“So I think it’s good that Khrushchev and his wife came to tour the U.S.” mom said, as she drove the car down Main street on a windy Monday morning with those big white puffy clouds like giant islands in the sky, “He seems much different than Stalin.”
“Not THAT different Liz”, dad said, sitting across from her in the front seat of the car, his brown “briefcase” thing on his lap, “I still don’t trust the man. He’s like one of those slick PR guys who says whatever he thinks will achieve his goals in the moment. He’s just another Stalin with a Madison Avenue twist. You yourself said on more than one occasion that you prefer a straightforward adversary to a weaselly friend.”
“Yes, that’s true Eric”, said mom, “But still, I feel I could talk to Khrushchev and we could come to some sort of compromise to make things safer for the world. I never felt that with Stalin. He was all about counting how many missiles and tanks he had versus how many we had.”
“You’re just buying the PR!” dad said, shaking his head and looking out the side window of the car.
Mom blew air out of her mouth and then started talking about something different. “So I’m taking a right on Hill”, she said, “Where should I drop you off?”
“Anywhere’s fine”, dad said, “I’ll get myself home. Probably walk.”
“You sure?” mom asked. Dad pushed his lips together and nodded. He did that when he was really sure about something. He turned his head and looked at David and me in the backseat. David was in his special car seat with the pretend steering wheel and buttons.
“Drive safely Mister D”, dad said to him. That was his main nickname for David. David looked at him and smiled while he moved his red steering wheel back and forth.
“Have a good day Cloob”, dad said to me, his eyes twinkling but his face still looking sad, “I’m glad this Towsley place is working out!”
I nodded. Mom and I had made what she called a “deal”. If I would try this new “play school”, that’s what she called it, she would pick me up at lunchtime so I didn’t have to take a nap there. I’d been there for five days now, a week, but not Saturday and Sunday when they were closed. It was strange that Saturday and Sunday were part of the “week” but they weren’t “weekdays”.
Mom said the woman in charge of the school wanted it to be a great place for kids to play. That’s why she called it a “play school”. I wasn’t sure about that when I first went there. But it was different from that other “nursery school” place I only went to for one day. It was TWO houses instead of one. And they had one big backyard with bushes all around the edges and this garden part in the back where you could do plants. And there were pretend streets where you could ride tricycles and these pretend cars with pedals like tricycles so you could make them go.
And the houses had really big rooms with all sorts of neat toys that we didn’t have at home. Giant wood blocks you could build houses and forts and even spaceships with that were big enough to go inside. Boards with lots of little holes that you could stick all these different colored circles, squares and tall things in to make controler things for your spaceships, or your forts and houses even. They had these pretend wooden trains you could hook together and put on wooden train tracks you could build yourself to go all across the floor of the big room. And pretend wooden houses and people even, though no soldiers. And there weren’t any boys there who wanted to fight a “war” with the girls, secret or not secret, so that was really good.
The one bad part was that the grownup “teachers” were still always there, but at least they didn’t do very much unless you asked them for help or they decided to read a story if kids wanted to listen. They read these stories about “Winnie the Pooh” and “Christopher Robin” and all the other animals they knew that lived in this giant woods.
So mom walked with me into the house on the left holding David by the hand. She didn’t try to hold my hand when we walked anymore, even when we were crossing a big street with lots of cars. She said hello to one of the teachers, and David looked around the big room with his mouth open. Then she said goodbye to me and she and David left.
That boy I played with last time I was here came up to me as soon as mom left.
“Are we going to do it today?” he asked. I nodded. He and I had talked about building an even bigger train track the last time we were here.
“One end should be in this room and the other end way over in that room”, I said. They had lots of wood track pieces and I figured they would go that far. And we shouldn’t just have one town with a station, we should have a bunch.
“How many stations do we have?” I asked him.
“Four”, said one of two girls who were standing close by watching the two of us talk, “We can also put one of the houses next to the track and it can be a small station.”
I nodded. That girl had started playing with him and me that last time, she really liked the wooden trains too. Today she had her friend with her.
“Me and her already built a smaller track over in the other room, and a town too”, she said, pointing in that direction. The other girl nodded but didn’t say anything.
“You want to see?” the first girl asked.
The other boy and I nodded and followed her into the other room. Other kids were playing on different parts of the floor or sitting at small tables that were just big enough for kids to sit at but not grownups.
The two girls had built a really neat track that was kind of a circle but stretched out longer on two sides. Inside the circle was a whole town with houses and cars and people. Outside the circle was a farm with animals. On either side of the station they had used a switch track piece so that a track went on both sides of the station piece. There were two trains, going in different directions.
