Writing a column is a funny thing. Some months, a plethora of topics flow like artesian wells in Calistoga. Other months, pounding sand comes easier than a novel idea. There was a two moth stretch when Bert me to the punch on a couple of themes that I thought were fresh. ( I’m still looking for that wily southerner’s bugs and listening devices). Shamelessly, this month I’m going to piggy back off something Brooks wrote back on May 3. His recollections have hung with me all month. To be exact, he wrote:
“That train whistle represents to me all those times as a child I would wake up in the middle of the night in my room in the Hayward Highlands and through my open window I could hear the freights trains chugging through downtown Hayward as that lonesome whistle blew.”
As a Hayward boy, any mention of my home town makes my ears perk. One cannot grow up in that East Bay villa without the haunting echo of train whistles somewhere in the soundtrack of remembrance. For Brooks living in the hills, the passing trains were a distant lullaby. My house was a small flat top home. Half our neighborhood worked at the Hunts cannery which lay along the tracks on the opposite side of the orchard that just across the street from my squat little abode. At such proximity, the late night whistles were anything but distant lullabies, but they were soothing nonetheless.
From my room on warm summer nights, when sleep was difficult to find as I lay in bed, my bare feet seeking out cold spots on the crisp sheets, I could make out all the noises of the cannery working around the clock. It was in the wee hours of the morning, long before sunrise, that the trains would unload their cargo on the cannery spur. I wonder if Brooks, Maria, or Rick could hear the crashing and banging of steel freight cars as mighty locomotive unhitched and rehitched its load.
To a 10 year old boy, that late night ruckus was a harbinger of the fun to be had the next day. After finishing morning chores, the neighborhood kids would race out to the tracks, deftly skipping over huge dirt clods in the orchard, the prickly tips of foxtails piercing our thin canvas sneakers. Laying beside the tracks was discarded metal strapping used to fasten freight loads. About every inch and a half, the strapping was perforated. Loud, shrill whistles could be fashioned from the strapping if one carefully snapped off a three inch piece and then folded that in half. We’d fill our pockets with these whistles, their sharp edges poking holes in our pockets and always slicing the corners of our mouths. During canning season, one could hear these whistles emanating from almost any corner of the neighborhood any time of the day. Better yet, we could sell them for a nickel a piece to other kids not living as close to the tracks as us.
That remaining orchard at our neighborhood’s edge was a wonderland for small lads. Once we entered the tall weeds and passed along rows of ancient, gnarled apricot trees, we might as well have been in the dark depths of the Congo. There was an abundance of cannery refuse for us to use for constructing immense forts and ramps for our bicycles. Best of all, aging hobos riding the rails, wizened old men, hold over overs from a bygone era, would build small shanties along the tracks. We would sometimes steal food from our pantries so that we might bribe the hobos to tell us stories. The old guys always smelled of bearing grease, sweat and cheap wine. Every once in a while, one of the shacks would go up in flames. No one was ever sure if the fires were caused by a cigarette butt tossed carelessly away, or perhaps the cruel work of a local ruffian, or the railroad bulls rousting the riff-raff. In any case, the effect was the same…soon after the fire, the hobos disappeared until the next canning season.
There are far too many stories surrounding those tracks to include in a brief column: the miles of tracks we walked balancing on the rails like circus tightrope walkers; laying our head on the tracks listening for the tell-tale rumblings of distant trains, laying out pennies to be flattened by the awesome locomotives. There were many myths and rumors about the trains that we tested at risk of life and limb.
To this day, when I sit in my backyard on a warn Valley summer night, enjoying a peaceful cigar and brandy, the music of a freight train rolling along the old Santa Fe line will hang in the air, the curls of cigar smoke dancing and rising to the trains mystical rhythm. At those moments, I’m a ten year old boy again being seduced by the forbidden games and adventures that the tracks always promised.