Saturday, December 1, 2007

Santa Express and Dickens Christmas Festival Experiences Came with an Autistic Twist

Note: This is Part I of a two-part story. I will provide the second part tomorrow.

My favorite restaurant in town is the Mountain Town Station, a business that adds a lot of charm to an already charming town. Mountain Town Station is a renovated depot that serves wonderful food, home-brewed beer, and local wine. The old depot is very attractive and is an excellent dining facility. The owners also provide patrons with the opportunity to either participate in a fancy and very expensive dinner train experience or a more affordable family experience that does not include a meal. The latter trips are through a separate business called Lake Central Rail Tours.

We have wanted to go on such a family outing for about six months now. My husband and I bought train tickets for the Santa Express way back in September. We tried to get tickets for a June ride and were too late then. The train ride had sold out. So, we were determined to be successful on our second try. Our strategy of planning three months early meant we had no problems getting four tickets.

However we thought it wise to wait to tell our two young sons. Delaying the news was a must just in case horrible weather and/or illness struck. Luckily we stayed healthy and our first winter storm didn't start until about five hours after the 90 minute ride was to begin at 2 p.m. However, the day was to be a super busy one. I had to leave the boys with the husband so that I could deliver bake goods to one fundraising event and serve lunch at another (where I had left bake goods the day earlier.)

My husband was concerned I wouldn't make it back on time and also lamented that he'd miss the end of the MAC championship game, which started at 11 a.m. Our team, Central Michigan University (CMU) was vying for a back-to-back championship. He knew the game would not be over when the train left at two and that there would probably not be televisions or radios in the train cars. (Later we found out that CMU won. Yeah!) We would have been in Detroit at the game if we had not already bought our pricey tickets for the planned family outing.

One thing that perked my husband up was the opportunity to deliver the good news to his little boys. My youngest squealed with delight and my oldest bounced up and down with excitement.

The four year old could hardly wait when he heard the news. He thought we might miss the train if we didn't hurry. My oldest was excited too. At nine years of age he still believes in Santa Claus. He was more excited about Santa than the train ride.

Even though I'm not always good at keeping track of time, I performed my volunteer duties and returned home twenty minutes before my husband wanted us to leave our home in order to board the train on time. We arrived at the restaurant and found out we needed to line up outside in the very chilly air before boarding the train.

The conductor looked and acted like any conductor you would see in a book about trains. He wore the cap and the coat, had short gray hear and a mustache, and yelled "All Aboard" when it was time to get on the train. After the ride began, he yelled, "tickets, tickets!" Then he punched them all with a flourish.

My husband led us to a cluster of four seats in the back that had a table. Our two boys, with shining, happy faces, sat across from each other. My husband and I each sat across from each other. Soft Christmas music played in the background. We heard the oldest classics (and my favorites), like Frank Sinatra's "I'll Be Home for Christmas". The train was decorated on the inside with garland, golden bows, and lights.

I relished being with my family and looking out at the Michigan country side which was coated with a frosting of day-old snow. The train car wobbled gently back and forth as we viewed the winding Chippewa river, farm houses, barns, and rolling fields that included one that had unharvested corn, and plenty of hunting stands that hunters had put up in order to target deer that generally come out at dawn and dusk. My favorite scenes were a wood with a small creek and a stand of young Douglas Fir trees (that had probably had been planted) on each side of the tracks.

The destination was Clare, a town about fifteen miles north of Mt. Pleasant MI. On the trip there, I felt truly blessed to have the opportunity to go on this family field trip. The boys enjoyed the cocoa and packaged sugar cookie that a lady in a Santa hat served us. They looked out of the windows and were well behaved until just before we arrived in Clare. Like any set of brothers might do, they started to have a little foot battle under the table. Their battles ended when they were distracted by the slow down of the train. We were approaching our destination.

We didn't get off the train at Clare. We waited for about ten or fifteen minutes for the second half of the trip to begin. Unfortunately, while the first half of the trip was amazing, the second half did not go so well. In Clare the engine moved from what was then the front of the train to the back. That meant that instead of being furthest away from the train whistle, we were the closest since our car was now right behind the locomotive.

This new position was devastating to my oldest son. He has a mild form of autism and is extremely sensitive to sound. When the whistle first sounded (as it does at every road crossing) my son promptly put his fingers in his ears and kept them there. By the third whistle he was in tears.