“See how we made the switches so the two trains can go different directions into the station and not crash into each other?” she said, a big smile on her face, “That was her idea!” She pointed at her friend, who nodded but still didn’t say anything.
The other boy and I looked at each other and nodded, like that was a really good idea.
“So can we make it go into the other room?” I asked.
The one girl looked at her friend, who nodded her head, and then the one girl looked at us and nodded HER head. She then got down on her hands and knees and took off all of the track pieces on one side of the long circle closest to the other room.
“You guys work on that side”, she said, “We’ll work on this side.”
He and I nodded and the four of us all headed to the big wooden boxes on the shelf filled with train track pieces. We each took as many pieces as we could carry, straight and some curves too. Me and the first girl got back to the track first and got down on our hands and knees and started adding pieces, her on one side and me on the other. Then when we ran out and went to get more pieces, the other boy and girl would hook theirs on. It was interesting that as long as we all put down straight pieces of track we could just keep going, but when we decided to turn and follow along the wall into the other room we had to do some thinking about when to put the curve pieces so our side of the track didn’t crash into their side. When that was about to happen all four of us stopped building for the moment, stood up and looked at things from above where it was easier to figure out what to do next.
“You guys need to turn back that way”, she said, pointing out into the room away from her side of the track.
“There’s one of those across pieces”, the other boy said, sticking out one finger from each hand and putting one over the other to make an “X”.
The second girl, who still hadn’t said anything, nodded and ran back to the boxes full of train tracks, and you could hear the noise as she dug through them. Finally she ran back and held up the x-shaped piece and did a big smile.
The first girl unhooked two pieces of straight track on her side and hooked in the cross piece. I put another curve piece on our side but the track wasn’t lining up with the cross piece. We all stood again and looked at the problem.
“Your side needs to be longer before it gets to the cross. We tried different things. Putting in a shorter straight piece. Putting a straight piece after the first curve piece instead of before it. We got closer but it still didn’t hook together.
“Shoot” the first girl said, wrinkling her nose and pushing her lips together, hands on her hips and elbows out. This is where she could have said “damn” if she wanted to swear, I thought.
The second girl, who still hadn’t said anything, suddenly spoke. “I know”, she said, and she ran back to the boxes. More noise of digging through pieces, then she ran back with a handful of them.
“Bridge”, she said. She held out two big bulky pieces that made the track curve upward. When hooked together, they made a u-shaped hole that the track could go through. We all really liked the bridge.
“Perfect”, said the first girl.
Then we ran into the next problem. We were running out of straight pieces and we hadn’t really gotten into the other room where I had wanted it to, and the rest of them wanted also.
“This isn’t going to work”, the first girl said, standing and shaking her head, “We don’t have enough track!” She looked at me and the other boy and we both made faces like we didn’t know what to do. All three of us looked at the other girl who had figured out how to fix our last problem. Seeing us all looking at her she nodded and looked up at the ceiling.
Then she ran back over to the part of the track that she and the first girl had started building before I had gotten there. She stared down at it thinking, sometimes nodding and sometimes shaking her head, like she was listening to some good ideas and bad ideas from some pretend person. Then she kind of bounced up on her toes and ran over to the boxes. The other three of us watching her looked at each other and made faces like we couldn’t figure out what she was up to.
The second girl unhooked the part of the track I and the other boy had added, and instead curved the track back to make the long circle they had built before. She then used a switch to hook that circle to the side of the track the girls had been building towards the other room. All the track that had been on our side could now be used to extend the single track on their side.
“Double perfect”, said the first girl. And the other three of us continued to get and give her pieces of track as she built it out around into the other room. I said that the new end should be a circle too and that we needed to keep enough track pieces for that. That circle was built, and the entire thing, at least the track part, was finally there on the floor, going from one room around the corner into the other.
None of us wanted to get rid of the bridge, though we didn’t need it anymore to make the tracks cross. So we decided to put it on the single track, even though it did not go over anything now. The other boy suggested that it could be a road where people could drive the little toy cars under the track, and we could build a town on either side of the bridge.
Our giant track got other kids coming over and looking at it and wanting to play too. So we had them start building towns along the length of the thing, giving each town one of the station pieces to put alongside the track. Three more towns were made, two along the long length of single track between the circle. One of the two was around those bridge pieces where people in the town could drive their cars under the track, and both had houses like the first one the two girls had made. But in the other circle at the new end of the track, there were bigger blocks all stacked up really high, that the boy who built it said were “skyscrapers”, because this was the “big city”.
