The most lonesome sound

Photo: graur codrin

The most lonesome sound has to be a train whistle…and not just any train whistle…but a southern train whistle.

The last time I heard one was this June in Nashville, Tennessee. If you’ve never heard it, it’s the most heartbreaking sound on earth, filled with the smell of rain on magnolias, summer sweat and the feverish chill of a night breeze in high summer. I heard it and it transported me back home, a home of crickets and bullfrogs, the sound of a car rattling down a dirt road with the fading wail of music from a radio, a home of a million stars thrown on a black sky and the smell of summer rain on hot asphalt, a home with an alabaster moon rising from behind the pines.

When I was young we used to live off Church Street Extended and the railroad tracks ran less than half a mile in front of our house. As a child, before we had air-conditioning, I remember lying in bed on summer nights, the sheets damp and twisted, windows open and the sound of evening pouring in; the gentle swish of the branches of a weeping willow, the night birds and distant howling of a dog. And on those late nights when I laid in my bed with my eyes shut tight trying to see God, sometimes I would hear the moan of the whistle as the train reached the crossing. It was haunting and beautiful, a sound that moved me but also a sound I did not yet understand.

My father told me once of the way the train whistles sounded when he was young, when the trains came through town carrying the bodies of soldiers who had been killed in the war to their final resting place. He said the engineers on those trains had a way of making that whistle cry, and somehow that cry carried all the anguish and pain of those dead boys’ lost dreams, the unimaginable sorrow of never loving a woman, never holding a child, never seeing home again. My father told me he would never forget that sound.

Somehow I think those whistles still echo throughout the south, moaning and crying for the memory of the Native Americans who once lived on this land, who are now forgotten and only live on in place names like Pasquotank, Currituck, Perquimans, Hatteras and Chowan, for the black men and women, enslaved and used, worn out and tosssed away by misguided, arrogant, cruel and selfish men of another color, for the men, women and children who suffered and worked in the cotton mills, for the poor farmers toiling on the land, for the young soldiers who fought for a lost cause, caught up in the grandeur of the uncompromising rantings of old men that split a country in half, for the lovers whose stars never collided, for all the pain and hurt that’s just as much a part of this land as the grass, azealeas, cypress and pine trees and lazy rivers.

That lonesome whistle still echos the sorrows and joys of the proud people who came from this land and returned to it; ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

A southern train whistle…it has to be the most lonesome sound I’ve ever heard.