I’d been waiting a long time to go on the Delaware River train ride. My toddler’s into trains with a passion – he can even make the “choo choo” noise and everything. And every time he played with his train toys, I kept in my imagination the thought of going on an actual, full size, steam train with him. But it never seemed like the right week-end, and then we tried to go around Easter time but the tickets were sold out.  Not getting to go on it only increased my determination.

So when I saw that Delaware River Excursions offered a Great Pumpkin Train, and the experience came with a free pumpkin, that was all the incentive I needed. Even though we already had a pumpkin. I saw a pile of pumpkins when I was doing a shopping trip at Giant, and the sign said they were grown locally, so I said to myself, “why not.” This pumpkin sits on our porch, proclaiming our allegiance to the great American cult of Halloween. Of course, the skeleton and the pirate flag might give observers some idea of this, as well.

So as far as the train went the pumpkin was a bit of an afterthought, but together, a pumpkin and a train are more than enough to entice us. So there we were, at the headquarters of the New York Susquehanna & Western Technical & Historical Society, watching the train pull into the station. It’s a thoroughly magnificent experience. Before you see it, you hear that whistle blowin’, and all the kids are turning around at their parents with that look of amazement on their faces. Then the roar of the engine gets louder, until finally, covered in steam, a gorgeous black locomotive emerges from the tunnel. The great religious writer Henri Nouwen writes, “when we wait in expectation our whole beings are open to be surprised by joy.” Exactly.


Then we got on the train, and it moved! A fact of great delight for all the little kids on board. Not only did it move, it shook and jolted, and made all kinds of noise as it bustled along the track. We could see the mighty Delaware to our right, and forests and abandoned stockyards on the port side. We passed houses and clusters of houses, and people waved at us, and we waved back. I am a foolish child at heart, and when people try to convince me of the innate depravity of the universe, the simple truth of people waving has always served as counter-proof enough to me.

But anyway, my wife and son and I were surrounded by beauty in a restored railroad car; it was happiness. I would love to tell you that my child sat entranced in wonder and awe for the entire ride, but some of you have children, so you would instantly know that I am lying. No, of course, my child sat entranced and in awe for ten blissful minutes, after which he started to get fidgety and bored. He said “off”, meaning he wanted to disembark. I told him we couldn’t get off until the train stopped, which he no doubt took as the boring advice of his old fogey Dad. He wanted to get off and see the train! The problem of being inside the train is you don’t get a view of the best bit. I told him to hang in there, there was a pumpkin in his future.

The little guy was mollified a bit by a PBJ sandwich, and then re-entranced by the appearance of the Trainman. The Trainman wears a hat that says Trainman, and a uniform, and carries a flashlight and a ticket puncher. In toddler terms, this means he is very, very cool.

Very cool to me, too. All the people at the Historical Society, save for the train maintenance man, are volunteers. They give of their time so that people can enjoy the authentic historic railway experience. All they get in return is to get to be around trains all day. They seem a very happy bunch. (Grounded too – I hope to interview one of them for my Spiritual Focus series.)

After a fantastic voyage, we finally arrived at the stop with the pumpkins. I had told my son all along, whenever he wanted to run around, that if he waited until the end, there would be pumpkins in his future.  And here they were – a small field that had been filled with toddler-sized pumpkins. He practically jumped off the train to go run around, say hi to the train, and trip over pumpkins.

Now, here I have to highlight an important spiritual distinction between adults and toddlers. We adults – who are, generally speaking, very clever but spiritual nincompoops – we would tend to think of a pumpkin as something that you get, as an item thrown in for free with a train ticket. But toddlers, who are daft as a plank and spiritual geniuses, understand innately that a pumpkin is something that you experience. That you get a pumpkin is immaterial. The critical thing is that you run around and pick them up, roll on the floor with them, hold them and throw them around, rejoice in their presence. For such is happiness: you can’t stick it on a shelf somewhere and store it up, you’ve just gotta live with it. As Charles Schultz himself might have said, happiness is a field full of pumpkins.

We did take a pumpkin home, as it happens, and it’s now sitting on our front porch, next to the pumpkin I purchased at Giant. It’s a little reminder of happiness. I’m not sure my son makes the connection anymore between the pumpkin and the train, but he remembers the “chugga-choo-choo” fondly and his eyes his perk every time he hears the train whistle, which you can hear each morning where I live if you listen closely. And the pumpkin, like all cherished objects in this world, is readily available for experiences of joy.

Monday Meditation: What the cartoonist Charles Schultz actually said is, “happiness is anyone and anything at all that’s loved by you.” Where is your happiness?