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Training Session

picture of Thomas the Tank Engine

Many younger Americans don't have much experience with trains any more since AmTrak passenger service does not go to smaller towns as trains do in other countries. And so I think it's an interesting phenomenon that Thomas the Tank Engine is capturing the hearts and minds of so many little boys. This week I'm being plunged into the world of Thomas.

Our daughter Megan, son-in-law Jim, and two-and-a-half-year-old grandson Drew are here for a week, and since I last saw them four months ago, Drew has become obsessed with all things Thomas. It's astounding to me that he can tell you the name of any of the 60 different train cars at a glance! Poppy has some catching up to do and will undoubtedly not be up to speed by week's end.

Trains have been a part of my life since my earliest recollection. My dad worked as a switchman from his early twenties until his death of a massive heart attack at age 42. My wife and I grew up in Fostoria, Ohio, a small town about 40 miles southeast of Toledo. We young Fostorians we were always told that our tiny town was one of the places the Germans planned to bomb, had they bombed in the USA during World War II. Why? Because the lines of 5 different railroad companies intersected in Fostoria. Growing up, I never lived more than two houses from a railroad track and learned quite young to sleep through the sound of trains rumbling by all night long.

When I was in high school I got to ride my first passenger train with my grandparents from Fostoria to Chicago where we changed trains to continue on to St. Louis to visit my aunt and uncle. Between my junior and senior year of college I made my first trip to Europe. I had a three-week Eurail Pass and traveled all over France and Germany and visited several cities in Switzerland and Austria. That experience was very useful to me when I took 7 mission teams of students to France. We traveled often by train to get to the place of our next week of service.

If you've ever ridden on a passenger train, you know that you meet all kinds of people and have many memorable experiences, especially if you travel in compartments. One of my most vivid memories was on my first trip to Europe. Trains were not air conditioned then, and so windows were generally wide open in the summer heat. It was still very warm inside those trains! On a trip from Paris to Calais to visit my aunts and cousins, I was in a compartment with several other people, one of whom was a young Arab guy. My money was getting low, the train car was hot and breezy, and I was extremely thirsty. The young Arab guy offered the rest of us a bottle of room temperature Coca Cola, beginning with me. I happily accepted his kind offer and was looking forward to even warm Coke until I saw him remove the bottle cap with his teeth! I managed to down the Coke, but it was more quenching than enjoyable. For some reason our travel companions all turned down his kind offer after seeing what he did to my bottle....

If any of you are thinking about train travel in Europe, I would recommend compartments over train cars. When I first started going to Europe in the early 70s, there were smoking cars and non-smoking cars. Now that the trains claim to be air conditioned (a claim I have not found valid by my American standards), every passenger train car has a smoking end and a non-smoking end, separated by a glass arch that allows air to circulate freely from one end to the other, propelled by the "air conditioning." So basically all passenger cars are smoking, with a strongly smoking end and a less-but-still smoky end. If you choose a compartment instead, there are still actual non-smoking compartments whose occupants usually squawk loudly if anyone lights up in the compartment. That's the way it is in France — I don't know about the rest of Europe anymore.


Here's a joke about four people traveling in a train compartment.

In a compartment on a train car were a American, an Frenchman, a spectacular looking blonde and a dreadful looking old lady. After several minutes the train went through a dark tunnel, and the unmistakable sound of a slap was heard. When they left the tunnel, the Frenchman had a big red slap mark on his cheek.

The blonde thought, "That Frenchman probably wanted to touch me, and by mistake he must have put his hand on the old lady, who in turn must have slapped his face."

The old lady thought, "That flirtatious Frenchman must have touched the blonde and she smacked him."

The Frenchman thought, "O-là-là! That American probably made a pass at that blonde and she slapped me by mistake."

The American thought, "I hope there's another tunnel soon so I can smack that Frenchman again."


Drew does not have many trains in the Thomas collection yet — I'm sure that Christmas will change that status somewhat. Here's a picture from Megan's blog of Drew putting every vehicle he owns into a train formation.

picture of Drew making a train

We've enjoyed a lot of quiet, restful activities since Meg and her family arrived. Drew and I have read almost all the way through the book Thomas' Big Storybook that Megan borrowed from her local library and brought along. Drew would sit on my lap and listen to the whole book, but we take breaks as my voice wears out. Here we are in a reading session this morning.

picture of Drew and Poppy reading Thomas

Drew even likes to "read" the book to himself.

picture of Drew and Poppy reading Thomas

A fun and definitely not quiet activity that we've had is going to the banana box sale at our local Sav-Mor store early Saturday morning. Megan blogged about it, so I'll just link to her post. Here's picture of Nora and me organizing our two boxes of over $200 worth of groceries for which we paid the asking price of only $7 per box!

picture of Nora and me organizing

Do you have train experiences to share? Do you have a little guy in your life who shares Drew's love for Thomas?


