Trial by Thomas the Tank Engine

It was only a matter of time. For months, I had been dodging questions, avoiding the topic and changing the subject. But eventually, I knew I could no longer hold out. Everywhere I turned, there he was, that eerie perma-grin leering back at me from books, magazines, TV and the toy box. Trying to outrun him was as futile as trying to outrun a runaway freight train, albeit with manners. Try as I might, I could no longer escape Thomas the Tank Engine.

And believe me, I tried.

For the first year of my son’s life, we had lived in peaceful oblivion – Thomas, Sir Topham Hat and the Isle of Sodor but tiny specks on the horizon. Then, a neighbor whose son had moved on to bigger pastimes offered up the Thomas the Tank motherlode including: mini crane; roundhouse with revolving platform; Thomas (several actually) and the entire crew; a dinosaur tunnel with prehistoric sound effects; draw bridge; jet engine; and enough track to circumnavigate the globe. I should have slammed the door and ran and hid. But instead, I fell for it. And before I knew it, I was the proud new owner of several crates of Thomas-phernalia.

As if a mini Isle of Sodor in my living room wasn’t bad enough, Thomas fever soon swept his preschool, spreading faster than a case of pink eye. Suddenly, we started hearing about Thomas at dinner, Thomas at breakfast, and Thomas all day long. The word on the playground was that Thomas was coming to town.

As any good parent would do, I immediately quashed the rumors. Thomas lived far, far, away, in the land of little wooden people whose mouths never moved when they talked, I told him. And between here and there, was a deep, dangerous, stormy ocean, infested with fire-breathing dragons and one-legged pirates with hooks for arms. There was no way Thomas and his ear-piercing whistle and minions of squealing young devotees was ever going to make it to Durango, ever. End of story.

For a while, it stuck, and we lived with the peaceful understanding that Thomas was a figment of the imagination, a fictional character who didn’t really exist. Then, my house of carefully played cards came crashing down – we saw Thomas. Actually, we heard him first, his irritatingly happy toot echoing down the track as we made our way along the bike path. Bordered on one side by a chainlink fence and on the other by a rock retaining wall, there was nowhere to turn. We were trapped, a captive audience for the bubbly blue engine full of deliriously happy children and parents, who were delirious for a different reason.

“Mom – Thomas!” Baxter screamed before swooning to the ground, as if he had just borne witness to the second coming.

For me, it was Armageddon of a different sort. From that day forward, I was bombarded by questions: Where did Thomas live? Where was he going? Why were people riding him? Could we ride him? To Silverton? And when? From that day forward, I knew until we rode Thomas, there would never be peace in my life.

So a few weeks ago, I quietly booked tickets for the Thomaspalooza, and for the next three days, Thomas mania built up inside my son like a pint-sized pressure cooker. By the time the big day arrived, the poor tyke had worked himself into a frenzy. Limbs spun every which way and speech was reduced to a nonsensical gibberish, tongue tied by a peculiar Thomas mantra. It was like a Captain Crunch buzz spun horribly out of control, except instead of sugar, he was running on pure, unadulterated Thomas dope.

We arrived at the station, greeted by what I can only describe as the closest I’ll ever come to Beatle mania. Small children shrieked at ear-splitting decibels while Thomas idled on the tracks. I gave silent thanks for the common sense to curb my drinking the night before to keep a handle on the chaos. Other parents, however, were taking no chances, with several kid leashes out in full force. Perhaps they were concerned that little Bobby would get swept up in the mad rush and dart under Thomas’ wheels or run off to the temporary tattoo booth only to return covered in unsightly cartoon ink.

Awash in a sea of unbridled anticipation, we stood aside and watched as the trip before ours headed out of the station. And that’s when, without warning, the pressure cooker blew. My child threw himself prostrate on the ground, overcome with grief that he had missed Thomas, his three years on this earth down the tubes. I spent the next several minutes consoling him that Thomas would be right back, and no, I was not lying to him this time like I did about the one-armed pirates.

Finally, with enough persuasion, he was able to pick himself up again and resume living.

And like I had promised, Thomas returned. We boarded, took our seats, and in no time, Thomas lurched forward as his wheels came to life. He tooted his horn in response to the children’s cheers, and a collective shiver went down the spines of every one under the age of 5. Meanwhile, every adult heaved a sigh of relief for at least 30 minutes of restrained captivity.

For the next half hour, a strange calm settled over the train. As the scenery slowly rumbled by, Baxter stared dreamily into space, caught in a Thomas trance. He finally snapped out of it once the train returned to the station, abruptly stopping short, sending him flying into the aisle (should have had the leash). And as quickly as it had begun, our ride with Thomas was over.

I would like to say that I left the train with new insight into the lure of Thomas. That I now understood what it was that attracted legions of adoring young fans, causing them to badger their parents for months on end until they finally collapse and give in to their whims. But the allure of the chummy choo-choo was still shrouded in mystery.

And in my mind, that’s exactly as it should be. After all, if parents completely understood why their kids did what they did, it would take all the fun out of it. Which would explain the extreme pleasure that comes from Glow Golf or a frosted doughnut with rainbow sprinkles.

Yet, all this is not to say that I did not gain a new respect for Thomas that day. As far as children’s role models go, he’s fairly innocuous – no swearing, no bare midriffs, no killing, no guns, no bling. Sure, I still cringe whenever the Thomas munchkin chorus breaks into a round of “Boo Hoo Choo Choo,” but I’ll take that over a Power Ranger or Bratz doll any day.

-Missy Votel