Training Wheels for Foamers

By Michael D. Riley, M.S.

Shortly after I became involved with Standard Rail Corporation, CEO Rob Skarzynski taught me something new about myself. He informed me that I’m “a foamer.” He said this word is used to describe anyone who loves the romantic appeal that railroads and trains can inspire in folks young and old.

I was moved by this discovery about myself. So, I tried to figure out how I became such a foamer. I realized that I had started foaming when I was a very young child. My father taught woodshop in the Chicago public school system. When I was about four years old, in his spare time on the job Dad crafted a toy train for me. Of course, it was made of wood. It featured a rudimentary locomotive, coal car, freight car and caboose. No rails were needed. I just pulled its washer-based wheels across carpets and the wood floor in my bedroom. Dad was proud of his handiwork, and I happy to have his loving attention.

Fast forward a year or two, to morning on Christmas Day. Of course, I sprang out of bed as soon as I woke up. I had to see what Santa had left for me the night before. I ran down to our living room and was stunned by what I saw waiting for me under our Christmas tree. Or rather, around the tree, where a complete Lionel O-gauge electric train set was waiting to be turned on, and then circle the tree on the rails which surrounded the tree’s base.

Lionel’s O-Gauge Track System

Once my initial astonished surprise had abated, Dad showed me how to make the train move by rotating a lever on top of a boxy transformer. By pushing one button, I could make the locomotive’s whistle blow. By pushing another, I could turn its headlight on or off. Most remarkable of all, by putting a special small white tablet into the smokestack of the locomotive, the train would even emit smoke as it passed round and round. All of the details of the train’s cars and engine were so realistic it amazed me. The only departure from real trains in the system’s design was the presence of a third rail centered between the two outer ones. This rail was needed to carry the low-voltage current that would power the engine’s motor.

When the time came to take down the Christmas tree, the train set moved to take up most of the floor space in my bedroom. Unlike most Christmas gifts, this one held my interest for most of the year following. I even did a bit to add to its scene, by putting my toy cars and trucks into arrangements that added a bit of realism to the scene. I now hope that my sustained interest provided my Dad with some measure of gratification in exchange for the financial sacrifice this generous gift had imposed on my parents.

I did not continue seeking even more realistic toy trains after that. Much later, a college friend showed me how his parents let his obsession with producing the most realistic possible miniature railroad train-based landscape take up a large part of the basement in their spacious suburban home. Thank heaven I hadn’t discovered the realism made possible by HO-gauge and S-gauge model trains. If I had, my ability to pay my way through college would have been destroyed.

It’s amazing how little the toys made for foamer tots have changed in the past half century. Lionel and American Flyer still offer hundreds of items. And for younger children and grandchildren, there’s a new hero in town, named Tommy the Train. Thomas and Friends are featured in dozens of video stories on YouTube, many that attract millions of views. And amazon.com features hundreds of items, from Fisher-Price toys to games and books, all featuring the redoubtable Thomas, the latest “little engine that could!”

I’m delighted that my own grandson, Jasper, shows every sign of being a foamer at age three, He already says he wants to grow up to be an engineer. Not the MIT type, but the kind that drives locomotives. His favorite garb features overalls and an engineer’s cap. I must say, the outfit suits him; he looks a cute as possible when he wears it.

I doubt that foaming can be passed on genetically, but I’m absolutely delighted that my grandson and I share something so wonderful as railroads and trains as an interest — probably for life. How about you and your offspring; do you feel the same way?

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