear of all things train.

Jack struggled in my arms and continued shouting and bringing himself to hysterics. He started to hyperventilate as the train braked loudly to slow down for a stop to releases steam. I didn’t even think about it. I just held him close, threw my backpack over a shoulder, and jumped to the ground on the side of the tracks, hitting the ground running just like movies taught me.  The train lurched past us and we were on our way to the stroller lot. Jack immediately stopped crying.

“Ride the choo choo,” Jack mumbled while shaking his head “no,” his little way of negating a sentence.

“I know, you didn’t want to ride the train. Everything is okay. Are you okay?” I questioned him as I pushed him up a hill in his stroller towards the exit and our car in the parking lot. “Luckily that five bucks came out of your bank, buddy,” I added caressing his blond curls.

“Yeah,” Jack sighed, before smiling and asking, “Cookies?” 

“Yes, you can have some cookies when we get back to the car,” I responded. He could have asked me for anything.

I’ll keep buying train tickets.  But I’ll also try to start getting used to the idea of letting some of them go to waste. I guess there will be times that even when I’m fully behind him, it won’t always be easy. Sometimes going along for the ride means that you’ll have to help him jump off when the time comes. It means you might almost get electrocuted and fry all of the electric fuses in the house trying to hook up Grandpa’s old, rusty, and slightly warped model trains while a two year old screams at you impatiently. Sometimes there’s collateral damage when dealing with a little boy and his one track mind.  I just wanted to give him more trains.

As I drove home from the zoo that day I stared at him in the rear view mirror while he devoured his cookies. I’ll never forget the look on his face when the reality of a train ride scared the diaper off of his idea of a train ride. I laughed to myself as he gave me a crumb filled smile, knowing right in that instant that no matter where he’s going, I’m always going to be on that train.

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