Building Up Steam

My son, Short Stack is really getting fun. He’s three and a half now, but a mature three and a half. He might even be clocking in at a wholesome five or six when it comes to being aware of the world around him and concerned with his impact on it. I can say with all chests puffing pride that he really tries to be a good boy and it comes naturally.

What his behavior and general demeanor means to me is that I can put things in his hands that most adults would never, EVER consider. Like, say… a two hundred and fifty dollar model train that was a gift to me from my grandparents over two decades ago. Now granted, he’s three and needs to be supervised, but I have no worries that he knows to be gentle and careful. As I carefully set the heavy locomotive in his tiny hands, the awe that spreads across his face like morning light, far out weights the risk of accidental train-icide and I am vindicated by his exaggerated caution as he turns it over to examine the detail.

Like most children who have access to oxygen and some form of video entertainment, my son has been thoroughly sucked into the world of Thomas the Tank Engine and this, in my opinion, is not even a mixed blessing. To be frank, Action Girl and I really, really, REALLY do not care for the little, blue train and his friends.

“Why?” you might ask, abject horror etched into you visage at the thought that I, could in some way dislike the deeply loved characters, created by the Reverend A.W. Audrey, and whom are known by name by most of the global population under three feet tall. It’s simple, really. They crash. A lot. With great regularity, actually. I’d have to guess that Thomas and the other engines spend roughly a quarter of their days getting pulled out of ditches, canals or other non-train friendly environments. Short Stack, being a little sponge in his own universe, has now taken to using his own little, wooden train set to stage various Casey Jonesesque mishaps, often with great enthusiasm and accompanying sound effects. I don’t mind action in play, but it’s rough on the toys, and I refuse to replace or repair anything smashed intentionally. Also, the locomotives in Thomas have a tendency to act in a way they refer to as “being cheeky.” To more accurately describe the behavior in American english, I’d use the words, “mean” and “rude.” These are not words I would use to describe my kids and i don’t appreciate the show modeling it for them.


I needed an antidote to Thomas.

When I was a kid, there was a fantastic toy store on Main Street, aptly named, “Toy City” and by happenstance, it lay directly between my grade school and the school where my Mother taught. After I had finished a fun filled day getting grilled on spelling, math, religion and penmanship (or my lack of), visiting Toy City on my walk to get my ride home was a huge plus in an otherwise academia infested day.

When you walked into the store though the old and ornate set of oak double doors, directly to your left was a glass case filled with beautiful and expensive electric locomotives, I was never a huge train fiend, but these things were a work of beauty. Couple that with the strange lust that most young boys have to control a toy without touching it, and it was enough to make me desperately want one of these jewels. They would gnaw at my brain and I never walked out of the store with out looking them over and dreaming.

My parents, taking in the less than subtle hints I handed out for some years, got me a starter set for Christmas and I happily assembled it and made my little locomotive pull long lines of cars in perpetual circles. It was basic, but it was fun and made me want to add to it. Add as much as I could! The problem I had was one of experience. I had none and my Father, though always enthusiastic to dive into a project, didn’t have much to lend on the topic of toy trains. I knew I had to find out how to build it all.

One day, my Father took me for a drive with the promise of seeing something special. We wound our way through suburbia and eventually pulled into an unfamiliar driveway. This was where I met Mr. Mellish, Bob, as Dad knew him. He was someone Dad knew from business and this man,… LOVED trains. As we all walked into his basement, and the lights came on, I thought I was seeing things. The entire space was filled… totally filled!… with one massive labor of love. The train layout was of such a size that it actually disappeared around the corner. The level of detail was mind blowing and working on it with Mr. Mellish would become my Wednesday afternoon ritual for the summer. Once a week, my father would drop me off after work and, happily munching on a sandwich provided my Mrs. Mellish, I would wiggle under tables to run wire for impossibly small street lights, poke up through access holes to install miniature trees and naturally, drive the trains! It was a train heaven.

