How Trains Figure Into It

Northern Mockingbird

There’s a mockingbird singing to entertain his mate.  It’s 2:29 a.m.  He begins running through his entire repertoire around 12:30 a.m and continues until just after five.  I’ve managed to catalog most of the major bird songs that are a part of this performance–as well as a number of car alarm imitations that have found their way into his night song–but as I sit awake and listen to his chirps and tweetings echo in the cul de sac, the train passes nearby.  I’ve missed the sound of the cars running over the rails.  These rails nearby are mostly used for freight, since it remains cheap to move cargo overland this way.


The Nancy Hanks Line, Atlanta, and Pattern Language

I grew up in a little town on the fringe of Atlanta with tracks running through it, and the sound of the night trains were much a part of my early memories.  I remember waking in the night as a very small child and not knowing what the sound was.  My mother came to sit on my bed in the darkness and tell me a story about how the train was carrying groceries (pronounced grockeries) to hungry people in another town. I should not be afraid.  She had a way of explaining things that made just the right amount of sense.  But when we moved to Roswell–Home for the past twenty-five years–there was no track nearby, and the comforting context ceased.  A part of the pattern language from which I structured my world was suddenly absent.

The Nancy Hanks

My father has always told stories about his maternal grandfather.  Mr. Smith was an engineer for the Nancy Hanks passenger line, a train that ran from mid-southern Georgia to the coast–Savannah and the islands.  The tracks ran right through Mrs. Smith’s back yard, and when my father was visiting, his grandfather would stop the train and allow him to board.  He was permitted to blow the whistle, but only twice.  My childhood is peppered with stories about Mr. Smith and the train. Here are a few links if you’re curious about the historical context of the line itself:

My mother grew up in Atlanta, which had its beginnings as a rail hub.  To this day, the organization follows that logic–which is not the logic of automobiles.  This is one of the primary reasons for the terrible state of traffic–along with too many people, poor city planning, The Late Unpleasantness (that’s another story in and of itself) and Reconstruction.  She went to school at Georgia Southern when it was still a private college and Statesboro was not the bustling metropolis of today with three whole traffic lights.  The most prominent features beyond the school were the smell of the Union Bag paper mill when the wind was wrong and the long mournful sound the the train whistle, punctuated by the strangely liquid staccato measure of its passage.  You could time your life by the arrival of the train.


Night and Day–the Language of the Rails

I sit awake listening to the sharply-edged echo of the mockingbird.  As I wait for the virtuoso to reach the end of one cycle and pause before beginning again, the train announces its passage with a whistle that makes me think of Morse Code–looong short, short short, looong short.  Beneath it, I can hear the clackita-cleck of the wheels on the rails as the train rumbles along the rail cut at the bottom of the hill.  I’m not sure how the various whistles of the trains are decided.  Are they left to the discretion of the engineer?  Are they like call signs for the different trains, and so predetermined?

All I know is that not only does the train sound different during the day, but the whistles are different for almost all the trains.  This may have something to do with the amount of other sound going on during the day, from traffic to the cheers of the crowd at a little league baseball game played at the nearby park.  Trains at night sound wistful and terribly lonely.  I remember being no more than three and waking at such a sound.  I was afraid, but also I was saddened by it and I didn’t know why.  How do steam and the Doppler Effect contrive to sound so very much like someone crying? The very same combination heard during daylight sounds different and I pair different imagery with it–not loneliness, but nostalgia.




One thought on “How Trains Figure Into It

  1. I loved this piece and the memory it stirs in addition to reminding me of the different sounds each setting has: day, night, country, city. In the city, I once lived about a hundred yards off the track, my street dead ending at the track. The evening trains, if earlier enough, were a welcome contrast to cars, sirens, and planes. I’m curious now about the whistles.

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