Train whistles the sound of childhood

In a recent letter to the editor in this section of the newspaper, one of our readers complained about the trains in Anchorage.  He ended his letter with the question, “Aren’t the rest of you in west and southwest Anchorage getting tired of this noise by the trains through out the night?” The noise he was referring to was the train whistle.

As one resident of south Anchorage who lives very near a train crossing, I can only respond, no.  I am not at all tired of those train whistles. I don’t think I will ever tire of them.

Train travel is an intimate part of my memory bank. That train whistle can instantly whisk me back to the third floor of my grandmom’s house in Nicetown near the Wayne Junction train station.  I am about 7 years old and sleeping overnight with my cousin. Her family lives in what had been my grandmom and grandpop’s house over their grocery store.  It’s dark with only the shadows thrown by streetlights illuminating the room.  Since I live in Atlantic City and she lives in Philadelphia, overnights are a precious treat not to be wasted on sleep.

We giggle and laugh and no adult yells at us because they are all one floor down and at the opposite end of the house.  Nothing interrupts us as we play make believe and sneak out of bed to grab a toy from the chest on the other side of the room. The floor is wood, uncovered and cold. We are barefoot.  If our parents caught us, there would be the usual lecture about cold floors and cold feet making us sick. But they don’t. So we hop back into bed, burrow under the covers and resume giggling.

Only two things ever broke the silence of these nights – our laughter and the whistle of the train as it pulled into Wayne Junction.  I was too young yet to be the voracious reader I would become. I knew nothing of the romance and adventure connected with train travel.  I knew it only as the method of transportation we used for our visits to Philly when dad couldn’t drive us there.  And yet the plaintive sound of that whistle could stop our laughter in its tracks. We would grow very silent and listen to its call.  Even then, young as we both were, it had a pull that is still hard to explain.

My parents always went to Philly for the holidays.  Mom often went up with the kids ahead of time to help with all the preparations.  Her sister from New York would do the same thing. All the cousins found this to be the best time in the world. Grandmom’s home looked like an out of control day care center with five women cooking in the kitchen, anywhere from 5 to 10 cousins running around the house and the lone dad in the group, my Uncle Joe, trying to keep us in line.

One of those holidays is forever linked in my mind with Wayne Junction and train whistles.  My cousin Toni and I were both no more than 10. We had gone to the train station to meet our Aunt Louise.  Our Aunt Adeline escorted us. She brought her little dog Janie with her.

There were stairs to climb to the platform and this took her awhile because of the braces she wore due to polio. She handed her dog’s leash to us and told us to go up to the platform in case the train got in before she could maneuver the stairs.

Toni and I raced up the stairs with the dog feeling very grown up to be entrusted with Janie.  The train was just pulling in, the whistle was blowing and the platform was crowded with people.  Just as the whistle died down, we heard a voice from the stairwell yell out, “My dog!  My dog! Those little girls stole my dog!”.  At the sound of her master’s voice, Janie went nuts barking.  This left little doubt in anyone’s mind who the little girls were who stole the crippled lady’s dog. Toni and I stood there frozen in fear, panic and humiliation. 

No, I’m not tired of the sound of the train whistle. I’ll never be tired of it.  It’s a sound of memory, laughter, love, and an insane aunt who will forever be remembered for naming her dogs after her nieces.