Finding Destiny in Lionel Trains and Neon Dinosaurs

Why am I here? That is one of the foundational questions of humanity, one that religion and philosophy have spent millennia attempting to answer to varying degrees of success.

Most people ask that question, but reply with mere homilies, if they reply at all. They continue to go about the lives preordained for them by the master overlord known as economics. They are who they are told they should be, and do what they are told they should do, never fully understanding why they are miserable. Some people answer the question by stating that life is all random chance, a roll of a twenty-sided genetic die. That seems cold-hearted to me, but at least, it’s an honest answer. Some braver people walk up to the threshold of that abyss, but quail at its seemingly bottomless depth. They offer a half-hearted reply, such as “We exist to give glory to God.” Well, it’s shallow and I doubt Jehovah has such low self-esteem as to require bootlickers, but again, it’s an honest answer. Still others believe that a higher power — be it Adonai, Allah, Odin, Gaia, a select committee of Olympians, the Universe, or the reincarnational roulette wheel — put us here for a specific purpose. He/she/they gave each of us a personal calling, a mission, a raison d’etre. That answer requires a tremendous amount of Unverified Personal Gnosis, even more personal courage, and imagination bordering on the audacious, at least as far as the master overlord is concerned. I belong to that group of folk, and believe that I’m here in this era to be a storyteller. While I answered the question why am I here at age 48, it occurred to me that I knew the answer 42 years earlier.

In 1969, I was six years old and my world was magical. I was fortunate in that I lived in an organic family. Mom and Dad simply let me be. They said I was born older and believed I wouldn’t do anything to hurt anyone, other than typical small boy accidents such as seeing if Dad’s pocket knife was actually sharp (it was). They let me be myself, and just watched. If I skinned my knees, so had they at my age, and they survived.

That was Orlando, Florida, before Walt Disney World. Forget Mickey’s Magic Kingdom. I had my own. Magic existed in the front yard, in the magic of technology. Living only fifty miles from Cape Canaveral, I looked down our street and watched Titan II and Saturn V rockets hurtle my heroes into space in the Gemini and Apollo projects. Magic existed in the back yard, in the magic of growing things. That was where Dad kept his vegetable garden. He let me stick kernels of corn in the ground, and grinned three months later when I could not see the tops of the stalks. My parents also raised Persian cats, so I watched kittens grow into show winning adults. Magic existed in the living room, as actual magic. Mom fed me on a steady diet of Bewitched, Dark Shadows, and I Dream of Jeanie. She sat next to me and watched wonderful old movies such as the Thing and Them! Alongside Dr. Seuss, she read me the Brothers Grimm and the tales of King Arthur.

I brought all of these magical worlds together in the third bedroom of our house, where I had my model railroad. Trains have always fascinated me, and the Lionel O-scale model was the closest I could come to having a Seaboard Coast Line Alco C-420 locomotive in my home. My layout was the typical first model railroad; two sheets of raw plywood, three rail sectional track arranged according to a Kalmbach plan, and a Christmas set expanded by a father possessed of more boyish glee than common sense. While I loved it, an hour of running a train around on an oval was just about enough.

So, after returning the locomotive to its shed, I set about transforming the town. Some of my structures were plastic models, but most were wooden, custom built by Dad based on the local industries of south Orlando. Between the buildings, I positioned the unpainted white plastic people, and my Matchbox cars (not knowing anything about differing scales, I always wondered why the people were so big and the cars so small). Then, things became truly magical. I brought out my dinosaurs, those ubiquitous not-quite-accurate reptiles molded in neon colors that just do not exist in nature. This was not Jurassic Park, but Dinotopia, as the dinosaurs and people interacted with each other in one society. Eventually, the tranquility of their world crashed before the onslaught of the Vile Evil Tarantula (my right hand), requiring the intervention of those other equally ubiquitous toys, the Green Army Men. And blue Space Men. Being so close to the Cape, I had astronauts.

That was not enough for my fertile six year old mind. I dragged Dad’s cassette tape recorder into the room. Dear Athena, that thing was huge, and not just because I was a small boy, either. At least, it didn’t take up an entire suitcase like the old reel-to-reel did. Following the folk rock traditions I heard on Mom’s radio (it had bulky things in it called transistors, real state of the art stuff), I made entire half hour long radio broadcasts of songs about trains, dinosaurs, and even the fish in the aquarium. Complete with commercials and the weather report, too. Not quite satisfied yet, I drew comics, confining myself to dinosaurs, which were always easier to draw than humans. Dinosaurs piloting spaceships. Nothing finer in this existence.

I was a world-builder, a storyteller, and an entertainer.

At the age of six, I was probably my most pure. Aware enough of the outside world to know what it should be and was not, I built a private world that functioned like it ought. Ignorant enough of the outside world, I thought my private world had promise. Simultaneously, I believed in the engineering magic of the rockets lifting off before my eyes, the natural magic of growing things, and the fantastic magic of witchcraft and wizardry on television and in books. Why couldn’t they all exist together and create a whole greater than their sum? I could have remained in that third bedroom forever, when I was not in the front yard, back yard, or living room. Everything else, from the mall to kindergarten to Sunday school, was so much dross, someone else’s world.

