Sounds In the Night
ARTHUR NEAD ILLUSTRATION
Sometimes, late at night, I can hear a train whistle in the distance. I am not sure where the sound is coming from. It is most likely along the track that winds through Metairie, crosses into Lakeview, cuts through City Park and lands in a local freight year or heads out into the world. Whatever the destination, I’m always moved by that sound, which has a certain beauty but also a haunting melancholiness to it. At the first moment of hearing the sound the opening lyrics to Hank Williams’ “I Am So Lonesome I Could Cry,” always pop into my mind:
“Hear that lonesome whippoorwill,
He sounds too blue to fly.
The midnight train is whining low,
I’m so lonesome I could cry.”
I always wonder about where the train is heading and about the engineer. Is there someone at home waiting for him as he jiggles the throttle toward the sunrise.
“I’ve never seen a night so long
When time goes crawling by.
The moon just went behind the clouds
To hide its face and cry.”
I grew up in a neighborhood where there was a railroad on top of a levee at the end of the block. When you live next to a track, trains lose some of their romance – especially on those nights when they rumbled by at what always seemed to be a pivotal part of a television program.
By day, though, the track provided adventure for the daring stunt of coasting on a bike from the top of the levee down a worn path to the street or for placing pennies on the rail, which would be flattened into a copper glob. Sometimes though I would just stare at the passing trains wondering where they were going and if I would ever go there.
There are other sounds of transportation in the evening. On some nights, when the city is quiet and the winds are right, it’s possible to hear an occasional horn from a boat in the river most likely navigating itself through a wall of fog. If you hear the roar of a passenger jet climbing shortly after six each morning, it’s most likely either Delta’s service to LaGuardia or American Airlines’ daily flight to Miami. I love New York, but at that time of day I always admire those on the Miami bound flight. At that hour they’re most likely making connections to the Caribbean. In return for the mental torture of having had to be at the airport for 5 a.m., they can be on a distant beach sipping a Piña colada by mid-afternoon.
Meanwhile, the freight train hasn’t gotten very far by comparison. If it’s heading east it might be winding through the kudzu-covered woods of Alabama. By now it has picked up speed and is showing the energy that Roy Acuff sang about in “Wabash Cannonball.”
“Listen to the jingle the rumble and the roar. As she glides along the woodland through the hills and by the shore. Hear the mighty rush of the engine hear the lonesome hobos call. You’re traveling through the jungle on the Wabash Cannonball.”
Pay enough attention and the sounds of the night begin to make their own melody.