Russ Ringsak

Whistles

October 12, 2010

The first smack of frost gleamed silver on green alongside the gravel driveway this morning. I trundled the plastic two-wheel garbage can, also green, downhill to the road and placed it just so on the white line of the shoulder. Left it waiting there as if for a schoolbus.

It is October the fourth, the sun making sweet of its announcement about the inevitably grim and mean winter we are about to roll into. I am barely out of bed, draped in yesterday's dusty jeans and shirt. Feathered in bits of chainsaw dust and regular dirt dust; small spears of ash and soot and other woodsy bits from the final cleanup of that backhill boxelder I downed weeks ago. It lay chainsawed into two-foot dashes of itself.

Last night I built a third of the old tree into an okay bonfire in the shape of a tepee. Sat and stared into it as its various parts hissed at the notion of becoming flame and hot gas. They ultimately all rose, agitated, off into the darkness. Hissing from lying in that damp woodsy ground for weeks. An intermittent snap once in a while but not a lot of boisterous crackle. It was too soggy to roar. But it was still a good fire.

An underrated pleasure, the backyard bonfire. Two weeks ago at a northern cabin in the Wisconsin Barrens I sat with friends around a different fire. We had been at the Wolf Creek Bar a few miles downriver where a three piece electric blues band was in full roar. People dancing, drinking beer, talking loud and loose, telling jokes. It was my personal idea of a good time but a few too many decibels for some. We went back to the cabin after one set and threw on some more logs. Delicate flakes of ash rose, drifted out of the rising heat, fell quiet as snow.

We talked for a while and a nurse mentioned a new French drug for prostate cancer, just approved, called Jevtana. She had an article about it. I wrote down the details. It had been developed under the jawbreaker name cabazitaxel. It's for guys in the terminal situation and it doesn't cure it but it gives 'em ten more weeks than the standard treatment would have. It costs about $90,000. The side effects are nausea, lower white blood cell count, anemia, diarrhea, fatigue, vomiting, constipation, weakness and kidney failure. "Hey, good news Maurice — you're in luck. We're gonna give you ten more weeks of kidney failure and weakness and anemia and fatigue and barfing! And both diarrhea and constipation!" If it was me, I said, I'd like to consider going out with an expensive high-test bourbon. Same side effects and a whole lot cheaper.

You can't make up this stuff. It's not that funny and a person doesn't know whether to laugh or groan about it. Maybe the real value is that it might be a small step. The subject changed and we finally slipped off to our various tents and trailers.

The cabin is an old hunting shack, three rooms, hand pump, outhouse, rag rugs, leaky windows, lean-t0 entry porch, heavy quilts. Four horses were tethered in the yard alongside a couple of trailers. Oak and jackpine surround the place, offering up steady candidates for firewood.

It brought to mind the Normand's farm where I spent grade school summer weeks learning about farm realities. They also had a hand pump at the kitchen sink, and still had a stationary belt-driven threshing machine and had not been hooked that long to electric and telephone lines. (I can still remember my grandmother's phone number from those days: 62-W. I remember it better than I do my own right now.) And they had a hand cranked cream separator with a big flywheel. It would take twenty-five minutes to coast to a stop. The cats would eat the creamy filter while you cleaned all those discs. There were 11 kids, all with various chores, and two two-hole outhouses. One of the younger boys once sat on the grownups hole and fell through and instantly became a family legend.

The rest of our cabin group went horseback riding the next morning while I took the chainsaw to a leaning pine. I'm glad to have something to do while the others fool with the big animals, an activity I avoid out of an abiding distrust of anything that doesn't have a kill switch on it. And cutting free wood actually increases the satisfaction a guy gets from staring into a fire.

Another underrated pleasure is the middle-distant sound of a train whistle at night. A lady wrote from Oklahoma that she had been raised in Prescott Wisconsin, 23 miles downriver from here in Stillwater, and as kids they'd go to the lift bridge there to watch the boats come through the channel. A dramatic little town, Prescott, where the St Croix joins the Mississippi and they head south to find the Missouri just north of St Louis. From there they all hand in hand skip on down to Memphis and Nawlins.

She said she missed the boat whistles signaling to raise the Prescott drawbridge. "That was also a signal for we kids to run to see the boats," she wrote, "Same thing when we heard the whistle of the Zephyr. I wonder what memories of sounds today's young people will have."

A good question. The shapeless little beeps and boops of computer gaming cannot replace the majestic howl of a big steamboat. What else do kids all hear as one? Not much; maybe the klaxon blatt at a high school basketball game. Perhaps the monthly test of a disaster siren somewhere. Insufficient stuff, it would seem, to give shape to future romantics.

In my own little Dakota prairie town we were privileged to have two parallel steam-powered railroads, the GN and the Northern Pacific, and a shiny water tower with the skinny-girder four-legged base. A ladder ran up one leg. Every day at noon and at ten at night a whistle up there would sound. Enforcement of the curfew was not a government mandate. Every household had its own rules. Or lack thereof.

My pal Doug and I hung around the railroad yards enough to finally mooch a ride up in the cab of a steam locomotive. Our engineer was a white haired man named Torgeson, called Torgy by the rail crew. We learned to wait for him and show up when he stopped to oil the bearings on the running gear of the great beast as it sat wheezing quietly, usually on the siding next to the grain elevators. There is no happiness more pure than for a kid to actually ride in the cab of a working steam engine as it moves and sways heavily down the track.

Massive and very much alive, it was; a breathing and sweating steel animal. Chuffing low, easing back into a boxcar, the big ka-chunk into the coupler. That incredible power. Nothing since, not even riding my own Harley, has ever been as much fun as those trips back and forth in the old Great Northern switching yard.
Train
And when we were in high school we climbed the water tower. It was well after ten o'clock one summer night. Not quite the pure pleasure of a big steam engine, but a lot more scary. A self-set rite of passage, walking the narrow metal shelf around that icon of a water tank.
Water tower
It wasn't something you had to do twice. You climbed it once and looked out over the darkened town with the straight lines of streetlights, the dark curve of the river to the north; the yard lights of the flatland farms scattered way out there. That was enough. You had passed muster and were glad to be back on the ground. And those images are durable. Decades later they are still fairly clear.

Sometimes at night I also imagine hearing the sounds: the tower whistle in the winter dark and the long lost wailing of the steam engines. I remember them now as the sounds of a civil society. Orderly, sentimental, sure of itself.

© R.Ringsak 2010

russring at visi dot com

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