Trains. Can somebody tell me, please? What exactly is it about them? My grandchildren simply cannot seem to get their fill.
Randy is 3. By day, he spends hours building wooden tracks for a series of small cars that are connected by magnets and go no farther than his room.
By night, he falls fast asleep in a Thomas the Tank Engine bed.
Charlotte is almost 2. She loves nothing better than to spend all day with her parents and her grandpa at Sonoma TrainTown Railroad.
Henry is one day younger than Charlotte. He snaps to attention -- like his pooches, Oliver and Archie, if you rattle a box of doggie treats -- at the mention of Thomas the Tank.
And Wiley, who is only 7 months old, but big and smart and beautiful for his age, seems entirely content to chew sloppily on a section of wooden tracks from his brother's train set.
Go figure. I keep trying to understand it.
Not one of these children has ever had any personal experience whatsoever with trains.
They've never ridden on, or possibly ever even seen, a real train. And yet the attraction, the fascination, the adoration, is simply undeniable.
No two ways about it. For them, trains rock.
Finally, I had to ask.
"Randy," I said to my oldest grandchild, "tell Nana. Why do you like trains?"
We were sitting on the floor of his room, studiously at work on an elaborate construction of tracks that, I must say, looked pretty darned impressive.
The previous night, I had slept like a dead rock in his Thomas the Tank bed, which he had graciously given up for my visit. It was a good bed. I owed him.
"I'm just wondering," I said. "What's so cool about trains?"
He studied me for a moment with his mother's green eyes, then grinned his best grin and shook his red curls, the way he does whenever he has to show me how to buckle the straps on his car seat.
" 'Cause, Nana," he said. "Trains are good."
Trains are good? I smiled. Then I told him this story.
When I was little, not much bigger than he is now, I lived with my family in a land far away, in a house that sat very close, I swear, to an honest-to-Thomas, real-live train track.
It was so close that every night, when the train came roaring by, it would shake me almost right out of my bed.
Sometimes, by day, I would climb up in an apple tree in the orchard beside the house and wait for the train to come by.
I would hear it in the distance, and feel it coming closer, rumbling up from the tracks, from the ground, through the tree, right into my bones.
As the engine passed, I would wave to the engineer, and he would wave right back and blow the whistle: "Whoo-woooo!"
Just for me.
Then I'd count every car that followed -- "eighty-seven, eighty-eight ... one-hundred and twelve" -- all the way to the caboose.
I told Randy that story and he listened wide-eyed, hanging on my every word, especially when I added that his great-granddad, on his dad's side, drove a train.
I scored big points with that.
What I didn't tell him -- but hope to explain to him and all his cousins someday, when they are old enough to understand -- is why, way back when I was their age, I, too, loved trains.
Even then, as a child, I knew that those trains had been some place, and they were still going somewhere -- some marvelous place that I might get to go, too, someday, if only I should be so lucky.
Trains are dreams that run on tracks made of steel or wood or words or imagination.
It's always time for anyone, young or old, to get on board.
Like the old song says: You don't need to buy a ticket. You just thank the Lord.
Sharon Randall is a columnist for Scripps Howard News Service (www.sharonrandall.com). Diana Nelson Jones and "Walkabout" are off today.