Oddly enough it was train whistles that led to the discovery of the Doppler effect, (the change in frequency and wavelength of a wave that is perceived by an observer moving relative to the source of the waves). Most train whistles sound a minor note which is often associated with the melancholy, but maybe that connotation really came from the saying "goodbye" to loved ones and the association with long distance travel.
I love the sound of a train whistle, I love the sound of the train chugging down the tracks. For the past 10 years, I've lived in an area criss-crossed with well-used train tracks. I don't know if there is anywhere you can go in town that is far enough to miss the sound of a train's passage.
When I was a small girl growing up in NW New Jersey, we had a train track next to the Frederick's Fuel building. Only once did I ever seen a train cross that track, but for years after I would expectantly hope. Unfortunately, I never did see one again - but I have heard that track is now used by commuter trains traveling the 50 mile distance into NYC.
When I was in 2nd grade, my class took a field trip to Wild West City in Stanhope, NJ. There I got my first ride on an old steam engine - complete with outlaws who boarded and stole your fake money. Now they just have a little mini-train, but I bet kids still have a great time.
The summer before my grandma died, we spent a lot of time in Wilkes-Barre, PA in a hospital waiting room. Kids weren't allowed into the patient rooms, except at certain very limited times. My brother and I would hang out in that waiting room, watching out the window, waiting for trains to appear and so we could count the cars. I still remember one with several engines that was 175 cars long. Many of those cars were full of coal, coal was the lifeblood of the area. The trains are what I remember most about that summer - that and playing pinball and listening to The Jackson Five blaring from a jukebox in a ratty little soda shop. Of course, there was also the cute hippy guy who said I was the cutest little girl and touched my face, causing me to proclaim I would never wash my face again. My sister and brother didn't let me live that down for quite a while.
My other grandmother, Grammy we called her, was scared to death of airplanes. Every other summer she'd come to visit and she would come on the train. Silver Star on the way up, Silver Meteor on the way down. We'd drive to Newark, NJ and wait at Penn Station - always early, we'd get to watch the trains and become absorbed in the sights and sounds of the bustling station. Apparently, a lot of people don't like to fly. :) It was a busy place, with a huge clock and high-backed benches. A fascinating locale for people watching.
When I was dating my husband, he told me we were going into the city to see Rush (ick) and that we'd take the train because he knew I'd like that. The train! HA! It was the stinking subway! What a disappointment, I'd been on subways before and didn't like them. Worse yet, we had to go under the Hudson River with the lights blinking and dripping water on the sides of the PATH train's tunnel. Nah, subways just don't count in my book.
Trains were sporadic for the next years of my life. Living out west, occasionally I'd see a long train in the distance, going somewhere...where I don't know, but I liked to wonder about it. When I moved to Florida, there were a couple of train tracks that were infrequently used and I got a little kick every time those flashing lights went on and the gate came down. The kid in me still counted the railroad cars and looked for the caboose on the end. I always loved getting stopped by a train.
Before my father-in-law passed away, he wanted us to come see him and knowing that I hate airplanes, he sent us tickets on Amtrak. We rode the same route Grammy always traveled. Back then, we only had Jenna and she was deathly afraid of the conductor. We're not sure why, maybe it was the uniform. Anyhow, it was my first and only long train trip and I loved every minute of it...even trying to sleep in the cars with the lights lowered and the blankets that were passed out. The food in the dining car was actually pretty good - my Grammy always believed that one should pack their own sandwiches for the trip, but the dining car lent more "ambience" to the travel experience. Of course, however great the ride was, it is a shadow of a memory compared to having my brother-in-law, Danny, pick us up in Newark at the station and drive us the 50 miles back to my in-law's home in 20 minutes or less. With stoplights. With traffic. With a 3 year old, my two young nieces and stepdaughter in the back of the van...with no seatbelts. Talk about pee-your-pants terror! It was no surprise that he repeatedly had his license suspended.
We moved to Ohio in 1997 and as I mentioned, there is almost no where in my small town that you can go without hearing the sound of a train whistle. We get stopped by trains on a weekly basis, and amazingly, I still love it. I rarely feel impatient and bothered by it, and since I'm usually a force of nature that doesn't like to be stopped, that says a lot. If the cars aren't going by too quickly, the kids and I count the cars. We admire the talent of the graffiti artists who "decorate" the sides of many containers. We read the tankers and hope they aren't carrying anything dangerous past us. Trains go past us, trains go under us, trains go on narrow bridges over us with precariously perched double-cars.
When I ran the Towpath Marathon with my friend, Julie, in 2004 one of the "perks" was that all marathon runners got a ride on the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad. All runners had to board the train at the Rockside Station and then be transported down to Akron, 26 miles away for the start of the marathon. We were excited about the opportunity to ride the train, but not about having to board it around 5:30am. The train ride was less fun than expected because it was pitch-black outside and we saw nothing, absolutely nothing of the beautiful scenery that we "knew" was out there.
I was able to go on the train with my youngest daughter the next year on a school group field trip about the Underground Railroad in our area. It was beautiful, sometimes scary as we crossed large gorges on narrow bridges. A great time was had by all. My daughter, Jenna, actually rode this train several times as a volunteer for the "Polar Express" program during the park's Christmas extravaganza. Her service involved wearing an elf hat and pass out hot chocolate to passengers.
Down in Sugarcreek, Ohio, there used to be an old steam engine that you could ride (very, very slowly ride) through Amish country. The slowness of it all made it a little less than thrilling, but the countryside was beautiful and there is still something about trains.
My scariest train related incident was two winters ago. I was taking the kids to skating lessons and the roads were incredibly icy. As we crossed the tracks that are not even a mile away, the van slid on the ice...and we were stuck, spinning tires in the middle of the tracks. Lo and behold, around the bend comes a train, blowing it's horn. It was the grace of God that got us off that track just as the guards were coming down on top of us. Another car almost had the same fate, but as they approached from the other side of the road, they spun out just before the tracks and did a 180 degree turn.
Trainwatchers congregate at two local crossings. I think the idea is to see trains that you have never seen before, or to count the number of different kinds of engines. I'm not that technical - I still can't tell a Chevy from a Ford! For me, it's not about the type of train - my fascination is with the sounds, with the power...and with the mystery. Where is it going? What is it carrying? I've also found some awesome berry picking places along track-side access roads. We've gotten our fair share of wild berries to make pies and put on ice cream, while getting to enjoy the up close and personal power of the trains passing by. Being that close is thrilling: your voice is usually drowned out by the chugging of the gears, the engine driver waves, the whistle sounds right through you. The kidsalso took to collecting little railroad spikes that get thrown out of the tracks, which makes me glad they never flew off at us while a train was passing.
Train scenes in movies could often be fun - Steven Seagal dueling bad guys on the roof, the big train scene in Broken Arrow, Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid, and my favorite - American Dreamer, where JoBeth Williams thinks she is a fictional character and comes to her senses during the train scene.
With the windows open in the spring and summer, every night I fall asleep to the sounds of trains passing, that lonesome whistle sounding and reminding me that people are awake and traveling somewhere. It's haunting and it's promising, it's magical and yet it's punctual as can be. When I'm stressed out and needing escape, I hear the whistle and am soothed, imagining that I am on that train, getting out of Dodge, going places...