That was about the time Santa came walking down the narrow aisle from the other end of the train to visit with the children. We were to be the second to last group visited. The lady who served the cocoa accompanied the man in the red suit with a small sack of mementos that the advertising had promised. Reminiscent of the movie and story book, The Polar Express, the memento was a small silver bell.

By the time Santa reaches us, the nine year old was too distressed to enjoy the moment. He wasn't in complete meltdown mode (with screaming, crying, thrashing, etc.) But tears were rolling down a sad little face that was marked with concerned anticipation of the next invasive sound.

Our experience wasn't improved by what was supposed to be the "jolly old man." Bad casting ruled the day. Santa spent about two seconds with most children and stayed a little longer with a few others. I had expected that as usual, Santa would ask our kids what they wanted, but he didn't. To be fair, these visits were the last of a set of three train trips and Santa was probably tired. I also suspect that the man who was very well-suited for his role as conductor (an A+ job), also put on the red suit for a role that I would give him a D-minus for playing.

We had the two second visit, which consisted of a hello to each boy. I did not try to take a picture, which might have extended the visit. For some reason the flash wasn't working and I thought it was pointless to try. The result was that my nine-year-old who had been looking forward to the visit, did not perk up after seeing Santa.

After Santa disappeared from our car, we fixed the whistle situation. The car was rather full, but my husband decided to accompany our distressed child to the other end of the car in search of new seats. Fortunately they found two seats together and the whistle did not bother him as much in the new location. I stayed behind with our four-year-old who then started to pretend that the whistle bothered him too.

The new location helped our older one, but did not completely fix the situation. After being reseated, our boy started talking about Santa. His comments alarmed my husband. It was clear that our child expected to see Santa again when we returned. He thought we would go into the restaurant and get an extended visit with the old guy. His dad knew we would not see Santa again.

After disembarking (and being amongst the first to do so), my husband and two boys rushed back to the car. Since we were outside, I decided to take a couple of pictures of the full length of the train to put in our boys' scrapbook. I snapped a shot and then still looking back at the train, I started walking.

Later, I learned my husband issued a warning to the boys so that they would be careful about the ice in the parking lot. Unfortunately, I did not hear it. My feet slid on the ice and went out behind me. I ended up hitting the pavement on all fours.

Did I mention we were the amongst the first to leave the train? This meant that a whole line of people saw "The Julie Show. " I heard loud gasps from the crowd as I fell. I scraped the pad on my hand and banged up one of my knees. However, it was my pride that hurt the most.

"Are you Ok?," a lady called out.

"Yes!," I managed. I didn't look to see who was concerned.

"Are you OK, mam?" I heard again.

I was winded when I first responded and apparently I wasn't heard.

"I'm OK!" I shouted while standing up and regaining composure.

I was still winded when replying the first time and apparently the lady had not heard me. I was louder the second time, but my voice sounded strained, almost nasty (not intentional). I knew the lady meant well, but she would have done me a greater service by pretending she did not see anything. If I wasn't OK, I would have remained on the ground and then she would have known the answer. But I was able to get up and return to our mini-van without limping--and without looking back.

I rubbed my knee as our boy kept talking about Santa on the ride home. He still wanted to see him. That much was clear. He cried some more. At home I went online to see if Santa was elsewhere in town. The boy grabbed a paper and drew a picture of Mr. Claus in another room. He returned to our office, not happy that I was still on the computer. He wanted to see more pictures of Santa.

I gave up my quest of finding information online and let him look at Santa pictures on Google images. (Beware, a semi-nude Santa pops up first.) I quickly scrolled down to kid-friendly pictures and then went down to the basement (with still aching knee) to retrieve the "What's On" section of our local paper. I knew there was a Christmas festival going on downtown and that Santa would be in a little red house in the town square. What I wanted to know was how long he would be there.

'Whew!' I thought as I read that the hours were from four to nine. I had a few hours to remedy my son's despair. However, we had an empty fridge as our grocery run is always on Saturday. My husband, who does the weekly shopping, was anxious to leave before the predicted snowstorm hit the area. He grabbed a quick bite to eat and the grocery list I had composed before leaving. He left around 4 p.m. for the hour-long errand.

I hadn't told the dad of my plan to help our son. I still needed to serve the boys and myself supper and then wait for my husband to return so I could do my job of putting groceries away. When my husband left, our older guy was still a bit distraught. I had not told him of my plan either...

To be continued.

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