I wonder if young people get excited when they hear the sound of a train whistle on a dark night.
Perhaps I should be wondering if young kids these days ever hear a train whistle, dark night or bright day. There's so much other noise out there. Maybe the mournful but inviting whistle from a west-bound locomotive on a long haul doesn't break through. Or maybe it does, but it just bounces off the headphones or earbuds that seem to be ever-present in today's world, and not just for young kids, either.
When I was a kid on the farm, on quiet nights when the windows were open, the train whistle reached my bedroom all the way from east of Reliance somewhere. I don't know how far that is. It seems like it must have been four or five miles from our place to where the trains ran back then. What I remember is the moan of the whistle, lonesome but beckoning, a sound that made a dreaming kid like me think of faraway places and great adventures.
"Far Away Places.'' That was the name of a 1940s song Bing Crosby sang. My dad sang it, too. It's a great song for dreamers, with lyrics like, "I start getting restless whenever I hear the whistle of a train. I long for the day I can get underway, and I'll search for my castle in Spain.'' Pretty cool, huh? You'd have sure thought so if you'd been a farm kid whose connection to faraway places came in books that I took from the shelf, as the song says.
When I was about 14, my first guitar arrived from Sears, Roebuck. It had a simple book of guitar chords. I mastered a few of them and started playing Elvis songs and other popular three-chord tunes of the time. My second guitar book had simple arrangements of old standards, including "Far Away Places.'' It took some time, but I learned to accompany myself on that song. I'd play it in the evening down by the feed yard, away from the house. I wanted to sound like my dad and Bing Crosby. I knew I didn't, but off by myself I could dream, the same way I could when I heard the train whistle across the prairie.
I was maybe 15 when I started getting into Johnny Cash songs. Sometime in high school, I bought a Cash album of story songs called "Ride This Train.'' It was even better than Bing Crosby (and made me cool with the other guys, too, because Cash was a big, tough dude, not some old pipe-smoking crooner). The album had train whistles and locomotive noises and the clickety-clack of steel wheels on well-maintained rail. It was just the thing for a guy who tended to daydream.
The opening lines in the album, if I remember correctly, said, "Ride this train, up and down and across a strange, wonderful land. It's almost like a fairyland when you think about it.'' It continued, "You see, I'm a million different people from all over the world, and I've been coming to this country for hundreds of years.'' Then the album went into songs about coal mining and such. I guess I played that record until I nearly wore the grooves away and the scratching and needle jumping made it all but impossible to make out the words or music.
I read Jack Kerouac's "On the Road'' about that same time. If I hadn't been so timid, I'd have hopped a midnight freight. To make things worse, Kerouac's "Dharma Bums'' was required reading in my freshman English class at Creighton.
Freshman year, I talked a couple of other Wareham Hall guys into walking downtown to a Johnny Cash show. He had the Tennessee Three and George Jones, too. He did some songs from "Ride This Train.'' It was just like the record, only better, because he was right there on stage singing about trains and dreams and longing.
I walked back to Wareham sorry the show had ended and wishing that somehow, from my south-facing dorm window, I could hear train whistles in the night.