“Like New York”, someone else said. I remembered that mom’s favorite baseball team was the New York Yankees, and dad’s was the Detroit Tigers. So New York and Detroit must be “big cities”. But my grandparents that we went to for Christmas lived in New York, and it wasn’t a giant city, just houses like where I lived, so I wasn’t really sure.
We had five engines, so we could build five trains, though some of them had more cars than the others. With the other kids that had joined us to help build the towns there were now seven kids that wanted their own train, so it was a problem. But the first girl and I talked about it and decided that she and I wouldn’t have our own trains, but would be in charge of deciding when trains could go or had to wait. At first everybody moved their trains in the same direction from one end to the other. But when the first train looped around the other end and started to head back it was going the opposite way of one of the trains still coming.
The two boys in charge of those trains could have had one train maybe go backwards to get out of the way, but instead they decided to have a crash. It was a bad crash too, and both trains were wrecked and lots of people riding the trains were hurt. So the other trains, and some cars too, had to pick up the hurt people and take them to the big city, where the boy who built it said there was a hospital.
After the crash we decided that the long single track was a problem if one train was trying to go one way on it and the other train was trying to go the other way. So we put the girl who didn’t talk much in charge of fixing that, and she did. She took the two switches that she and the other girl had used to make the track go on either side of that first station they had set up in their circle track, and moved them to the middle of the long single track, where that bridge part and one of the towns were. Trains going one way could go on one side of the station while the train going the other way could go on the other side. So now all trains had to wait in that station until me or the first girl decided the track was clear ahead for them to go.
One of the other boys said there were “signal” pieces you could put by the track that had a bar at the top that could be moved up or down. When the bar was down the train had to stop. When it was up, the train could go. So we put one of those on either end of the station that now had the switches and two tracks, one on either side of that station. The train going one way was supposed to wait in this station on one track while the train going the other way went by on the other track. Even with this middle station with tracks on both sides, there were still a few more crashes, and then all the cars and other trains coming to help get the people who were hurt to the hospital.
The whole time we worked building and playing with the track, there was one of the grownup teachers around in the two rooms, helping other kids with the stuff they were working on. She would look over our way sometimes and smile and then go back to what she was doing by herself or with other kids.
Then the grownup teachers said it was lunchtime, but we all wanted to keep playing with the whole thing we’d made. The teachers said we could play with it again after lunch and naptime. Even though usually all the toys got picked up and put away at the end of the day, they said that they’d leave everything set up until tomorrow, since we had spent so much time on it, and they knew me and some of the other kids went home at lunchtime and didn’t stay after that. All seven of us kids sat at the same table out in the big backyard and talked about our railroad and the three towns and big city it connected and what other things we could add to make it even better.
I saw mom and David coming out into the backyard from the house to take me home. I quickly finished my baloney sandwich and milk, got up and ran over to them. I told her what we had made and that I wanted to show it to her. As we walked back into the house part, I noticed that the two girls who had started the track before I got there were walking right behind us. First I showed mom the big city part and the train track around it. Then we followed the single track through the next two towns and around the corner into the other room to the town with the farm on that end. Then I showed mom how we had made a station in one town in the middle where there were two tracks, one on either side, so one train could stop on one side while the another train went by on the other.
“I did that part”, the second girl said to mom.
“She did”, said the first girl, nodding her head. “But it was his idea to make the track go all the way into the other room”, she said, pointing at me.
Mom looked at the two of them and smiled, shaking her head. “Wow”, mom said, “It’s all VERY impressive. Thank you for showing us.”
They both nodded. The first girl said “bye” and then ran off. The second girl ran after her.
“Who were your two friends?” mom asked me.
I didn’t know their names. “They built that town over there and the track that goes around it”, I said, “And the farm too. Then they helped the rest of us build all the other parts. It was fun.”
She did that laugh blowing air out of her nose while she shook her head again. “Cloob you are too much sometimes!”
I wasn’t sure what she meant, but she didn’t seem worried about it.
“Don’t you want to know what your friends’ names are?” she asked.
I thought about that but I didn’t say anything.
Once we got back home I spent the “afternoon” playing down in the basement, that’s the part of the day after lunch and before dinner and before it starts to get dark. Molly came over, and I told her about the train track we had built this morning at “play school”, and how it used all those wooden pieces that you hooked together. She said she was going to a “nursery school” in the morning that was at this “church” place, but it didn’t have any toys like that. As she talked about the place she went to, I just kept thinking about that giant train track with all the towns and the city, and wanted to do that in our basement.
Molly saw that I was thinking and usually could figure out what I was thinking about.
“Coob”, she said, “We could make one down here. It could start here in your part and go into the laundry part and the TV part.”
