This past summer, we decided to take the kids on a train ride. We looked at the old-fashioned locomotive choices nearby, but eventually and reluctantly—thanks to our youngest son’s addiction—we finally settled on the notorious “Day Out With Thomas.” Never mind that we had attended/survived this event once before with our oldest son, George; for Mark it was sure to be a religious experience. His obsession with all-things-railway will likely be listed in the next DSM. If there were an S.A.T. analogy for our son’s pastime, it might look something like: 

MARK COLLINS : CHOO-CHOOS :: PABLO ESCOBAR : COCAINE.

For those unfamiliar with the “Day Out With Thomas” festival, this nationwide touring jamboree for the Gymboree set is, in essence, a Vienna sausage party—an incontinent spectacle, where boys (primarily) between the ages of two and seven (mostly) flock to a day of single-minded celebration to honor their hero—a blue train named Thomas who, like creepy old gym teachers from the 70s, enjoys children and mischief in equal measure. 

On the day of the gathering, true to form, we arrive twelve seconds prior to our reservation’s final boarding whistle, which means we have to board the train before ever seeing the engine pulling us. We’re late for a variety of reasons, the first being that I have somehow forgotten my phone and am unable to pull up an interstate map. The second, and most noteworthy, is that we ran over a squirrel. For the record, if you hit a squirrel on the parkway going 75 mph, it sounds quite different than when you clock one in town. In town, it sounds as though you’ve simply run over a stale biscuit. On the parkway, however, it sounds like you’ve collided with a rusty wheelbarrow full of pipe wrenches and tapioca. One of these pipe wrenches will clatter about your rear axle for a good three miles, prompting your children to shout: “Daddy! What’s that noise?” Be advised that answering “skull” will result in a lengthy, follow-up Q&A.

Yet, despite this fatality, we have arrived, each of us in the throes of our own brand of psychological deterioration, with Mark taking the lead by several furlongs. “How do we know we are riding on Thomas?!” he asks. “Huh? How? Huh?” I’m not sure how to answer, but I suppose this leap of faith is good practice for his wedding day, when he has to lift the veil and all.

It would be putting it mildly to say that the air-conditioned coach into which we are escorted smells like it is used to transport open barrels of urine in the off-season. The parents who are already on board, have covered their mouths and noses with baby wipes as if the bearer of the avian flu has just hatched in the luggage rack. Robbie bugs out his eyes and whispers “MY. GOD.” George loudly demands to know: “WHO PEED?” Mark, still inconsolable that we have yet to see the face of Thomas, crosses his chubby arms and sulks, unaware that he may soon require resuscitation. I suddenly recall a Greyhound bus trip that I took in college. It was the 11:00 p.m. local from Albany to Penn Station and it transported me—and forty men drinking from paper bags who staggered up and down the aisle in elastic waist pants and were never able to locate the lavatory—into Manhattan at its finest hour. “This’ll be fun,” I tell the kids. “Hide your wallets.”

Thankfully, our journey through Lucifer’s urethra only lasts fifteen minutes, and then we are off the train, only once again to be diverted from seeing Thomas’s face. We are shuffled by a porter out onto festival grounds where a tarp-covered area named Imagination Station awaits. Imagination Station is nothing more than a collection of communal train tables, a glorified pediatrician’s waiting room if you will, where eighty children who have yet to receive their rabies vaccinations convene on a grand total of four trains.

The melee that ensues in the next fifteen seconds makes Mike Tyson look like a vegan. Arms are bitten into like corncobs, children hold their breath until they’re the color of the cabernet I failed to bring along. Things get especially tough for poor Mark who has brought his own train from home. No matter that “MARK” is written on it with Sharpie, this particular toy is soon regarded by the wolf-children as a porterhouse. Mark does his darnedest to protect what is rightfully his, but these kids—who make World Cup soccer fans look like ladies who lunch—go for the jugular. 

One child (I'll call him Damien), decides to disembowel Mark’s train with a rogue incisor, leaving its wheels in one area of the tent, its body in another, and its AA battery inside a tiny tunnel. I reassemble all of this amid the confusion, which proves not unlike preparing taxes at Woodstock. At this point, Mark is on the verge of a dissociative fugue, and it’s all my fault: bringing his own train had been my suggestion. Here, son. Here’s a loincloth made of ham. Let me drop you at this Yosemite trailhead for a day you’ll never forget. Guilty, I propose a change of venue. “Let’s try the petting zoo!” I say. Surely having our fingers snapped off by a llama will trump this fracas, which is proving to be as recreational as a kidney stone.

