The lullaby of the train whistle

It's insistent, reaching me through a light slumber, nudging at consciousness. I've dozed off looking out the window at passing scenery. I was last aware of a charming little town with blue and white sailboats in a cozy harbor, somewhere in Connecticut.

There it is again. My thoughts are still swimming elsewhere, but they finally acknowledge the audible presence of a train whistle. It's like being wrapped in a warm stream of sound. Everything around me encourages somnolence.

Two days before, a friend and I had boarded a bus in Boston and been deposited on a street corner in Chinatown, New York City, at noon. The temperature was 94, with humidity to match. After two busy days in the city, and with the first warm drops of a late afternoon thunderstorm beating down on us, we agreed that the next train home - at any price - was preferable to a trek back down to Chinatown and a wait in the rain.

So I am snuggled into the plush seat of Amtrak's Acela, business class at that. I am comforted in body and spirit, and the train whistle caresses my hearing.

In literature the train whistle has often been the siren call luring restless youths out into a barely imagined new world. But for me it is not where the train is going but the sound itself that fascinates.

For the past two years I lived in a township where three railroads passed through an east-west corridor lined by the boxy gray structures of light industry. Along the south edge - my side - was marshland. And while trees and murky waters dampened most of the noise, the passing trains still left audio tracks as their whistles resonated through the corridor.

I hesitate even to call the sound a whistle, since that word conveys a shrill, high-pitched intrusion. This vibrancy comes out of a distant nowhere with a few staccato pushes. Then a sustained ribbon of sound expands in intensity and duration, hovers, and decays into ripples over the landscape. At last it echoes back from a low ridge of hills farther south.

When I worked from home, train whistles were often the only daytime sounds. They were welcome companions, gently merging with my memories of freight trains passing on the far side of a farm field near our Indiana home. Along with the heat of summer, the train whistles were part of the landscape.

Curled up in the train seat now, I both hear and feel the sound, and a few thoughts gather around the solfège syllables do, me, the music student's guide to a minor third. "To certain primitive minds, minor means sad," a master teacher in singing once commented. But sad is also akin to the word satisfied, so perhaps the train's voice speaks as both.

I can't decide if I am hearing alternating sounds on do and me that immediately blend into a minor stream, or if the whistle produces a composite envelope of sound, outlining that interval. Perhaps it's a single clear tone cushioned in a vast field of disparate vibrations. When my husband and I were in the sound-system business, I learned to recognize musical instruments by their patterns on an oscilloscope. Would a train whistle appear as a single clear line on a field of gray squiggles?

I think back on similar sounds: the wheezing of my German uncle's accordion; the lonely wail of a harmonica in a back-road Arizona general store; the magnificence of the pipe organ's diapason filling St. John the Divine only yesterday.

I could never resolve this phenomenon when fully awake and hearing it from afar. Much less can I divine it when half-dozing, enveloped in it, and lulled by the motion of the train. I stop trying and just absorb the impulsions in the air until I feel like a complementary listening instrument. Then silence returns. I'm satisfied.

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