“Hmm”, I said. It was something that grownups sometimes said, including that one teacher at the play school who had shown me all the places in the school the first day and would check on me sometimes. It was better than saying “I’m thinking”, because you could say it different ways, and the person you were talking to could figure out what kind of thinking you were doing by how you said it.
“We could use chalk”, I said, since I had used chalk before to draw islands and roads and other stuff on the basement floor. She nodded like that was the same thing she was thinking too.
We went over to the chalk box and both looked in. There was lots of white chalk and some other colors too.
“What color?” I asked.
“Hmmmmmmm”, she said, making it long like she was thinking really hard and not sure what choice to make, “The straight parts are silver and the cross parts”, she moved her pointed finger from side to side, “Are brown.”
“We don’t have silver OR brown chalk”, I said, “Just white, pink, blue, green and purple.”
“How about white for the straight parts and purple for the cross parts”, she said. It made sense to me to make the silver parts white.
“Why purple?” I asked.
“That’s my favorite color”, she said.
“Well mine’s green”, I said.
“So you do yours green and I’ll do mine purple”, she said.
“Shouldn’t they be the same?” I asked.
“Nah”, she said, shaking her head, “And you only have one piece of green chalk and one of purple.” She was right about that.
We looked at the gray floor of my quarter of the basement below us.
“The main station will be right here”, I said, “I’ll start and go this way and you start from where I started and go the other way.”
She nodded, and we both got down on our hands and knees and started drawing on the floor. I worked my way into the corner of my quarter of the basement where the walls came together then headed left to the door to the little place under the basement stairs where dad kept tools and stuff. Then around the stairs, along the furnace and into the laundry quarter. Molly headed into the TV quarter and around the edges of the rug that dad had brought home for that part. We both were quiet as we worked, all you could hear were swishes, slaps and squeaks. The swishes of our knees, the squeaks of our shoes, and the slaps of our hands on the floor as we crawled along. Then the very different scratchy squeak of the chalk on the floor.
There was something kind of strange but good when Molly and I worked together on something. Even when I was in the laundry quarter and she was on the other side of the basement in the TV quarter where I couldn’t see her, it still felt like she was right there next to me.
As I came out of the laundry corner I met her coming around the ruq in the office quarter and we connected our tracks. We both jumped up thinking the same thing, how does it look from above, where you could see it all, or at least half of it at the same time, and it looked really good. By the way she was nodding her head and smiling, I could tell she thought so too.
“Now we need stations”, I said, “We should have a station in each quarter.” I really didn’t have any already made station pieces, like they did at the play school, we would have to build them ourselves out of wood blocks or lincoln logs or whatever else we could think of. But in a way, though that was more work it was also more fun.
“I’ll build the main one where we started with blocks, that’ll be the big city”, I said.
“Big city?” she asked, not sure what that meant.
“Yeah, like New York or Detroit”, I said. Because she was older than me and usually knew or did things before I did, it was nice sometimes to know something she didn’t know yet. “You can build the small ones with Lincoln Logs in the other quarters.” She wrinkled her nose, thinking, before finally nodding and grabbing the big tube of Lincoln Logs.
I tried to build my big city kind of like the boy at play school had, though I didn’t have all the same blocks as the school did. Molly’s first station in the TV quarter was REALLY neat. She built it on both sides and over the top, so the track went under and through the middle of it. She said that Ricky had shown her how to do that, and he told her he was “Lincoln’s lord of logs”. She built another smaller station in the office quarter with the logs she had left.
We both went into the laundry quarter to figure out what to do for a station there. There was a big wet spot in a circle around that “drain” thing with holes in the center of the floor there. Both of us got the same idea.
“Boats”, she said.
I nodded. “Boat station.”
We put a long flat block along the track and then put three boats on the other side of the block so their front parts touched it. We also figured we should do a rocket station, since I already had a couple rockets built out of Tinker Toys, and we decided that station should be by the big city. So there it all was and we walked along the track all the way around the basement liking what we had built.
“But what about the trains?” she said, “You can’t make THOSE out of chalk because they have to move around.” She chuckled.
It hit me that she was being what the older kids called “silly”. That’s when you say something that’s kind of stupid but you know it is and say it anyway because it’s fun.
“That’s silly”, I said, and chuckled too. Molly smiled at me and looked me in the eyes. I could see in her eyes that she really liked me and that made me feel good.
Without even talking about it, we both went over to the toy shelves in my part of the basement and started looking through everything, looking for things that could be our trains. We tried cars, and we lined them up on the track one behind the next, but it wasn’t the same as a train, because when you moved the engine the rest of the train didn’t move too, and they looked more like cars on a street.
