An array of Thomas the Tank Engine toys lies spread out across the floor.

Crazy Train

Friends, let me tell you how madness starts.

It begins with an Amazon wish list…

Wait — too close. Let’s zoom out a bit.

It begins with a desire to make my child happy…

Sounds like a reasonable enough request, yes? As parents who have brought new lives into the world, we see them evolve from mindless, fleshy blobs into functional, mostly bipedal organisms with thoughts, feelings, and desires of their own…

But once those desires are projected toward objects of questionable motives, we’ve a right to become wary. Because deadly are the outcomes where our progeny obsess after those objects, and deadlier still when they consume us as well.

The head of Percy stares up from below an exercise bike.
He sees everything…

Toy Train Crazy, You Know

I saw it coming — I saw the signs, and I even foretold my own doom. I knew I had a predisposition to collecting — physical and digital music libraries, Magic cards, even hotel soaps and ticket stubs — and I foolishly thought that that foreknowledge would shield me from the fate that awaited me. But I was weak, worn, broken. I found the allure of the deceiver, Thomas, and his fell Friends too powerful to resist. And now my wallet pays the price.

The Thomas & Friends series of wooden toys has got me by the throat. There’s nary a body of water in the entire Wooden Railway, yet I’m drowning in it. From the very first purchase, it seduced me like forbidden fruit from a serpent. What started with only a few of Gorgonna’s favorite engines exploded into an intense yearning — mine, not hers — for more of them.

A period of weeks (I’m ashamed to say) passed where I attuned my every antennae toward the various heretical bazaars that would purvey these idols of wood, magnets, and metal. Amazon, Craigslist, Facebook Marketplace, thrift shops, garage sales… the possibilities for uncovering caches of rare rail-bound prizes seemed endless. And, so it seemed, would the resulting joy following their purchase.

But I knew from the beginning it was a problem — my typical idle time-wasters of checking email and dead-silent social media accounts buckled before the powerful hunger for sick deals and swelling lots of rare engines, tracks, and trucks.

The worn face of a Gordon sticker stares up from the bathtub floor.
Nowhere is safe…

The Divine Land

The obsession reached a boiling point at perhaps the greatest discovery yet — Totally Thomas, a specialty toy store with a dedicated rewards system meant to encourage (or in my case, assuage) the intense, burning infatuation for all things related to the Cheeky One.

On our first visit we unearthed an unopened two-pack of Giggling Troublesome Trucks (the 2013 out-of-manufacture model by Learning Curve, $42.50 on Amazon at the time of purchase) for half the price. We also splurged for an older, open-box trackset at a 20% discount, quenching my desire for not only more trains but for retired (and therefore exclusive) products in a single transaction. It was like stumbling into my local record store and finding the non-remastered version of Rust in Peace — I’d found the holy grail.

The decked-out Thomas train table at Barnes & Noble.
One day…

For Lack of a Legacy

Like Philip II of Macedon, father to Alexander the Great, I aspired to grant unto Gorgonna a kingdom of her own, for that which I left was… well, nonexistent. I hadn’t been into Thomas growing up, and so I didn’t have any well-worn trains to pass onto her. More importantly, I didn’t feel like I was projecting my own likes and dislikes onto her — these were her interests I was supporting, not the usual impositions we mostly metal parents usually struggle with.

Of course, I’ve been blathering on about all this in past tense — as if I’ve somehow magically moved on from eyeballing the fluctuating prices of Rocky (the medium-sized crane engine, currently $21.55 on Amazon) or Tidmouth Shed (the engines’ resting place after a long day of Hard Work and being Really Useful; the $76.80 version with deluxe spinning turntable). Such items must be carefully monitored if I’m to relinquish my hard-earned funds upon even more wooden manifestations of my love and devotion.

And the worst part? Whenever we do break down and buy another piece of our ever-expanding Thomas-verse, as soon as those tracks are carefully set into their secure (and smartly universal) positions, I’m suddenly filled with an urge for more. Assembling the world one piece at a time is granting me a vision of what could be, a utopia where Thomas is prophet, Lord and Savior and burning bush. And because I’ve become invested in the lore, the fucking cartography of the Island of Sodor, I’m even more compelled to “fill out the map,” as it were. I’m well on my way to becoming a Thomas junkie, ever in search of my next hit.