"Our lives should be absent of worry and full of praise." - Drew Conley

=^..^= =^..^=

The pessimist sees a dark tunnel; the optimist sees a light at the end; the realist sees the light of an oncoming train; the engineer sees 3 idiots on the tracks.

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17 Comments on “Training Session”

  1. #1 Brian
    on Nov 30th, 2009 at 12:37 pm

    I had a fixation for trains as a little boy. Now I have a hobby! I still enjoy trains though the ones for older “boys” are more expensive and I don’t have room for a large model railroad. I do have one that goes around the base of the Christmas tree. I was able to go to the University Art trip to Chicago a few weeks ago and was excited to see the eL trains.

    O.P. Taylor’s downtown has many Thomas products and a TV monitor in the back that seems to continually run Thomas videos. It might be a haven for Drew, but he might never want to leave.

  2. #2 Michael
    on Nov 30th, 2009 at 12:55 pm

    I have watched a few minutes of a couple of Thomas the Train episodes and I don’t see what the attraction is for little kids. They programs seem boring. How can they hold the supposedly shorter attention spans of little ones?

    As for my personal train experiences, I’ve had the privilege of riding some of the more famous subway systems in the world (New York, London, Washington, D.C.). Subways are fascinating to me. I love the convenience they provide and I revel in the challenge of trying to find the fastest route from place to place. They are also full of interesting people. It’s really interesting to me to see people jump on a subway carrying several bags of groceries. That just reminds me that many people ride the subway rather than use their own personal vehicles.

  3. #3 b.j.
    on Nov 30th, 2009 at 1:51 pm

    wow! wish there was a sav-mor near us!

    I lived in a house that used to be an old train station around civil war days or just after. The train literally ran past the back of the house about 3 feet away, and the house shook. Fun memories!

    You’re right about being able to sleep through it. funny how I could sleep through a train rumbling by, but not through brother’s snoring…

  4. #4 Laura
    on Nov 30th, 2009 at 3:06 pm

    @Michael–I think that the charm of Thomas videos for kids is the train engines are a lot like the kids themselves are, sometimes wanting to be helpful, sometimes naughty, etc. They watch with interest to see how it all works out, probably imagining themselves in the place of the engines.

    @IVman–Our boys always loved Thomas, perhaps especially since one is NAMED Thomas! We heard of a Thomas the Tank Engine train ride in NC once . . . but it appears that they only do it on a limited basis, and it might be over for this year. See http://www.traintraveling.com/events/thomas/south.shtml for the links. Maybe you could get tickets next year. It looks from the site like it runs in Michigan, too.

  5. #5 Nancy
    on Nov 30th, 2009 at 6:21 pm

    When our daughter was five, we had pulled off the road in our little town to watch a train back into the local feed store to drop off a car and then return to the main track. The engineer climbed down to ask if she had ever ridden a train before, and before everything was said and done, she and I joined him for a ride in the engine while my husband and another man from the train drove a couple of stops on down the track. She got to blow the whistle everytime she saw the “w” sign until we caught up to the rest of our entourage. Quite a field trip that day, and we never knew which of us had the best time. “W” has remained a favorite letter in her alphabet. 🙂

  6. #6 Carrie
    on Nov 30th, 2009 at 8:46 pm

    Such fun comments! I guess I’ve had a lot of experience with trains too. I grew up out in the country not too far from a track. We used to walk on it picking up hunks of shiny black/green stuff. (We didn’t realize we were committing a crime!)

    As a child my family visited Dad’s Canadian relatives, and took a train. We even got to ride in the sleeper car! About the only thing I remember is climbing a little ladder into a tiny bunk with beige curtains.

    I’ve also ridden the train in France with Mr. Loach, and played lots of Rook while riding. . . Our house in the south is within a quarter mile of three tracks. Of course we learned to sleep through their noise. Our place here is far from tracks–I hope it doesn’t take too long to get used to it again when we move back!

    And last, but not least, my kids used to love Thomas. I guess they’ve grown out of him.

    .-= Carrie’s most recent blog post … A Few Things =-.

