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Free Train Story: Memories from the Sound of a Train Whistle

Updated on April 16, 2013

This is a column originally published in the 1990s in "The Girard (Kansas) Press" - a small newspaper in Southeast Kansas.


The Train's Horn

The whistle of the train is louder in small towns.

In the large cities in which I have lived, in the still of the early morning, it is possible if the traffic quiets, to hear a small, thin whistle in the far distance. It is nondescript, blending easily with the other noises of the city.

But in my small Kansas town, the moaning whistle steals across farms, lawns and houses to easily find its way into my bedroom. In the early morning hours when sleep is elusive, it is at its most moving. Loud and strong, it demands to be noticed – to be reckoned with – sometimes as a harbinger of the past.

And the cry sends my mind back to the time before I was born. A time when the trains came and took Kansas boys from the safety of their small towns to the uncertain hell of wars on foreign shores. The trains blew their whistles, leaving behind mothers, fathers, wives and girlfriends. Families spent the wartime praying they would never have to display the gold star in their window, signifying the home of a soldier killed. The boys spent the war praying the same thing, and yet fighting every day to protect the freedom to say that prayer. In the end, the whistle of the train accompanied some of the Kansas men back home, boys no longer. Forever changed. Some never again heard the train whistle in their home towns.

I also think back to my childhood and the supply train that ran twice daily a block from our house. It was a small, slow train, but its whistle also demanded attention. And got it – from the neighborhood children.

Rumors in my elementary school abounded that the engineer on the train carried a BB gun that he used it to shoot kids who tried to jump on board the train for a quick ride home from school. I never personally tested the assumptions. Instead, my friends and I would gather after school with precious pennies carefully placed on the iron rails. We would then run and hide in nearby bushes, awaiting the arrival of the afternoon train.

A penny that has yet to be placed on the train tracks for squishing.
A penny that has yet to be placed on the train tracks for squishing. | Source

The big, black engine would soon growl past. The ground would shake, and we would crane our necks to get a glimpse of the menacing, BB gun toting engineer. After we were sure the engineer was out of shooting range, we would retrieve our now flat, oval pennies with Lincoln’s face strangely skewed.

Not many of my pennies were squandered in this manner. At 10, pennies were an important legal tender, buying gum in twos and 7-11 Icees in mass.

The supply train quit making its daily runs over a decade ago, and a few years ago the track land was handed over to home owners. Now well-kept suburban yards span the train’s former territory, and a train’s whistle can only be heard late at night in the far distance.

But it’s different in small towns. Trains still run here, carrying crops and animals to market. Warriors don’t board the train to go to World Wars anymore, praise God, but children can still sit in their parents’ automobiles and count the cars on the passing train.

And the whistle can still beckon the little girl in me to bring a penny to the tracks.


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    • agilitymach profile image

      Kristin Kaldahl 4 years ago

      Thank you, Glenn, for stopping by!! It's wonderful you had the same experience with trains that I did.

    • Glenn Stok profile image

      Glenn Stok 4 years ago from Long Island, NY

      You brought back precious childhood memories with your well-written and touching story. When I was a kid I used to do the same thing with putting pennies on the track. And they came out oval just like you said.

      And I remember hearing a train whistle in the distance. As far away as it was from my home I could hear it in those days. Today, with more development and more buildings blocking passage of soundwaves, it's no longer noticeable. But I am sure the trains still have that whistle.

    • agilitymach profile image

      Kristin Kaldahl 5 years ago

      Thank you so much!!! There's something so romantic about trains. The steam train sounds wonderful. :)

    • CyberShelley profile image

      Shelley Watson 5 years ago

      It's amazing what memories this lovely story evokes. Where I grew up I fell in love with the steam train. Thank you for bringing the memories back. Up, interesting and beautiful .

    • agilitymach profile image

      Kristin Kaldahl 5 years ago

      Thank you. What a wonderful memory to share about the trains and WWII. It's hard now to imagine how important trains were for transporting people back then.

    • xstatic profile image

      Jim Higgins 5 years ago from Eugene, Oregon

      Trains and train whistles have always grabbed me. I travelled from Texas to Florida to Ohio and back to Texas over the span of about two years when I was between five and seven during WW II. The cars were full of uniformed soldiers heading to who knows what. We traded comic books. I hear the early morning trains too, some two miles away, often before dawn. Excellent Hub!

    • agilitymach profile image

      Kristin Kaldahl 5 years ago

      Thank you Michele!!! I'm back in a city now too and only hear the train, which is miles away, at about 3 a.m, id I'm awake. Small towns have so much charm. :) Thanks for dropping by.

    • Michele Travis profile image

      Michele Travis 5 years ago from U.S.A. Ohio

      Loved this hub also! Also grew up in a small town. And also had a train about the same distance, we even walked on the track from time to time. Now live in a big city. I miss the old days.

      What a great hub.

      Voted up.

    • agilitymach profile image

      Kristin Kaldahl 5 years ago

      marsei, "melancholy" is a word I should have used in this hub!! You hit the nail on the head. I love to hear train whistles at night. They are so - well - melancholy! :) Thanks for dropping by.

    • Marsei profile image

      Sue Pratt 5 years ago from New Orleans

      I loved this! I listen to the train about half a mile from my house pass every night at 11:00. It's such a lonely melancholy sound to me, but still appealing. I like the story of the pennies. Children of each generation have their own traditions and it was fun hearing about yours. Thanks for this. It's fun and looking back is always just a tiny bit sad. I voted up and intersting.