How a vile roar became music to my ears

The aggressive chug of a diesel engine is a particular insult on vacation. We had bought a worn and collapsing cottage on a quiet point in Maine in order to get away from the sound of engines like that. Yet here I was, up on a ladder trying to fix the roof of the shed, and the insistent grumbling of a diesel engine came drifting through the trees.

I quickly sorted through the list of things that could be responsible for the noisy assault on our quiet point. Maybe it was a big paving machine, surfacing the town road so the local teenagers could drive even faster. Or maybe it was a backhoe digging the foundation for a vulgarly large house on the next cove. Maybe it was a bulldozer cutting a logging road into the second-growth forest that covers most of the township. All the alternatives were bad, and my stomach tensed as I contemplated which one it might be.

The engine roared, sustained, then faded, the way a bulldozer does as it strains to push over the stone wall of an old farmhouse. After a moment with only a dull rumble coming through the trees, the engine roared again. The pattern of quiet, then a new insult to the quiet of the point, seemed to be teasing me - as though the brute operating the machine was building up my hopes that the work might be over, before renewing with vigor again.

From up on the shed roof, I could see most of Joy Cove, the tiny bay into which our point projects. To the south, toward the ocean, my view was blocked by a stand of old pine trees. And on the other side of those pines the horrible noise was rising and falling. I sat on the roof and peered through the pines to try to see my tormentor.

A flash of pale blue moved through the pines as the roar grew louder. It was moving away from land, away from the woods and the town road. The noise and the blue shape were on the water, not on the land. Finally, the blue shape came around the end of the trees - it was an old lobster boat, sagging in the middle, with a long open-work deck behind the cabin and a single exhaust stack sticking straight up through the cabin roof. Every time the lobsterman stopped to winch up a lobster trap, the sound of the engine faded. Then he removed any trapped lobsters, put fresh bait in the trap, and gunned his diesel engine as he tossed the trap overboard to rush off to his next buoy.

So that's where the noise had been coming from - from exactly the kind of traditional and picturesque lobster boat that had made us want to buy a cottage in Maine in the first place.

Suddenly, the sound of that diesel engine wasn't an annoying growl. It was part of the song of coastal Maine, something for which I was willing to pay dearly - in property taxes and time spent fixing leaky roofs - to enjoy.

The sound was no different, but knowing that it came from an sagging old lobster boat with a coat of peculiar blue paint made it so much gentler a sound than if it had come from a yellow backhoe or a green tractor. The engine might even be the very same one - Caterpillar and John Deere will sell you an engine for a lobster boat as fast as they'll sell you one for a bulldozer - but the sound from the boat seems so much sweeter.

At home, in suburban Kansas City, I try to remember how the perception of the source of noise makes so much difference between whether that sound is annoying or not.

When my neighbor down the street starts his big diesel truck and leaves it in his driveway to warm up, clattering the way a cold diesel clatters, I try to pretend that it's an old wooden lobster boat, idling at the dock.

When the bitter smell of scorched diesel fuel drifts in from his driveway on the south breeze, I try to imagine the smell diluted by the sweet scent of salt and fish, floating up from the tide flats.

With those tricks, I can almost make the sound of a truck engine fade away. Now I just need to find a similar trick for the shriek of a motorcycle or the pounding beat of a car radio.

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