The allure of a train whistle

Trains sing to me. They sing songs that track the journey of my life: songs that tell me where I've been, where I am, and where I'm going.

From my well of childhood memories, I can draw the sounds of the steam locomotives that still occasionally plied the New York, Chicago, and St. Louis Railroad through the small Ohio town where we lived.

I can hear their chaotic rhapsody in iron as they assembled cars on the siding near our house that served the local brickyard - the revving of the engine as the train started forward ... a clank as cars were hitched ... another revving of the engine as it started backward ... another clank as cars were unhitched - cacophonous songs of trains preparing for their journey. I would wonder where they - and I - were destined to go.

When I was a teenager, the diesels that had replaced the steam locomotives sang their siren songs as I lay in bed at night. They told me of the places they had been and invited me to go where they were going - calling me to explore.

Those trains were links in iron to the world outside, a world I knew only virtually, terra incognita. They were physically going somewhere, and I dreamed of going there with them.

In time, I left home to go to Ohio State University, where I lived in Stadium Scholarship Dorm, rooms for poor but bright kids that were tucked into the empty nooks of the gargantuan horseshoe of Ohio Stadium.

Late at night, I would go outside, climb to the towers, and look out over Columbus. Somewhere to the west, the trains would pass. During those nights of my first season away from home, they comforted me when I grew homesick. "Continue your voyage," they urged.

I remember, too, a Wyoming night camping near Como Bluff, when a Union Pacific freight train called out as it rumbled across the emptiness. Como Bluff is a well-known dinosaur dig, a valley of dry bones.

I had recently been divorced. I had gone there to get away, to think things out. I found no bones, only the incessant high-desert wind.

That night the train sang a song first heard in another desert in another time, a song of emptiness upon emptiness, a song that told me that this world is fleeting of form and void of surety.

But like the desert wind, or a breath breathed once and gone, all things rise and fall, and the distant train beckoned me to begin the rest of my life.

Today, from our home on a hillside not far from where I was a child, I hear the Ohio Central Railroad passing on the alluvial plain below: faint sounds of the world outside, a world I have explored and now know well.

Sounds here are clear and carry far. The train songs fade, only to return after an intervening hill has been passed. The trains go north to Cleveland and east to New York, and to Chicago and points west.

I've been to where they're going and beyond. Their song no longer calls me to go "there." Instead, "there" comes to me as I listen to the trains sing a lullaby of contentment.

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