My Father and I started a set in my basement as well, but sadly, it never really got that close to completion. With a draw like the set at Mr. Mellish’s house, it was hard to drum up enthusiasm for my own little sheet of plywood and I tended to save my train energies for the visits to my steam guru’s house. I did manage to build up a nice little collection of track, rolling stock (cars) and a few locomotives over the years, but they saw limited use in my own home. Eventually, they were boxed up and became part of the load of baggage that I’ve schlepped from living space to living space. Other than a few times when the box was opened to see just what the heck was in there, they haven’t seen daylight in easily fifteen to twenty years.

You can guess where this is going, can’t you? Tonight, after Lulu Belle had been put down in her crib with a bottle and roughly ninety stuffed animals, Short Stack and I ventured into the basement. On the concrete floor, I had set up the bits of track that I still had and hooked it all up to make a loop. The look on his face was one of pure joy. Within a few minutes, he had grasped how to run the trains and was happily and carefully sending them around in circles, complete with narrative as to what was going on. No crashes, no cheeky behavior. Just happy train driving.

After an hour or so, I broke the news to him that it was bedtime and we headed up stairs to get the evening abolitions out of the way. Once the stories were done and the kisses handed out, he stopped me before I could leave.


“What is it kiddo?”

“Will you go back down cellar and play with the trains?” His face was earnest and I wasn’t sure what the right answer was here.

“Um… I don’t know. Why?”

“Can you drive them while I’m asleep?”

This caught me off guard and I smiled. “Do you want me to?”

“Yah, Daddy! I do! And then I will play trains with you again tomorrow.”

After making my promise, I walked back into the basement and I tried to imagine it with a more permanent track set up. Nothing the scale of Mr. Mellish’s to be sure, but something fun. Short Stack seems to be thrilled that we have an avocation in common and I, for one, am not going to let it slip past me. It’s going to take some digging and shuffling to make room, but I’m willing to try.

Time spent enjoying life with my kids and getting the chance to play with some of my old toys is nothing to overlook. Besides, I might finally get to build that layout I always dreamed about as I gazed at my little plywood train table in the cellar of my childhood house. It seems that all I needed was the help of an enthusiast whom I was yet to know.

It just took longer than I expected for me meet him.

8 Responses

  1. wow, that’s a really beautiful story 🙂

    • Thanks! It’s been four nights in a row now that he’s asked to go drive the trains after his sister has gone to bed. It’s a good time spent one on one with him and I’l loving every second!


  2. My dad has two train sets at my grandmother’s house that still worked. One was a newer set from the 60’s that we played with most of the time. The other was a much older set from the early 50’s that we played with only occasionally. That one was the best. It was bigger, louder and when the train was moving along, sparks would shoot out from the wheels. I don’t know if it was from poor wiring or from design – but man it was cool. In a very non-PC feature a little black conductor would pop out of a booth every time the train went by.

    It’s now in my mom’s basement collecting dust. If I ever get a basement of my own – I’m going to try and make it run again.

    Good luck with your locomotive adventures.

    • I was always in awe of the bigger train scales but knew that there was no place big enough for me to run them. Looking back, I wish I had started with N scale now since they are about half the size of mine. Smaller trains = bigger set up!

      Don’t let that old setup at your Mom’s disappear! I know I tend to hoard stuff, but a treasure like that, once it’s gone, is usually gone for good! Plus, the sparks! Never underestimate the fun that sparks bring! WooHoo!


  3. Nice story.

    I think that getting your son interested in toy trains is a good thing. Particularly if you can interest him in building his own scenery in the future. He would learn skills that will come in handy, later in life and it would be a great creative outlet.

    • He’s a pretty meticulous kid, so I’m hoping that he’ll gravitate to modeling. I was always big into models and have just about everything anyone could want when it comes to building little houses, scenes, airplanes, or what ever! If he wants to, I’ll be happy to kit him out with tools and sit right down next to him and start making stuff!


  4. The man up the street when I was kid had a serious train set. He started in expectation of his first son and added it to it with each expectant child. He had 5 girls … that were never interested in trains.
    He had to wait for his first grandson … who seemed quite pleased.

    • It’s really funny that you say that. Just last night a friend stopped by and told me that I had a shot at a first. “If you can get him interested in trains, you will be the first father to ever get their own child interested in the hobby.”

      I think he might be right. I’ll make sure to apply NO pressure! I don’t want to spoil it!


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