Train Whistles in the Dark

My dad’s parents lived in Soddy-Daisy, Tennessee for as long as I knew them and a few times a year we would take the several hours drive from Maryland to go see them. Soddy-Daisy was a tiny little town between a mountain and a lake in southeastern Tennessee. My grandfather, Morris, was a WWII Marine corps veteran turned game warden and my grandmother, Dorothy, a pianist and music teacher. Their 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. 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. Off to the side of the house was a pond where my grandmother would catch and sell bait minnows to save money for my dad and his sister’s college funds.

When you walked into my grandparents home, the front room, like many in the South, had its own dedicated air conditioning unit and the curtains were always drawn to keep out the oppressive heat. 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 both rescued and took to educational fairs to inform the local populace on why they should be concerned about their local wildlife. There are many stories I could tell about my grandfather and his game warden days, but I’ll save those for future writings.

The front room was long and at the end was my grandmothers piano and organ as well as 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.The door on the side wall to the left opened into a long hallway which lead to a number of bedrooms.

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 the lowlands and 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 and 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 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 and abolitionists. As part of these adventures over the years we rode many of the trains that had been preserved as museums and 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