“What about with Tinker Toys”, Molly said.
We spilled the tube of Tinker Toys out onto the floor and looked at all the pieces. Since whenever I played with Tinker Toys I thought about Tom Swift, it hit me, what would a train that Tom Swift built look like? It wouldn’t look like a regular train. It would be all round and straight. I took one of the long purple sticks and stuck it in one of the side holes of a circle piece on each end, so it could lie flat on the circle pieces. I put it down on the floor on top of where we had drawn tracks.
Molly looked at it and wrinkled her nose. “That’s a train?”
“It’s a Tom Swift super speed train”, I said.
“But where would the passengers go?”, she asked.
I did a long thinking “Hmmmmm.”
I took another circle piece, put one of the really small orange stick pieces in a side hole, then other circle pieces and orange pieces to make a longer thing with connected circles. I put that down on the floor tracks near the first one.
“THAT’S the Tom Swift super speed passenger train!” I said, feeling really good about thinking it up.
Molly nodded, but in a way like she wasn’t sure it was good.
“Maybe a blue part between the first two circles for the engine”, she said.
I wanted us both to like this strange new train, so I did the blue one like she said and put it back down on the floor tracks.
I heard noisy grownup feet stepping down the first two basement stairs.
“Molly dear”, the voice said, “It’s time for you to come home for dinner.” It was Molly’s mom.
“Mom”, Molly said long and loud, “Do we have too? We were just ready to start playing!”
Her mom did that blow air out her nose laugh. “Miss Wheeler”, she said, “You’ve been over here ALL afternoon and you haven’t started playing yet?”
“We just finished making it!” Molly said.
Her mom continued down the stairs but stopped before the last stair and looked around at all the stuff we had made, drawing the tracks, building the train stations, city, rocket and boat stations. “Well”, she said “This is quite the panorama!”
She turned her head and looked back up the stairs. “Jane. You should come down and check this out!”
“Sure Joan”, mom said from the kitchen, “What are those two designers up to now?”
Mom started down the stairs and stopped just behind Molly’s mom and looked at all the different quarters of the basement.
“Oh my god”, she said, doing a regular laugh with her mouth, “Joan are we raising two humans or two aliens?”
“Sometimes I wonder, Jane, sometimes I wonder!” Molly’s mom said, shaking her head.
“We haven’t even started playing with it”, Molly said again.
Her mom blew air out of her mouth. “I don’t know what to say young lady. It’s dinner time, and I’m sure it is for Cooper and his family as well. She turned and looked back at mom right behind her.
“How about”, mom said, “We let you leave all this set up til tomorrow. Can Molly come over tomorrow afternoon?” She looked at Molly’s mom.
“I think that can be arranged”, Molly’s mom said to Molly, “After you get back from nursery school.” Molly nodded her head up and down really fast.
“By the way Jane”, she said, “How does Cooper like Towsley’s school?”
“Well”, mom said, “If all this is any indication, I think it is working out just fine so far.”
Then mom looked down at me and said, “Cooper, dinner will be ready in about 20 minutes!” And then to Molly, “And we look forward to you coming by tomorrow after lunch! Deal?”
“Okay” said Molly, making the word long, and in kind of a sad way. Then she looked at me and her face was fierce. “Don’t change anything until I get here”, she said. I nodded.
Mom, Molly and her mom all headed up the stairs leaving me alone in the basement.
At dinnertime me, mom, dad and David sat round the little kitchen table to eat dinner, David in his special eating chair. When all four of us ate together there wasn’t much room for all our plates and bowls and other eating tools. I told mom and dad about the wooden trains and train tracks at the play school, and how you could put them together any way you wanted to, and how neat I thought they were. Both mom and dad told me how neat all the stuff that Molly and I had made in the basement, and that they’d try to leave it up for a while so Molly and I could play with it more until we decided to do something different.
We had that new thing for dinner again that mom was making a lot. It was just macaroni mixed with a can of tomatoes.
“The kitchen is dishing up Roberts Spaghetti again tonight”, she said, with her voice all trying to sound happy. Mom had called it “Roberts” because that was her mom and dad’s last name, and they had it alot when she “was a kid”, if grownups ever really were kids like us. I had heard mom and dad talking about it when I was spying on them. Mom said that we needed to have it because of a “tight budget”, whatever that was, since “Towsley is so expensive”.
Dad did a big smile, and I could tell he was also trying to be happy. “Well certainly the price is right”, he said.
It tasted okay to eat, though I liked the plain macaroni better.