The Summer Project: Trains for one (2005)

Michael and Ben are almost 2 1/2 years apart in age. For the last 9 years, I've referred to my children as the boys, as my sons. Plural. All these years later, remembering the time when our family was just three, when there was just one son, seems odd. I wish I was blogging then to capture the time. Sure, there are plenty of memories and pictures of just Michael. It was so wondrous. And I'm not implying that life hasn't been wondrous since Ben was born, but the summer of 2005, when Michael was in full todderhood, and every day while Lori worked was just the two of us ... well, it was a unique kind of special, which I'm glad I experienced, and I'm glad ended when we had another son.

That summer, we drove to Southern California for a friend's wedding and turned it into a weeklong vacation for the three of us. We stayed in Las Vegas the first night (temperature: 117 degrees when we arrived) and had a view from the Flamingo of the Bellagio fountain, moving a chair in front of the window so Michael could watch. We stayed in San Diego a few nights, going to Lego Land and Sea World. We stayed in Westwood a few nights as well. The vacation was great.

In San Diego, Lori was meeting a work contact for lunch, and instead of attempting the zoo or something that required more of a time commitment, Michael and I went to a model train museum in Balboa Park. This turned out to be a kind of hidden vacation gem. The train layouts were fantastic, and the visit required just enough time to have fun without necessitating a whole afternoon. There was a kids area with a few tables of wooden Thomas the Tank Engine trains, and Michael must have played for an hour. That evening, we were at Target and saw the die-cast metal versions of the trains (smaller, and cheaper than the wooden ones, with plastic tracks) and bought him his first ones. Thomas, Percy, Annie and Clarabel, and Alfie.

A couple days later, we were in L.A. and went to Travel Town, admiring the life-size train cars at the outdoor museum, riding the mini train around the park, and ending up in the gift shop. Ten years ago, Thomas the Tank Engine was enjoying a resurgence of short, fueled by product merchandising, especially the wooden trains. But it wasn't on TV that much yet. The times he had played trains had him so engaged that when we saw a video at the gift shop, we bought it for him as well. He watched it the rest of the trip (alternating with Baby Einstein's Number Nursery).

The video was old Thomas episodes from the 1980s, when George Carlin narrated and the production was awesomely low tech. Those episodes used real model trains, which was so appealing to Michael. The stories were perfectly paced for toddlers.

We eventually switched to the wooden trains and bought more videos. Ben became as big a fan as his brother. The episodes started showing up on Sprout, with newer seasons a little more slickly produced but still using the model trains. But inevitably, they outgrew the things they loved as little kids, just like all kids do. And horribly, new Thomas episodes are all computer-generated -- it's painful to watch.

The trains are all put away, only coming out when younger kids come over or the boys feel like building something (it's engineering for them, not so much play). The videos remain on the DVD shelf, waiting for the day a decade or two off that they are shared with grandkids. The boys, still boys of course, grew up.

I sometimes get the urge to put on one of the old Thomas episodes or another video from 10 years ago (e.g., The Wiggles, Baby Einstein, Curious Buddies) to be nostalgic, but I resist because I think it would make me a little sad. It's especially acute with Thomas the Tank Engine because it was from a time when it was just the three of us, when we went on a wonderful summer vacation and this was one of the memories we brought back.


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