By my mother, Princess. Published in 2006 in Mature Living Magazine. The painting, “The Train in the Rain” is also by Princess.
The other day I heard that 250 communities in this country have banned train whistles.
At this news my heart began a most irregular beat. Dear God, nostalgia overwhelms me. It’s been a very long time since I’ve heard the sound of a train whistle, but as long as I breathe, that sound, or the remembrance of it, will bring a smile and a tear to my lonely heart. Trains have been rolling down the tracks and across this country for much longer than my eighty-five years. It saddens me to know that the train whistle, along with my generation, is on its way to oblivion. What next—the trains themselves?
In a small village in North Carolina, my five-year-old ears became aware of a train whistle for the first time. The “Atlantic Coastline” had come chugging and lurching through small communities whose occupants were issued a warning “toot toot” at all crossroads; on and on it had roared past fields green and lush with crops, or ploughed under and white with frost until, suddenly, we heard the whistle, saw a puff of smoke, heard the hiss, the clanking of slowing box cars and our mail was in! The source of most of our greetings from friends and loved ones and information from the outside world was contained in those welcome mailbags. Sometimes a friend or loved one might be arriving or departing. Sometimes, the train brought one of our friends or loved ones home to his final resting place.
Over the years my cousins and I, balancing like trapeze artists, walked the rails. We jumped from tie to tie and hung from the trestle as the train thundered above us. We stood or ran alongside the tracks waving vigorously at the engineer, who thrilled us by tooting his whistle and waving back. As the train swept past, we slowly came to a halt and gazed longingly and with a wisp of sadness for the far away places we thought we’d never see.
In the day, the train whistles call a cheery “Hello – I’m arriving or passing through.” But in the darkness of night, there is no more hauntingly lonely sound than that of a train whistle. That, too, transports me to places where I have been or wish to go.
The last time I saw a train, I was visiting the small town where I was born. Most of the businesses in town had long since been boarded up and were sadly neglected. The streets were empty, and a light rain was falling.
Suddenly I heard the loud clang, clang, clang of the bell at the railroad crossing. The bars against traffic on either side of the tracks were being lowered. The rails running through the center of town rumbled and …as if in a dream…as if in final salute and farewell…. a great locomotive surged out of the mist and swept past me. I stood within feet of the tracks, gazing up at the box cars as one after another after another after another they swayed past, their soft clack-clack, clack-clack, clack-clack hanging in the air until the last ghostly car grew small and disappeared down the tracks.
For a moment I stood there in silence, the soft rain touching my face like tears, and I could not help but wonder…will the trains and I someday be lost in the mists of time to be remembered only by those who loved us?