Marty and I had a wonderful time in Michigan and enjoyed seeing family and friends—not to mention Steve and Robin’s wonderful cooking! We are now back in New Hampshire, where this morning I was awakened at 5 a.m. by the sound of a distant train whistle. Although we live in the country, we are only about 10 miles from Brattleboro, Vermont, and when the wind is blowing our way, we can occasionally hear a whistle from the tracks that run along the Connecticut River to our west. My friends and neighbors who grew up with me in East Tawas, Michigan, will immediately appreciate that this is one of the most comforting sounds in the world to me.
There were railroad tracks in front of our house on East Bay Street, and The Detroit and Mackinac train, now defunct, rumbled by several times a day and night. At its height, it carried passengers as well as freight, but the passenger service was a victim of the increase in automobile ownership and improvement of roads to the larger cities of Bay City, Saginaw, and Detroit to the south, and was discontinued when I was in grade school. As children, my friends and I used to put pennies on the track, which the next thundering train would dutifully flatten unrecognizable (but nothing more valuable than a penny—for a nickel, you could see a Saturday matinee, or buy very nice marbles at the five and dime). On its daily runs north and south, the train shook the entire house— pictures on the living room wall had to be readjusted several times a week. Every night at 11 p.m., the rumbling of freight cars, as the train headed north to its terminus in Alpena or Cheyboygan, would put me to sleep—I never quite dozed off until I heard that familiar sound. When I moved away to college, I missed this nightly drama, and it took me some time to learn how to drop off to sleep without it.
Later in his life, my dad developed a ritual with two of the three conductors who ran the trains in the evening. My grandparents had a hurricane lamp (pictured) that Dad inherited and that now sits by the window in our fireplace room. I never turn on that lamp, which sat in my parents’ sunporch for years, without thinking of my dad. As he saw the train was approaching in the evening before he went to bed, Dad would briefly “signal” the conductor by turning the lamp on and off a few times—and the conductor would toot the train horn in reply. At least, two of the three of them did—Dad groused that he could never get the third one to go along with the program. Where he got this idea I haven’t a clue—one of the wonderful things about my father was his constant ability to take up some new delight in life.
My favorite author, Haruki Murakami, has written, “memories warm you up from the inside. But they also tear you apart.” The second part of that quote isn’t really true here, but the first certainly is. I think it likely that I will never make it back to East Tawas again, but this morning I was warmed by memories not only of my childhood there, but my dad’s final years. All from the sound of a train whistle.