Train Whistles

Train Whistles


When did you last hear the doleful wail of a steam train’s whistle? I’m talking about the steam whistle of an old-fashioned steam locomotive, the kind the engineer sounded to send his message to all within earshot. It was the punctuation he added to the sound of incessant hissing, chugging and huffing and puffing. To the pervasive smell of coal smoke and cinders. He had scores of stirring compositions. Their meaning, only he and perhaps the brakeman knew.

As a young boy, I was captivated by these sounds. I never tired of hearing them. They told me that my small town was part of a much larger world which I longed to see. There are few sounds on earth that will bring forth visions of adventure in romantic, faraway places, like the insistent call of a steam locomotive’s whistle. It tugged at me like the Pied Piper’s flute. It brought visions of snow-covered mountains, of barns and silos, of castles and minarets, of camels and deserts, of canals, windmills and shimmering rivers, of narrow cobble-stoned streets and houses with steep, gabled, red tile roofs.

And when I grew older, I saw all these things along with enough adventure to last me a lifetime. I saw camels and deserts while crossing the Sahara in “40 & 8's.†I saw Mt. Vesuvius and the ancient ruins of Pompeii on my way to the Anzio Beachhead. I saw the Coliseum silhouetted against the first pink streaks of dawn while leading one of the first patrols into Rome. And I saw the sandy beaches of Southern France from the ramp of my LCVP. I was welcomed by cheering French crowds and the ringing of church bells in the Rhone Valley. I trudged through the snow covered Vosges mountains on Christmas Day and saw the Austrian Alps from Hitler’s Berghof at Berchtesgaden on the last day of the War. The shimmering rivers were the Moselle, the Rhine and the Danube all of which I crossed under enemy fire. The cobble stoned streets and window boxes bursting with red geraniums were in those small German towns which had not been bombed into oblivion. Barns gave us shelter and a place to sleep. I saw the famous cities of Casablanca, Oran, Rome, Paris and Salzburg, all mostly untouched. And Nurnberg and Munich in ruins. To be sure, it wasn’t all pleasant. In fact, it was mostly hell! But it’s nice to remember the “good stuff†and having “been there.â€

But when the War was over I still heard the melancholy call of the steam train’s whistle. The tug was even stronger now, but the whistle was sending a different message. The faraway place, which it now extolled, was the one I had left three years earlier. That wonderful place called home. That place where your friends and loved ones await you. The whistles were calling me home.

But now, in my retirement years, the whistle no longer calls. I listen, but I hear no plaintive wail. The engineer is gone, as is his whistle and locomotive. They are dinosaurs out of the past and perhaps I am too. But I haven’t forgotten the romantic songs that the whistle used to play, nor the dreams and visions which it inspired. Nor the adventures and the faraway places that the whistle implored me to see.

And yet, I know that the day will come when I will hear the wail of the whistle one last time. Its tone will be soft and serene but it will not be denied. It’s call will be insistent and its message will be clear. The time has come to make that final journey, the one to join my buddies, my friends and loved ones who were given less time than I. The engineer will be there, as will his train and whistle. They assure me that I will be welcomed with smiles to a place of peace, love and harmony. A place where we will all be together again. A place from which there will no longer be any need to journey afar.


Russ Cloer - August 24, 2001


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