Train Whistles in the Dark

My father grew up in Soddy-Daisy, a small town in eastern Tennessee that sat between a lake and a mountain. His parents continued to live there throughout my childhood and a few times a year we would take the several hours drive from Maryland to go see them. This was always great fun for me because my grandfather believed wholeheartedly in spoiling children with pocket change and candy.

My grandfather, Morris Henry Jenkins, was a WWII Marine corps veteran who became a game warden with the US Fish and Wildlife Service, and consequently steward of the Tennessee Valley. He was one of six children of a country doctor who was one of seven sons of a coal mining family. My grandfather felt that the wilderness was a gift that must be preserved and spent many years sending water samples to the EPA as proof that the strip mining was destroying the lakes and rivers. As one might imagine, the mining companies were not a fan of my grandfather and he endured many threats including an armed man making his way into his office before deciding perhaps that shooting a federal lawman was a terrible idea. He also believed that people care more for the environment and their local wildlife when they are educated about it and so he also spent many years bringing wildlife to the state fair and other outlets to do just that.

My grandmother, Dorothy Liles Jenkins, was a pianist and music teacher. She also spent a lot of time teaching poor women to read and caring for children who’s parents could not, regardless of their race. When my grandmother had to take one such child to the dentist for emergency care and the bus driver demanded that the child sit in the back of the bus because of his skin color, she told him that wasn’t going to happen and the child remained where he was; in the front of the bus sitting next to her. This was not a thing that happened often back then. My grandmother also felt very strongly about education and raised bait minnows to sell in order to build a college fund for my father and his sister. She continued to support the education of her grandchildren and great grandchildren throughout her life.

My grandparents’ one-story home sat back off of a quiet street just a five minute walk from the ten or so businesses that made up the downtown of Soddy-Daisy. There were boxwoods around the front porch and they had a garden out back where my grandfather could grow just about anything he set mind to. He was locally famous for his giant tomatoes and every time we visited in the summer, he would pick a big watermelon off the vine and cut it into quarters for us to eat. Off to the side of the house was a pond where my grandmother raised her minnows. It was also the home of my pet catfish “Whiskers” whom I didn’t have the heart to fry after catching and bringing it home from my grandfather’s friend’s fishing pond up on the mountain. Rumor has it, Whiskers was one of many catfish my grandfather kept and fed chicken livers so I could see my friend on our yearly visits.

When you walked into my grandparents home, the front room, like many in the South, had its own dedicated air conditioning unit. The curtains were always drawn to keep out the oppressive heat and so it was always a bit dark. There was a fireplace off to the right which sat opposite a formal looking couch with a large painting of roses or maybe lillies hanging above it. On either side of the hearth were two large iron pots that my mother claimed had once housed a rattlesnake or two she felt my grandfather had deliberately stored there to encourage her to return back home to Pennsylvania and leave my poor father to marry a nice southern girl. In actuality, the only incident involved a non-venomous hognose snake which likely played dead as soon as my mother was asked to remove the lid and “take a look”.

My grandfather routinely had wild animals all around the house that he either rescued and/or used in his educational fairs. These ranged from possums to mountain lions and bears, but all were loved. There are many stories I could tell about my grandfather and his game warden days, but I’ll save those for future writings.

At the end of the long front room was my grandmothers piano. Across from it, an electric organ. Just past both was the dining room table and two doors adjacent to one another in the back left corner. The house itself was old and had wooden floors throughout and therefore smelled slightly of seasoned cedar and oak in addition to woodsmoke and a faint mustiness that was not strong enough to be offensive. The door that opened straight back lead into a large kitchen that was always warm, well lit, and hummed with the various appliances within. I would often go into the kitchen to get away from the chill of the air conditioning and check and see if that red velvet cake with one slice missing was still in the ice box. There was always one in there and for years, I thought it was the same cake.

If you turned left just before reaching the kitchen door, there was a door on the side wall that opened into a long hallway. When my sister and I were little, we used to share the pull out couch that was in the first room on the right. This had probably been two rooms at one time as it was twice as long as any of the other bedrooms and had a door at each end. It housed the aforementioned couch as well as a desk and few other pieces of furniture. There was not an air conditioner in this room so we didn’t typically go to sleep until night fell and the chill of the mountain air sunk down into our open window. I remember falling asleep to the sound of crickets, the smell of the rich earth of my grandfather’s garden, and every so often, the whistle of a distant train.

All I knew about trains in Tennesse when I was little was the Glen Miller song, The Chattanooga Choo-Choo, which my grandmother would always request it if we were out at a restaurant with a piano player. Chattanooga was about 16 miles south of Soddy-Daisy and just north of the Georgia border. It was a major train depot for most trains headed south in the early 20th century.

My grandparents took us on a number of adventures around the state over the years when we visited to tell us about the land, the contributions my grandfather had made towards preserving it, and our family’s role in the history of the state as educators, union organizers, and abolitionists. As part of these adventures over the years we rode many of the trains that had been preserved as museums. Although being around trains up close actually frightened me, I still loved hearing that whistle in the distance. The Chattanooga station was lost to demolition many years ago, but it’s memory is preserved in a historic hotel complex containing orginial departure signs and some original tracks and cars.

When my husband and I first moved to North Carolina we lived on the south side of Durham near Jordan Lake which is about ten miles from downtown Raleigh. North Carolina was a big tobacco and textile state and freight trains have been the lifeblood of commerce and industry here since the 1850’s when the rail system was first commissioned. Both freight and passenger trains travel the rails from the coast all the way inland to Charlotte. Sometimes late at night, when the air cooled and distant sounds carried further, I could hear the whistles from the passing freights and it would remind me of Tennessee.

I live in Raleigh now and there are no trains close enough for the sound to carry at night, but every so often I’ll hear one when we are away from home. It reminds me of those cool summer nights with the damp smell of rich earth, the crickets playing their chorus in the background, and falling asleep under a patchwork quilt sewn by someone long gone but well remembered. It reminds me of the sound of my grandfather’s boots on a warm kitchen floor and the squeak of the refridgerator door when I followed him into the kitchen for a glass of milk long after dark. It reminds me of my grandmother playing piano in the late afternoon when the house was quiet and the shadows were long. Most of all, it reminds me of how much they loved me.

The link below is music is from a podcast I have been enjoying, Nocturne. The artist is Kent Sparling and this short clip of crickets and train whistles sounds to me like a night in Tennessee. Enjoy!

Possum Music: for the Nocturne podcast by Kent Sparling