A train whistle is a time machine for me. My father’s parents lived on a farm when I was young, before retiring to a small mountain community in the Colorado Rockies when I was ten. We drove the hour to the farm once a month to spend the weekend. A city girl, I loved that farm, with endless adventures to be had.
The old, two-story farmhouse was quaint, with quirky corners and two porches to explore. We pretended the tiny, empty milk house was a playhouse, when we could overcome our fear of spiders. I picked at the old oak upright piano, unaware that 25 years later my grandparents would haul it 500 miles to my house in grandpa’s horse trailer. Grandpa always kept at least two horses at a time over the years: Penny and Lady and the two white horses, Dixie and her daughter Cookie (my favorite). I loved riding the horses, though I paid for it with my allergies. But the piece de resistance was the barn. Big and red and full of hay for the horses, it was a dream-come-true playground for a city kid, with its nooks and crannies and hay loft to jump out of. The pony sleigh, the pond, the creepy dirt cellar, and the occasional goats and geese meant that it was impossible to be bored at the farm.
Back to the train whistle. Just across the dirt road leading to the farm driveway was a railroad crossing. The train came by at least twice a day, but I was too young to bother learning a train schedule. Our cousins taught us to be naughty and place a nickel on the train track. Later, after the train had come by, we’d try to find our flattened nickel. Sometimes we did, sometimes we didn’t. But at night, tucked into one of the two upstairs bedrooms with our cousins, we heard the train whistle in the distance as we fell asleep. It was a foreign, yet comforting sound. I’d lay awake wondering if I’d be able to find my nickel in the morning. To this day, the sound of a train whistle takes me back to the dark quiet in a modest Kansas farmhouse.
I drove by the farm a few years ago after grandma’s funeral. She was laid to rest with grandpa a few miles away, in a country cemetery where you can watch the wheat grow, and the only sound is the wind. Both the farmhouse and the barn were smaller than I remembered them from 40 years ago, and the current owners had painted that poor barn the same white as the farmhouse. But the rest was just as I remembered it. I was tempted to get out at the train tracks and look for nickels, but we were tired from the long day. Instead, I contented myself with driving slowly by the old place one last time. And in the distance, I heard the faint whistle of a train.
“What is a farm but a mute gospel?” Ralph Waldo Emerson