RICHLAND -- Colin really needed a curved piece of track to get his toy train onto the little bridge he had just built, but they were all in use in a really twisty section of his wooden set-up.
And those curved pieces were untouchable -- his dad built that section when he was home on a short leave in January.
Anson Smith -- train set builder, husband, father of two and helicopter pilot for the Oregon National Guard -- now is back in Afghanistan.
Yet his smiling face was next to the 5-year-old boy playing with the train.
The Richland family -- Tara Smith, Colin and 3-year-old Jesse -- were given a life-size image of their husband and father from the Benton Franklin Chapter of the American Red Cross during this month's Real Heroes Breakfast.
They were one of three area families -- two in Richland, one in Hermiston -- to receive a service member's likeness under the chapter's new Flat Daddy/Flat Mommy program.
Nationally, the cardboard cutouts came into being shortly after the start of the Iraq war. Military bases and nonprofits across the country found that having a full-sized picture helps children feel less disconnected from their deployed parent.
Tri-City Red Cross folks started their program after seeing it at the Fairchild Air Force Base in Spokane, said Jeanne Jelke, executive director of the Benton Franklin Chapter.
They knew it would be needed in the Tri-Cities, which lacks the support network of a local military base.
"Military families here have even fewer resources," Jelke said.
After cutting an at-cost deal with the Big Print Shop in Benton City a few months ago, the local Red Cross put out the word to regional military support groups that free cut-outs were available.
When Tara Smith got an e-mail from the Family Readiness Group, she knew she could use one.
Anson Smith signed up with the National Guard four years ago to become a helicopter pilot after serving in the Marines.
He deployed twice as a Marine, before the kids were born. Those tours were hard for Tara, who was lonely and worried about her husband.
Both Anson and Tara are native Tri-Citians. She teaches Spanish at Hanford High School in Richland. The family wanted to remain living in the Tri-Cities, so Anson signed up for the Oregon National Guard in Pendleton, the closest unit.
Last summer, he shipped out for a third time.
Tara still worries about Anson, of course. But now the boys keep her company and keep her busy. And she's more used to his being overseas.
"It's just a fact of our lives at this point," she said, her voice firm but quiet.
It's a fact Jesse took pretty hard this time around.
Colin's a lively boy, quick to perform handstands on the furniture during a visit last week. Jesse was quieter.
While Colin tore through the house, his younger brother put together a puzzle on the floor, oblivious to the commotion around him.
When their dad left Richland for Afghanistan via Texas last June, Colin handled it really well. But Jesse "had some issues," Tara said.
He clung to her, had temper tantrums and forgot some of the potty habits he already had mastered, she said. It took several months before Jesse went back to being his normal self.
The boys miss their dad a lot. "They ask me three or four times a day how long until daddy comes home," Tara said.
At least now she can tell them that it's only a few more months because Anson's coming home in June.
But his picture's already here.
The boys were pretty excited to get their Flat Daddy at the Red Cross event 10 days ago. "They lunged for him on the stage," Tara said. "Walking back to the table, they fought over who got to hold him."
The image of the boys brought tears to the eyes of many in the crowd of 600 who watched the presentation.
The boys already have gotten a lot of use out of the Flat Daddy. They set up his cardboard cutout while they watch movies or play with the toy train.
One night, when they got to crawl into mommy's bed for a little while, they put Flat Daddy on the pillow next to them. They don't treat Flat Daddy any differently than real Daddy.
"One time, we were walking in the door and Flat Daddy was still on the couch," Tara said. "Colin just said, 'Hi daddy,' and gave him a kiss."
The family talks to Anson via Skype, an online video-phone service. The kids always kiss their father's image on the laptop screen, Tara said.
"I always wished we had something for them to kiss and hug while we talk on Skype," she said. "I knew it would help them."
A new routine service
Anecdotes from around the country confirm that kids have an easier time re-integrating with a parent who has been at war if they've been around the parent's life-size image daily.
Tara said she definitely will recommend getting a Flat Daddy to her friends whose husbands are deployed abroad.
And the local Red Cross chapter wants to make Flat Daddies and Flat Mommies a fixture for area military families.
The Red Cross plans to spread the word to the Oregon National Guard -- where many Tri-Citians serve, Jelke said -- and to other organizations, so that every service member deploying from here routinely gets his or her picture taken before shipping out.
In a basement playroom in Richland, the first of the local Flat Daddies stood next to a little boy and his train set.
"What train would daddy play with?" Tara asked her son.
"This one," Colin said, glancing at the man in fatigues by his side.