Community Columns

Valley train whistles stir up remembrances of things past

I was lying in bed the other night with the windows open, enjoying a silent valley evening when across the distance came the wailing sound of a train horn.As the sound drifted through my window, it seemed to take my mind by the hand and lead it down the tracks of memories, to when I was just a little boy and the whole world seemed no bigger than the block where I lived, except for when I was able to visit my grandparents in the strange and exotic lands where they lived.

My Grandma Roxie lived next to the railroad tracks. It always thrilled me to run out to the yard when we would first hear the blast of the horn in the distance, waiting as the train rushed closer until the very ground shook with the strength and majesty of the Iron Horse. The sound became louder and more exciting as the train neared us.

Whether the engineer was responding to our signals or was following some rule that we didn't know about, he always would blast the horn as the engine passed us. We would jump up and down and wave and dream of being the engineer, traveling to places we could only imagine.

In later years, I forgot those dreams. I would dutifully visit Grandma Roxie, and I would get irritated as the trains rumbled by, drowning out any chance of substantial conversation. It just reinforced my belief that my time was so precious that I hated to spend it making small talk with a woman that I really didn't know all that well beyond the fact that she was my mother's mother and once gave me a book titled "Just David."

When those train horns would blast, it would set my teeth on edge and make me look for any excuse to get on my way and back to my important business.

In a discussion with another relative, I mentioned that Grandma Roxie seemed to live right on the tracks. With a wry smile at my naiveté, he explained, "That's where the poor people live."

On a warm, quiet valley night as a train whistle drifted into my bedroom, the memories of all those wonderful times along the tracks waving at trains and laughing with Grandma came flooding back. And in those moments I realized that Grandma Roxie was never poor. She had laughter and fun and even a built-in entertainment system for her grandchildren that sparked dreams and imaginings in a child that seem to be beyond my ability to find anymore.

I drifted off to sleep and dreamed about trains, a life of adventure and my Grandmother Roxie's smile.

Please, don't silence those train whistles.

Bowman is a former submarine weapons specialist who lives in Modesto. E-mail him at