I am proud, however: we are withholding a few engines (Marion, the railway steam shovel, $8.13 off Amazon, as well as the Stanley that came with the trackset) to serve as future holiday gifts. Don’t want her getting spoiled, right? Besides, there isn’t enough room on Gorgonna’s current number of tracks to support any more engines — and that’s the real problem isn’t it?

“I know that things are going wrong for me /

You gotta listen to my words.”

– “Crazy Train”, Ozzy Osbourne

Twilight of the Idols

As parents, I think we have a natural inclination to become invested in our children’s interests. We want them to know that we’re paying attention, we want to encourage their developing emotions in the hopes of one day applying them to something constructive (maybe even constructing real train tracks someday).

But this can’t go on. If there’s anything I’ve learned about parenting in the last two years, it’s that no era lasts forever. She’ll lose interest eventually, so there’s no reason to go so hard, as if it’s a defining part of her identity (or our parent-child relationship).

Then again, she might be establishing a life-long passion; she might go on to become an honest-to-Gordon railway engineer. Maybe she’ll be able to trace her love for trains all the way back to these first few possessions; by that time, they won’t be considered investments — they’ll be inspiration. There’s just no fucking knowing!

One thing’s for sure — if I’m going to make it through Gorgonna’s third year of life with her college fund intact, I’ve got to slow my roll. This is a hype train I have to hop off of.

Gorgonna, walking before a veritable wall of Thomas & Friends toys.

Idol Worship: Thomas & Friends

“Peep, peep!” All aboarrrrd! FOR OBSESSION.

It didn’t take long for Gorgonna to begin paying tribute to a new deity. Although she’s been idolizing both Daniel Tiger and Thomas the Tank Engine for nearly the same length of time, our ebullient engine has been swiftly picking up steam as the primary divine power.

But from my standpoint, all’s not well with this latest change in faith. The Island of Sodor, where Thomas & Friends reign, has been well-known to the likes of Man (and Man’s Childs) for over seventy years, with TV programs, books, and toys serving as the holy word and scripture. To this day, its perverse nature has been seriously understated — like a thinly veiled Shyamalanian plot, something dark and twisted has been lurking amidst this well-to-do English island of industry…

A creatively reassembled Thomas, made from Mega Bloks.
John Carpenter’s “Thomas & Friends.”

A Thomas Upon Us

Sentient trains populate this depraved hell-dimension. Faces have been carved into them –by whom I know not — making them the steam-powered counterparts to the Game of Thrones‘s weirwoods. As impulsive and vindictive as Norse gods, the engines bicker and fight amongst themselves in the name of “hard work” and being “Really Useful.”

Deifying these denizens of diesel and steam are an enslaved human population. They’re at the mercy of these loco locomotives — literally along for the ride, as every driver seems utterly powerless to stop his engine from fucking up the countryside or getting into who-knows-what kind of tedious mischief. That “Sodor” rhymes with “Mordor” can’t be coincidence — the twisted world of Thomas & Friends is every bit as bleak as Lord Sauron’s domain.

Gorgonna, coloring in the Book of Thomas.

Now, I’m all for Gorgonna getting stoked about new stuff — especially when it comes to male-dominant vehicular pursuits (it’s 2017, trucks and trains ain’t just for boys). And although I may have embellished in the previous section for entertainment’s sake, I can’t say I entirely support the conceptual pillars that have held up Thomas & Friends for three decades.

