Thursday, July 28, 2011

Trains… and Ships

Posted to OGR on 02/30/2011

When I was growing up, we lived about a mile from the main track that ran from New York City to Miami. One didn’t notice it much during the day, but I remember lying in my bed at night listening to the sounds of the trains passing. I often wondered where the people who were on them were going and who they were going to see. When I was really young, steam driven locomotives were still in use. Their distinctive sound could be heard coming from much farther away than the diesel-electric engines we are used to now. There was nothing like the cry of the steam whistle penetrating the neighborhood as they sounded them before every crossing. My paternal grandfather was an engineer for the old Atlantic Coast Line Railroad so his home was very near one of the tracks that criss-crossed the city back in those days. When visiting, my brother and I ran out of the house into the yard to watch those behemoths chug by at close range. Maybe, that is why he worked for the railroad later. One time we put pennies on the track as a train was coming. It took us a while but we finally found them after the train passed. They were thin as paper and as big as a half dollar. We thought they were cool. My grandmother warned us that we could derail a train that way, but it didn’t take us long to figure out that she was reminding us to stay away from the tracks when the trains were coming.

My home town, Jacksonville, is a major seaport, and my high school is situated on the banks of the St. John’s River on a section that used to see a lot of large ship traffic. I remember, sitting in class, listening to the engines of those sea going giants as they steamed up river and jockeyed for position in the anchorages near the school waiting for their turn at the docks. The engine noise from a ship is several octaves lower than that of diesel trains. As with the trains, I often wondered where the people on board had been and where they were going. Mayport Naval Base was at the mouth of the St. John’s and it was rare for a man-of-war to come as far up the channel as my school, but occasionally they did. They had a distinctly different sound than the merchant ships did. They sounded dangerous and because of that, they were cool in my adolescent imagination. I wonder if listening to that sound had anything to do with my decision to join the Navy, when it came time for me to perform my military service.

I can tell you that the sound of a ship’s engine is really different when you are on board a destroyer racing at flank speed across the north Atlantic than when it is leisurely cruising up the St. John’s River. That low rumble becomes a throaty roar, and competes with the sound of the sea rushing past the hull, as the ships crashes through the waves in a symphony of men, machines and the sea. Of course, as a member of the crew of that destroyer, I did not have the luxury of daydreaming and wondering where the people were going. We were on a mission, sonar blaring looking for that missing submarine. The sea was swept by the gale force winds, and every hatch on the ship was battened down tightly, we were at battle stations! But that is another story for another time. Oh MY!

Copyright 2011 Rick Wrigley

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