It seems to me that the age six (give or take a year or two) is the time when we demonstrate our purpose for being alive at its most pure, uninhibited form. It is the age after our awareness emerges, and just before society’s artificial constructs begin molding us into little consumerists. We are articulate enough to express our passions with some degree of sophistication. Our wills take on form beyond mere survival or sheer id. Our minds begin to move beyond asking what is it to asking what does it do? We begin to take an active interest in the arts, sciences, mechanics, crafts, and other pursuits. Attention spans grow from minutes into hours. Then, it is all crushed as others, They-Who-Know-Best, have their way with us.

They-Who-Know-Best did indeed have their way with me. Later that very year, as I entered first grade, society began piling great weights upon me through its education system. Forced into molds designed to shape me into a servant of obedience to what was even then a consumerist society, my imagination was no longer the sign of an entertaining story-teller, but that of a lazy underachiever. At age ten, I became one of the school’s bullied nerds because I preferred dinosaurs to NASCAR and wizards to football. At twelve, even the organic nature of home vanished as Mom immersed herself in the peculiar blend of Fundamentalism and Pentecostalism of our Shepherding charismatic church. Seventy-five percent of my interests only six years earlier were now on the pastor’s list of disapproval, and relegated to the category “Of the Devil.” In high school, everyone but Dad had a plan for my life: be a preacher, be a pharmacist, be a historian, be an accountant, be something that makes you a lot of money. Emerging from college in 1985, sixteen years after the world-builder entered first grade, I set out to do what I was told I should do by school, church, family, the media, and the government. I set out to become a middle class white collar professional. I failed at everything: park ranger, employment agent, newspaper reporter, graphic artist, grant writer, corporate editor, farmer, farrier, office manager, UNIX engineer, receiving clerk, church janitor, pastor.

Only at age 48 did it occur to me that the reason I failed was that I was not designed to do any of those things. I was not put here to be a middle class white collar professional, nor a blue collar tradesman, nor an agrarian. My purpose lay elsewhere, something that required me to not only think outside the box, but leave the concept of boxes entirely. I had tried to swim underwater as the bluegill I was told to be, when I was designed to be a cardinal in the air. The aquatic life is fine for those who are truly fish, but birds drown when they breath water.

Discovering that I was a cardinal acting like a bluegill took answering the question why am I here with a brutal response. For a decade, I heard the sage advice, “Your purpose for life is the thing you love to do so much that you can do it for sixteen hours and feel like only thirty minutes have passed.” I finally applied it to myself. When I did, all the desires of society, all those oughts, shoulds, and musts dumped on me by They-Who-Know-Best fell aside. Only the storyteller, the world-builder, the entertainer, remained. Time holds no meaning when I tell tales of flawed heroes and heroines fighting against enormous odds to defeat representatives of the very artificial constructs of society that tried to bury me. How I told those tales — via words, visual art, or music — was my choice. As long as I tell those tales, the gods who formed me are happy, and so am I. Like those kernels of corn Dad let me plant, the kernel of my purpose was sown in 1969. Unlike the corn, however, it took 42 years to grow, having to fight its way upwards through a jungle of weeds planted by others. At least, it did grow, and I can say that I now live my dreams.

I realized last night that I have returned to being that six year old boy. I am, once again, a world-builder, a storyteller, an entertainer. Today, the world I create is ink and pixels, instead of plywood and plastic. The trains are horses, the automobiles are carriages, and the dinosaurs dragons. A castle replaced the depot, and the diner gave way to a tavern. Instead of the usual O-scale citizenry, one now finds a village populated by wizards, warriors, women in chain mail bikinis, men in leather codpieces, Vikings, Moors, and one or two confused knights. Now, as then, my self-built world functions as it ought. Oh, sure, it has plenty of problems, such as poverty, greed, racism, overbearing religions, and tyrannical governments. But in my world, unlike the one outside, the good guys stand for something. They do the right thing because it’s the right thing to do. They have the power to make changes, if they but summon the courage. They can win. How different from the evening news.

Not all of us can look back to age six and find the seeds of ourselves. Some people were molded into the patterns of the expectations of family, lost from the day of birth into the sea of proper people don’t do that. Some were neglected, forced to mature too fast. Still others were abused and don’t want to remember, and who can blame them. Far too many, at least in the past two decades, were left to fend for themselves before the television and video game, losing their imaginations to the trance like state of mere spectatorship.

To those, I would say I am so sorry you were destroyed. But perhaps in the past, somewhere around age six, the seeds of purpose lay hidden. How about the one who escaped the cold, sterile house of perfection to find solace in the wildness of the forest? Perhaps she should be a nature writer instead of a secretary. How about that one who found in the Flash and Captain America the heroes he couldn’t find in his abusive father? Perhaps he should be an artist instead of a dentist. How about the one who built a replica of New York City out of Legos to fill the empty void created by her neglectful parents? Perhaps she should explore architecture instead of accounting. Or that one who disassembled the video game controller to discover why it followed the motions of his fingers? Perhaps he should think about engineering instead of law.

Whether we simply happened, or were put here for a specific purpose, there is something meaningful inside all of us. No matter how depressed, repressed, suppressed, and oppressed our childhoods, that something remains. No matter how much economic, religious, political, educational, or familial force They-Who-Know-Best exerted to eradicate it, that kernel still lives. That something wants to grow. That kernel wants to feel the sunlight. It wants us to exist for a reason other than merely making money. It wants us to exist for a reason other than blind obedience to a system designed to take that money from us by any means possible. If more of us can find our purposes and escape the system destroying our country, then our country may be a little happier and better place to live.

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