  7. #7 Carol Giddings
    on Dec 1st, 2009 at 12:35 am

    Our youngest Daniel is 8 and still LOVES Thomas and friends! However, he loves them now only at home and won’t have us dare mention it outside the house. He still gets his tracks and books out every so often and has a good train day. He loves trains of many kinds, but Thomas and friends are the favoured ones!

    I have a great picture of him in the Thomas store in PA begging us to buy the things he has in hand-too funny.

    Rob adds the picture Carol sent of Daniel:

    picture of Daniel begging for Thomas stuff

  8. #8 Marilyn
    on Dec 1st, 2009 at 1:34 am

    Wow! You went right through my home town on that trip from Fostoria to Chicago. We lived about 5 miles out in the country as I was growing up, but we could hear those “lonesome” train whistles at our house, especially on a still night.

  9. #9 Rob
    on Dec 1st, 2009 at 6:50 am

    @Brian – It was interesting to learn of your early fixation, turned hobby, with trains. Thanks for the tip about O.P Taylor’s. We will definitely have to include that in a downtown visit, if not this visit, in a future visit.

    @Michael – From what I’ve read of the Thomas book and seen in Drew’s video, I would have to agree with Laura’s comment about the various trains’ exhibiting human traits in different difficult situations. There seems to be a gentle admonition to be more patient, less boastful, etc. or a decision on the part of the train to act differently next time he’s faced with a similar dilemma. I share your love for subways. I have the most experience with the subway system in Paris and admire it’s organization and low cost. More recently we have tried and liked MARTA in Atlanta. I love it when public transportation can get you almost anywhere you want to go. But I like my little ’99 red Ford Ranger too. 🙂

    @b.j. – I wish I were more motivated to go to the Sav-Mor banana box sale more often. You really need at least two people in your group to get the most from it. The boxes get heavy and you need someone on the sidelines to combine what you’ve found and then to guard the stuff while the other(s) scavenger(s) for more. It really was fun … and kinda scary to see so many people you know from various venues of life.

    @Laura – Thanks for the insights about Thomas, especially the link about the ride up in NC. Future visits….

    @Nancy – What a great experience and neat memory to share! It’s especially fun when little unexpected adventures happen like that. Thanks for sharing that with us!

    @Carrie – Thanks for your reminiscences of trains in your past, some fairly recent. I have great memories of train trips with students who accompanied us to France. Some are nice to have a memories since I wouldn’t want to repeat a few of the experiences! 😀

    @Carol – Thanks for sharing Daniel’s love of Thomas with us, including the picture of his irresistible little face. Did you resist his pleas?

    @Marilyn – I would have waved from the window had I known! What was your hometown?

  10. #10 Kathy P.
    on Dec 2nd, 2009 at 12:59 pm

    Ahh — the things you learn when you have grandsons! I didn’t know about Thomas until Alex came along — we read all the books; saw all the dvd’s — the library had a HUGE selection. Alex is now 5 and learning to read, and he still enjoys the books.

    I believe they were written by a preacher — hence, the reason for many life lessons. (Don’t know where I read that, but it is sticking in my mind.)

    Now with 2 more little grandsons nearing 2 years old, we are into Thomas again. We see Cranky Crane everywhere — and they can name all the other characters as well. Compared to all the other children’s programming out there, Thomas is a delight.

    (We are also into The Little Engine that Could right now. 🙂 )

    Wish America had the same train system as Europe. We’ve traveled many miles on a Eurail Pass and enjoyed every minute! … well, almost. There was the time from Genoa to Barcelona during Spring Break. A school had booked a couple of berths in the sleeper where Sparky and I were sleeping. One of the chaperons shuffled students in and out all night long trying to give each of them an hour or two of sleep! But hey — it was an experience we won’t ever forget and something to laugh about later!

    Happy trains to you!

  11. #11 Vikki
    on Dec 2nd, 2009 at 2:03 pm

    When I was a kid, we had a set of freight train tracks that ran behind our house. I don’t remember them keeping me awake, but I do remember all the things in the medicine cabinet rattling when a train passed and not being able to talk to anyone outside until the train was gone.

    I took a train trip a couple of times as a teen from Appleton (just south of Green Bay) to Milwaukee, WI to visit a friend of mine. What I remember most is the car swaying side to side as it zipped past the countryside and the constant clickety-clack of the tracks.

    My grandfather worked for a number of years for the railroad and the depot was just a couple of blocks away from his house. I remember him showing me the local round house when I was little and being amazed that a train could actually be turned inside it. Being a kid, I thought the whole train went in there to turn around — not just the engine. Knowing my grandpa’s sense of humor, I’m sure he was only too happy to let me believe just that.