For one, the adventures that the engines have — and by extension, the books and television episodes we indulge Gorgonna with on a daily basis — rarely have a wholesome message to them. I wasn’t kidding about likening Thomas and his engine pals to Odin, Loki, Thor, and Co. — when you get down to it, when the boiler runs dry, they really do seem like a bunch of juvenile brats. There are few substantial lessons tying the stories together — no morals to transmit onto impressionable young minds. The fictitious world of Thomas & Friends is portrayed as a series of random, unrelated, ultimately pointless events:

 

  • Episode One: Trucks cause mischief for the engines. They fuck up everyone’s schedules. The end.
  • Episode Two: Sir Topham Hatt’s car wants to go fast. He does, and he is admonished for it.
  • Episode Three: The naughty Diesel has to stop being naughty because Thomas saw that he liked some ducks.

 

Like, you don’t have to bust a blood vessel picking out thematic elements to all of those scenarios — tidy little morals you could feasibly wrap up into tidy little vignettes — but are they present in the actual episodes? Nope. Shit just happens on Sodor; the wheels turn and turn, clickety-clack, clickety-clack. It’s an autonomous world that doesn’t care how many kids are watching or what educational value it imparts. Maybe there’s a zen quality you can get from that, but there are FAR better sources for that, I think.

Also, “Usefulness” isn’t a quality I’m thrilled that Thomas & Friends is projecting onto its young viewers. I understand there’s probably some kind of brand guide, possibly bound in the grotesque, leathery skin of Rev. W. Awdry’s corpse (may he rest in peace), but the Thomas team could afford to be a little flexible. It’s a tough time for the Arts, and every offering needs to pull its weight.

James, dripping in white... milk.
This picture of James presented to you entirely without context.

His Dark Materials

The primary difference between Thomas and other, newer gods is his sheer presence. Criticize him all you want — the merchandise is ON POINT. What started as a few board books here and there for Gorgonna’s reading pleasure has proliferated into two pajama sets, a coloring book, a shirt, and several wooden toys. She’s delighted when she gets to wear the Steam Team to bed, and she could flip through her Thomas “mazagine” all day. He’s omnipresent, the Alpha and Omega.

And it’s not just the relics we have in our home — Gorgonna has found houses of the holy in the local library, as well as the Barnes & Nobles scattered across our fair county. Each one houses an altar — a coveted train table — upon which his disciples enact the engines’ earthly adventures. And while the entire steam- and diesel-powered pantheon are available to her, Gorgonna choo-choo-chooses Thomas — even if another kid is currently playing with him. Gorgonna would bust into a confessional if it meant getting one-on-one time with Tommy Boy himself.

She has, however, begun devoting her affections to Gordon, the big, haughty express train; her smitten reactions to the very sight of him would be enough to make ol’ Tom jealous.

Spencer, from Thomas & Friends, covered in brown... mud.
Not even Spencer is safe from the nocontext treatment.

Pulling into Incantation Station

Thankfully, we don’t own any Thomas videos; they’re strictly stream engines (sorry). But that doesn’t keep me from panicking every time we boot an episode up because I know the insufferable theme song is going to drill deep into my skull and make itself at home for the next few days. Singing British children are a universal fear, a horrifyingly contagious force that compels you to follow them into whatever hell they’ve got planned for you. (Although I’ll admit that “Shunting trucks!” makes for an appealing alternative swear-word.)

Still, as excruciating as it is, the main theme is worlds better than the Thomas team’s attempts at appealing to a modern, hip crowd:

I don’t normally associate cock rock with iconic train-themed children’s shows, but someone over there clearly has the right vision.

Benediction

Despite all this, I find that trains, in whatever form they happen to take, are still pretty fucking neat. Powerful metal machines, racing noisily along, blasting their horns belligerently — I don’t know, man. Maybe the kids are onto something…

Wait — what am I saying? Oh, good one, Thomas! You almost got me there! You see, his allure is more potent than I’d anticipated. I’m already buying into Gorgonna’s obsession — every time we find ourselves at a toy store, I feel an irresistible pull toward the wall of Thomas toys, thinking how neat it’d be for Gorgonna to own all her favorites…

We’re metalheads; collections are in our blood.

My advice to you is if you value your wallet as much as your sanity (or if you simply think a train with a face is freakish), you could do worse than to stay far, far away from Thomas and his brood. Save yourself a heap of trouble. But if your kid’s got an eye for the classics, like her father before her, then be prepared to invest.