Flash in the Pan
A Quarterly Posting at Tiny Lights
Sounds Of Childhood
by Shirley Johnson
First a distant, high-pitched note far away wailed octaves above the rhythmic rumble that accompanied its approach. Not melodious, but insistent, gaining in force as it came nearer, changing from an announcement to a warning, and from a single note to multiple tones, like a bellows. Soon all the dogs in town howled mournfully, none more than our two Chesapeake retrievers, who heard all the mortal warnings of mankind and dogdom as the heavily loaded cars rumbled through the town.
In the days of my young childhood, seventy-five to a hundred boxcars loaded with hematite ore bound for the steel mills of Gary and Pittsburg thundered along the way to the port of Duluth two or three times a day, leaving the pictures on our walls askew and the keening dogs quiet after their service as town criers. For those of us who lived in the small northern Minnesota town, the trains became the background noise of our lives, hardly noticed unless a stranger called attention to them. "Oh, that's an ore train from the Iron range," we'd explain with a certain pride in the reflected glory of being part of the power that fueled the great industries of our country. How mighty those trains were, dangerous and exciting as they declared their importance in that cold land.
The open-pit mines of Minnesota (" the largest open-pit mines in the world" we often heard repeated) represented great wealth, like the oil of the Mid-East in the next industrial revolution. My father often said with slightly bitter humor that his grandfather left northern Europe to walk across the state, bypassing the riches of the iron range to settle on swampy forested land. ( Golda Maier said something similar when she explained that the Jews couldn't be as smart as was claimed having had the whole desert to settle in and choosing a place with no oil.)
I didn't realize I had carried the sound of the ore trains in my memory, and for years after I came to live near the Pacific, I accepted the ocean's roar as part of the orchestral background of my life without questioning its source. These rhythms were totally different but I didn't stop to listen until one cold night, when I paused on my front steps, and hearing the pounding of the waves, at last knew that these were not echoes from my childhood but the sounds of the new world I was to live in from that time forward.
Shirley Johnson lives and writes in Santa Rosa, CA.
Back to Flashes