  12. #12 Rob
    on Dec 2nd, 2009 at 2:49 pm

    @Kathy – Thanks for the insights from a grandparent who is just a couple of ties further down the tracks than we are. 😀 Just from what I’ve observed this week, I would agree with what you’ve said about the lessons in the Thomas stories and about the stark contrast to much of what’s “out there” today in children’s programming (some of which is really out there!) I also share your appraisal of the trains in Europe. Most of it is enjoyable, but as with everything that involves people, there are potential downsides.

    @Vikki – Thanks for your remembrances of trains from your childhood and youth. Our little town didn’t have a round house, as I recall. I think they had sidelines that were loops for turning engines around. My dad worked in the “yards” where they would put trains together, sometimes single cars at a time, sometimes groups of cars. Dad’s work was uniquely with freight trains.

  13. #13 Ellen
    on Dec 3rd, 2009 at 1:41 am

    My kids love Thomas (and James and Percy and Gordon . . .)! The thing I enjoy about Thomas is that most, if not all, of the time whenever one of the characters does wrong, he is corrected and often disciplined for it. So many times in today’s programs, the disobedient character is often portrayed as humorous and his wrong-doing played down (e.g. Spud on Bob the Builder). So, I appreciate that the producers of Thomas do not let that happen.

    I’m sure that adults and even older children probably do not enjoy Thomas as much, but he’s still a pretty big hit with my kids, though I think part of the fascination for them is when they act out the stories that they’ve watched. My kids do love to pretend play!

  14. #14 Bethany Lovegrove
    on Dec 4th, 2009 at 10:22 am

    For my husband David’s comments about Thomas real train event as well as our Very Favorite N.C. Transportation Museum, visit http://www.traindad.com/category/destinations/

    The NCTM website has a nice video about their stuff. It is two hours away. We always chose that location for the two Thomas rides he had (age 3 and 4 bdays). It is around first week of Oct. each year. Tweetsie does their Thomas event in May, I think. Tweetsie also has an amusement park. We chose Tweetsie Rail Days for the 5th birthday. NCTM has TRAINS in a huge roundhouse!
    Jonathan is 5 now, and he has been Consumed with trains since 22 months. Locally, we have “George,” the train at the Pavilion, and the Iron Horse at Heritage Park in Simpsonville.

    We even bought a scanner to “chase” Nor. Southern and CSX trains. Considering how hard they are to catch with no published schedules, I’m glad that petered out.

    When it comes to buying trains, our observation is that Fisher-Price Geo Trax holds their interest for much longer. It grows with the child. At 5, Jonathan is still enthralled with it, and he can build for hours. He got his at 2-1/2, after two different types of lesser built Thomas sets. He could operate Geo Trax much more easily and inexpensively. I think traindad.com offers some analysis and comparison of the types of Thomas and Geo Trax. If you were to go Geo Trax, go on eBay or Craigslist and buy a big set to start. It’s worth asking someone who knows Geo Trax for input, if you do it. The trains have gotten better–from remote that has to go in a station to make noise, to remote no station required, to reverse included. But all the newer stuff will work with the older collection you might buy. The older track is easier to click together.

    There is also a die cast Thomas portable station that my friend Michele liked for her little boy. Around $25-30. You could get that and if you get a huge set possibly avoid the less flexible, expensive wooden track option.

    I thought your photo of the cars lined up in a train was adorable! Jonathan does similar things!

  15. #15 Rob
    on Dec 6th, 2009 at 7:33 am

    @Bethany – Thanks for the great comment and the link (and for the pictures et al. that you e-mailed to me. Your family really *is* into trains!

  16. #16 Uwe
    on Dec 9th, 2009 at 5:18 am

    Also to me railroad is a very interesting thing. Especally model railroad causes some exiting reactions of me. Here in Germany since a few years all passenger trains are completely “non smoking” trains and even the train stations. There are special smoking places on platforms. To smoke and drop down cigarette ends on other places is a punishable offense.

    Since several years more and more big public model railroads grow in many cities of Germany. The biggest one is in Hamburg (http://www.miniatur-wunderland.de/) but there are also competetive ones in Berlin (http://www.loxx-berlin.com) and other places. If you google for “modelleisenbahn” you will find numerous links. Some of them are also available in English.

  17. #17 Rob
    on Dec 10th, 2009 at 7:48 am

    @Uwe – I’m glad to learn about your interest in trains. Thanks for the information about German trains’ and train stations’ being non-smoking zones. I have been in some train cars that smell terrible from the stale smoke odors. Thank you also for the links and the search terms to try.