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Hear That Lonesome Whistle Blow

The Harmonic Chords of a Train Whistle

Train alongside River
Train along river — Freysteinn G. Jonsson on Pexels

A freight train rolls by on the tracks, and the engineer pulls the whistle, which reverberates across the river and comes back as an echo. The right combination of speed, the Doppler effect, long and short blasts, and the echo combine with the second whistle blow. Both the harmonic train horn and the echoed train horn play in synchrony, one blowing back as the train rumbles forward, one bouncing back from the hills as morning fishermen ply their boats between the sounds of a horn from two river banks.

The humidity and dissipating marine cover must have been just right because the river and the hills reflect the sound, a sound that someone could have marveled at one hundred years ago while walking along the river.

Most train whistles in this country are in a minor key. It’s why we hear that lonesome whistle blow, which is not just a safety feature but a signal to the past, to nostalgia, to physics, to musicians, to people with wanderlust, and the cymbals, or symbols, of distance.

Train whistles could tune to a major chord as well as a minor chord, but a minor chord seems right. Except in some European countries, where the chord introduces the first known notes of a major symphony.

The symphony of the river

The osprey flew low and cried her piercing cry and the red-winged blackbirds called from the bull rushes. They seem like a good backdrop to a minor chord, disappearing down the tracks. The rumble of the wheels felt more like a vibration in the air, like low thunder than heard as a noise.

All of this noise happens, mind you, just east of the highway and the commercial strip that belies this strip of nature that wends its way along the Willamette’s curves, the upscale houseboats bobbing just out of view.

It’s Memorial Day week-end, and I envy the know-how of the boaters who back their trailers into the river and offload their boats. The morning river on a nice holiday week-end is bobbing with paddle boards and kayakers, cigarette boats, and fishing boats, crew boats and wave-runners, and the big three-deck tourist boat that will turn around in the bay and find its way back to the Portland pier.

Even a Coast Guard boat has stopped at the small city dock, with five trainees aboard, their uniforms freshly pressed. They are checking boat licenses, and leaving new loaner life vests on the racks in front of the ramp leading to the water. The vests are free. There are usually some loaners around. People don’t find a reason to steal them, I guess, left to save lives, a proactive few bucks, our tax dollars at work.

The railroad trestle smells like creosote.

I can smell it on my walk, it smells like nostalgia, too. It competes with all the late May blooms and the fresh mowed grass.

My granddaughter walked by the river with her father and smelled a stinky, dead animal odor earlier this morning. A beaver carcass was rotting on the bank.

She had given her father a sticker. They, her mother and father, had told her she was getting a baby sister. The sticker was for a good job, she said. It’s what they get in preschool. Her mother’s belly gets a kiss.

The sister is apparently all for her.

Meanwhile, the mallard females have disappeared and the mallard drakes are abundant. The females nest and disappear beneath overhanging bushes or tall sedges and sit on the eggs, while the males bond together and ignore the nesting.

Mallards are common, and so we don’t appreciate how beautiful the iridescent green necks are, the ring-necked collar, the curlicue tail. If the mallard were a rare spot we might report to everyone we had seen the most beautiful duck.

But alas, these males won’t get any stickers, as they abandon their mates to single motherhood. The handsome guy who runs with his buddies will look for a new mate for the season next spring.

The ducklings will hatch, and we will notice the diminishing number swimming after the mother duck in the river. The ducklings are lost to predation: ospreys, large fish, and swimming mammals. It’s the way humans used to have children, too; too many, expecting some mortality. Now, it’s the reverse. It takes money to raise children, and having more is a luxury. The people with lots of kids are celebrities. People debate whether it is selfish to have kids who will require resources; and if children are a necessity or a luxury in this world.

I know the lonesome whistle blows, as it has for the last one hundred, one hundred fifty years. Not long as the world goes, but long enough for me.

I want another granddaughter to walk by the river.

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  1. SingingFrogPress
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    I so enjoyed this essay, Sharon. We hear that lonesome whistle frequently from the trains rumbling thru Cobleskill, amplied by the contours of the valley, so it’s eerily loud when it reachs us at the top of our hill.

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