Some stores and businesses give out candy. I get why they do it. They want to leave a good taste in your mouth so you have a favorable impression of them. But they might be ruining the experience they want you to have. Let me tell you a story.
We have a 5-year old daughter. Like every other kid, she thinks staying at home on any given day is the most boring thing in the world – unless she’s watching TV. She also happens to find trains, planes, boats and other vehicles pretty fascinating these days. We find out that the Oregon Rail Heritage Foundation runs the Holiday Express. An old-school steam engine, still in working condition, takes you on a 45-minute ride between two bridges in Portland. Sounds like a great holiday activity so we go.
When we get there it’s barely above freezing and raining hard. They have a giant tent setup as the waiting area. Thankfully the tent is warm. It has an info desk, pictures of old trains, souvenirs, various stands. The operation is run by volunteers that really enjoy what they’re doing. The person at the info desk talks about the steam like a collector’s item. Especially on this first run of the day. You see, they open all the valves so the condensation from the night is blown out too, and all this steam fills a nearby field. Beautiful, fluffy, white clouds. He is reverent. At one of the stands our daughter spins a wheel that has numbers on it. It lands on a 4. An elderly gentleman reads the fourth question on a sheet in front of him. “What powers the SP 4449?” Our daughter guesses “steam” because it’s a steam engine. Turns out it’s oil, but it’s deemed a good enough guess. He cheers and hands her a piece of taffy.
Big mistake. Our daughter now wants to eat the taffy. I say no. It’s not even lunch time yet. Let’s wait on the debauchery. An argument about definitions of free will and child abuse ensues. We never even make it to the pictures and souvenirs.
We manage to calm down by the time we’re boarding the train. All the kids are marveling at the old cars and how they’re decorated for Christmas. They find a seat and settle down. The blast of the whistle and the lurch of the wheels is exciting. The scenery starts rolling by. Kids have their noses pressed on the window. We wave to the biker on the path next to us. We count ducks diving in the pond. Volunteers are telling stories about how the old lines used to run. Some of them even claim they rode in these cars when they were young. Then Santa comes by, says “Merry Christmas” and hands out candy canes.
Another big mistake. Kids are now in one of two groups. One group is staring cross-eyed at the tip of their candy canes. It’s amazing how you can lick the red lines off the thing and make it all white. The second group is arguing with their parents about why they can’t eat their candy canes now. As for me, I denied the taffy earlier, and I don’t want to get kicked off the train, so resistance is futile. Our daughter joins the first group. The second half of the ride passes like this. The adults even spot deer out the window and point it out to the kids. Some kids half-heartedly turn their head before whipping it back to the candy. Some don’t even bother – they’re honest about their priorities.
When we get home, my wife asks “Did you have fun?”. “YEAH!” shouts our daughter. We’re a bit excited. Is she getting more into trains? That could lead to some interesting conversations: the power to pull all those cars, the history of the railroad and how it shaped the landscape, the science of maglev trains. “… they gave us taffy and a candy cane. Oooh, can I have the taffy now? Pleasepleaseplease?”. Sigh…