The Train's Chime Whistle Meant That All Was Well

With things as they are, I'll not try to be a choo-choo train buff. It's a lost cause. But I'm willing to offer a minority opinion that the chime whistle of a steam locomotive was blessedly inspirational on a brisk winter's night as it counted off a town's grade crossings one by one in a sequence of recognition that ran, in my town, to 60 blasts in all, two long and two short each.

The best performance was by the Halifax Express, sometimes called Train Eight, which passed just short of midnight at 90 m.p.h. in an unbroken wail so we couldn't tell West Street from School Street. Westbound, that train used the western division and I couldn't hear it. But eastbound, it vibrated the shingles over my attic chamber and made the rosebuds on my faded wallpaper shrink in terror. My dad was aboard that train, and when it tootled I knew all was well.

He was a railway postal clerk, and worked "six-and-eight." The train schedules were such that in six days he did the equal of 14 working days, so he would be gone six days and then stay home for eight, the eight being what the postal service called "for rest and study." My father always had the best garden in town. His job, however, was not altogether a snap. Standing up on a cavorting express train, sorting letters with dim addresses, under insufficient lamps from axle-mounted generators, was taxing. When the train stopped at a depot, the lights dimmed. And being next to the locomotive, the railway post office was hot in transit. But at a station the mail car door was opened, and while porters took off and put on, Greenland's Icy Mountains were a comparable bower of floral delight. My dad said so.

So for six straight nights out of every 14, I'd be in my bed, asleep but attentive, and I would hear the Down East train blow its crossing warning for Hunter Road, the first of 15 about to be saluted. That train never stopped at our town, being up to speed for the 800-odd miles before daylight. So before the whistle finished with Hunter Road, it was already blowing for Todd Road. But now I was sitting up in bed, listening to the message my dad was sending me in passing, an esoteric assurance that all was well and I could turn over and go back to sleep.

Unless you know about steam-train whistles at night, there is no way I can describe the fearful din of that train's passing. But nobody in town, unless restless, ever heard it because everybody was accustomed to it. It woke me because I was mindful of Dad.

Once the train had crossed Allen Range Road, the concert was over, Dad had spoken, and Halifax look out! Dad didn't work all the way to Halifax. He got off at Bangor, caught 40 winks in a postal clerks' ram pasture, and caught his westbound ride back to Boston. I've told here before of the night after the Halifax harbor explosion in World War I, when Dad's train ran in seven sections, carrying physicians, nurses, and supplies from Boston.

Running 20-scant minutes apart, each section, much above posted speed, hit our 15 crossings four toots each, and set an uncontested record for sustained speed over any 800-mile route. Dad's consist, on ahead, was sidetracked this side of Bangor while the other sections passed and went ahead. Not until the next day did Dad know about the Halifax disaster. I didn't, either, but I knew it had been a noisy night in my bedroom.

There was another time that the relative serenity of Dad's midnight visit had an ominous tone. He did "run" that route for 42 years without a dangerous incident, although once his train split a switch at Andover and he watched a rail rip up through the mail-car floor. The time I speak of, however, was different. Just as they hit our town one evening, the fireman miscued and ticked the glass boiler gauge with his shovel. (Automatic stoking came much later.) The glass shattered, releasing the total pressure of the mighty boiler into the cab of the locomotive.

This blew much bigger than the whistle, and I heard it five miles away in bed. All at once my midnight train made a different noise. The fireman and engineer were up on the tender, powerless to stop the train and much bewildered at everything. The fireman climbed over the coal pile and came down at the head of the mail car. Kicking at the door, he got the attention of the postal clerks, who were ever faithful to the unvarying rule that nobody, but nobody, should ever be in a postal car except authorized postal clerks.

BUT as the fireman persisted, the postal clerks decided to open the door. The fireman pulled the emergency cord, and the train - a wild runaway, squealing mercilessly - stopped just beyond Allen Range Road. They had some difficulty getting the engineer off the coal pile, and then the postal clerks went back to sorting letters. Nobody could get into the locomotive cab until the fire had burned itself out, and it was well into the forenoon before a special work train could fetch a new glass water gauge. My dad could have looked out the mail-car window and seen his own plum trees, except that a mail car had no windows.

I knew something had happened with his train, but I didn't know what it was until he got home three days later. He said he'd probably been in no danger, as the dispatching system would have given the runaway train a green board until the steam ran out. He estimated they'd have coasted to a halt somewhere in the Sebasticook Valley.

A lot of folks are railroad buffs and would like to have trains nowadays. I guess I'd like to be a little boy again, too, maybe.

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