Out in the open, I see the crowd is a varied one. Hipsters, rednecks, granolas, clean-cut churchgoers, motorcyclists, homeschoolers, country clubbers, geeks, freaks, and Sikhs. All of us are here in the name of Thomas. I can think of no other character to draw such a motley congregation, except for maybe Bruce Springsteen or Trader Joe’s Speculoos Cookie Butter. Mark’s small voice breaks my detachment. “When are we going to see Thomas?” he asks solemnly, cradling his tooth-marked train, surprisingly patient. His sweet face and pink cheeks and eyes that are fading from bewildered to hopeless look up at me. My God. This child. What sort of emotional hurricane have I just subjected him to? I swoon and pull him up into my arms. “When Mommy?” 

It’s then that I realize that had this been a typical outing—one for which I had brought my phone—the day would have already have been over-documented with triple-filtered photos and comedic videos of public fashion faux pas. By chronicling our adventure, I would have reduced—what I’m now realizing is my child’s milestone—into a parental sideshow. Never mind that it IS a circus, it’s just that without my phone, I’m forced to let it all sink in. I’m forced to flounder in humanity’s chaos. I’m forced to sit, with empty hands, and surrender to being in the moment. I’ve been here before. This is where I lived most of my life, actually. A little more conscious, a little more flummoxed, a little more at sea with how the world really is. A little more anonymous. A little less self-absorbed, a little more terrified of reality, a little more humbled by it. A little more connected to what is here before me. Which, at this moment, is my son, dejected and doe-eyed, staring, like me, out at this strange, strange world we call home.

Seeing that Thomas is out on yet another urine delivery, I motion to Robbie and George and swing Mark up onto my hip and guide us to a tent that’s serving up Belgium’s delightful chemical warfare: the funnel cake. We sit with paper plates, flimsy from grease, and gaze out at the madness. Mark melds into my lap. A little girl with a leopard-print eye patch (or is it a giant nipple sticker?) approaches us and stares out at us with her good eye, like a stray dog waiting for a bite. A veteran zooms past on a motorized wheelchair. I see a biker bend down to fix his child’s hair, a tattoo of a skull with a dagger through one eye on his upper arm. A mother in a corduroy jumper bows her head in prayer before eating a corn dog. We are all God’s children, I hear myself silently say, awash in some sort of uncharacteristic brotherly love no doubt fueled by gluten and agoraphobia. We are all good. And then, before I can launch into a round of “Kumbaya,” we hear it, all of us: the distant, unmistakable PEEP! PEEP! of Thomas. 

“HE’S COMING!!!!” Mark shouts, leaping from my lap. 

“HE’S ON HIS WAY!!” Robbie and I exclaim in delight. 

“HERE HE IS!!” George yells, unable to hide his genuine excitement. 

“IT’S THOMAS,” we all scream. “IT’S THOMAS THE TANK ENGINE!!!!”

Thomas puffs toward the station. We drop our funnel cakes and run to meet him. This is no cheap, aluminum train cozy before us; this is an honest-to-goodness bright blue steam engine who’s puffing big, bonafide puffs of white steam. And look! The closer he gets we can see: his eyes are moving! His mouth is moving! He’s even talking! “Hello!” Thomas says. “I’m Thomas! It’s so good to see you today! I’ve been expecting you!” 

Mark and George are speechless. I blink back giant, hot tears. Robbie hasn’t held his breath this long since we rode on Thomas forty-five minutes ago. Thomas comes to a stop at our feet. A hush falls over the crowd. There is the soft sound of gentle weeping. Children’s small palms reach out in reverence. The little girl with the leopard-print eye patch (Wait. That IS a giant nipple sticker) removes it from her eye. She can see! She is healed! 

“Can I touch Thomas?” Mark whispers. “Please?” 

I have no idea if this is allowed, but we didn’t drive all this way to get jumped outside of a Stones’ concert and not see Mick. “Yes,” I say. “You may touch him. I duck under the yellow tape, and Mark reaches out toward the giant blue train. Thomas’s eyes click toward us and wink. Mark sighs in awe. I see a security guard coming our way. “Touch him,” I say. “Touch him now!”

Later, on the ride home, with no photos or videos or documentation of the day to peruse, we drive home in contented silence, gazing out at log cabins turned into convenience stores, storm clouds the color of denim on the horizon, dotted fields of wildflowers, billboards for God alongside bourbon distilleries. I pull down my sun visor to look back at my sons who have surrendered to a catatonic state, the way Shakers, exhausted from spiritual frenzy once did. What a day. What a day out. I go to give myself a smug wink in the mirror and it’s only then that I notice that all of us are covered from nostril to chin in powdered sugar. All four of us, white-nosed and sated. Pablo Escobars all around.

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AuthorWhitney Collins