Some part of my soul goes home every time I hear a train whistle.
I grew up near a railroad track parallel to US highway 41 in south Georgia. I now live near a railroad track near US highway 41 in middle Georgia. A lot has changed about me, the highway, and the sound of the trains. But the constant is that the rumble of a train on the tracks, the predictable ‘two longs, short, long’ blast of the horn brings a smile to my face. Every time.
My parents brought me home from the hospital and put me in a crib less than fifty yards from the railroad track. Yes, I’m still a sound sleeper. I grew up waving to engineers as the train came by, counting cars, learning something about motion and direction and the hauling of goods and people.
There were passenger cars, flatbeds hauling pulpwood and granite headed south, tanker cars, box cars with freight and hobos, and stacks of automobiles headed north. Occasionally the train stopped in front of our house. Occasionally a hobo would come to the door looking for work, or food, or both. Once the engineer came to the door and borrowed some of my mother’s clothesline to make a repair. A coupling had come uncoupled, so that train pulled away with two cars attached with a makeshift linkage. My mother often wondered how far her clothesline traveled. And, forever after, we made do with two rows of clothes drying instead of three.
And, cabooses. There were really red cabooses at the end of every train. With a conductor who wore a striped cap and sometimes stood on the porch and waved. Recently, we have begun stopping at every retired caboose we see and Jim snaps a photo of me onboard (or trying to get onboard if there are “crazy women should not climb on the train” signs).
My nephew Woody explored the inside of a caboose when he was about six years old. He was visiting with us and announced over the suppertable that “there’s a lot of room in those little cars.” My mother was horrified, my Daddy tried to hide his smirk, as we learned that the train had stopped and Woody had climbed aboard for a look-see.
As I recounted yesterday’s trip to the JugFest in Knoxville, GA, I realized there was a train theme. We collect southern folk pottery, and seeing all the new work was certainly a thrill, especially that of Shelby West. But the non-clay purchases I made seem to all be related. There is the crow, Heckle, made from a gear, a pair of pliers, and a railroad spike. There are earrings which are hammered, fold-formed, and enameled pewter. The artist’s anvil is made from a piece of rail from a train track. And, we shot the requisite photo on the retired caboose in downtown Roberta.
During the forty-something years I lived out of earshot of a train, I never lost my love of their sounds. Thankfully, I’m married to a man who loves them too. Though I do recall on the first night he spent at my parents’ house (in the same bedroom I first slept), he woke me at 3:00 a.m., sitting straight up in bed and exclaiming, “what is THAT?” My reply, “what is what?” revealed that I heard nothing out of the ordinary. Once awake, I realized the shaking of the house, and in fact, the very earth beneath, was nothing but the train.
Over the years, we have both delighted in finding a B & B near the railroad tracks. When weather conditions were right, we could hear a distant train when living in our first home together. The sound of the whistle at night came to mean peace to Jim, as it always had to me.
The proximity of the railroad was a plus for us when deciding to buy this house. Shortly after moving here, we were returning home from a trip with friends and we stopped to get lunch in a small town. Jim and I heard a faraway whistle and shared a smile across the group, knowing only we appreciated the sound – and realizing how we had missed hearing that during the week away from home.
Photos: Jim Gilreath’s photo of the Nancy Hanks steam locomotive in Gordon, Ga. Fall, 2015.
Sandra Dee playing on the caboose in Paducah, Ky. Spring, 2016.