A Yankee Notebook

NUMBER 1797
December 28, 2015

SOUNDS FROM A NOT SO DISTANT PAST

MONTPELIER – The old year 2015 is sliding into history, and as Huck Finn says of finishing his book, “I am rotten glad of it.” The event inspires and justifies a rash of reviews, photographs, and predictions, as if looking back at “The Year in Review” suggests an improvement in the next, and that turning a calendar page reveals a different world.

I sat on the porch the other afternoon, basking in the warmth of an improbable December, sipping a Jack Daniel's and enjoying the relative silence, when I heard a railroad horn at one of the downtown crossings. I was instantly transported back over 75 years to memories of sounds none of us has heard in many decades.

I should assure you this isn’t one of those “good old days” reminiscences. I carry no brief for the good old days. As an example, I recall my first dentist, Dr. Hochstrasser, a cheerful old German with a treadle-operated drill and a meat baster filled with diluted Listerine. As a child, I’d seen the dioramas of Iroquois life at the New York State Museum, and been impressed by the brave with a bow and drill starting a fire. Dr. Hochstrasser was, I think, a disciple of that innovative technology. Burning teeth smell worse than burning tinder, but he doused the fire with Listerine.

Our fourth-floor flat (55 steps up; I can hardly believe I can google it and even spot my bedroom window) was about three blocks from the florid chateau of the State Capitol, and probably a mile uphill from the New York Central railroad yards between Pearl Street and the Hudson River. The sounds of the yards dominated the quiet small hours of the night: blocks of cars crashing into others to make up a train; slow, labored chuffing as a locomotive strained to get the whole thing going; sudden high-frequency chuffs when the driving wheels slipped and the engineer squirted sand onto the wet rails; a gradually accelerating tempo as the speed increased; finally a long, triumphant whistle – New York City, here we come! – and the beat of the great engine dying away in the night. That powerful rhythm inspired hundreds of old songs and singers over the years, till diesel replaced the great 7-foot-high drivers and flailing connecting rods.

Out in the street were other sounds, now long gone. Freihofer’s Bakery goods, Normans Kill Dairy products, and blocks of ice came in horse-drawn vans. The first two were rubber-tired and quiet, except for the clop-clop of the horses’ hooves. The horses knew where to stop; they stood still in apparent deep thought while the driver made his deliveries. The sound of clinking empties coming back triggered their move to the next stop. The ice wagon’s wheels were still steel-shod – gasoline trucks were just coming in and the company wouldn’t waste the money on fancy upgrades – and they rumbled over the cobblestones. Then came the clomp of the iceman’s heavy boots on our almost-impossible winding back stairs, and the sound of his ice pick chipping away at the block to fit it into the icebox. Coal arrived in a truck with a dump body. The bed was raised by a hand crank. From the fourth floor, I could hear every detail: the backup across the sidewalk to our coal door; the squeak of the crank and clash of the heavy steel chute being chained to the back of the truck; and the loud rumble of the coal sliding into the cellar. The egg man, Mr. Relyea, arrived quietly, in an old Plymouth sedan with his leather change purse on a strap over his shoulder.

There were steam whistles then all over Albany – factories, fire stations, and ships at the Port of Albany. Our Sunday School took summer picnic trips on the Hudson River Day Line, rattling down to the port in a noisy, steel-wheeled trolley car, its bell clanging at each intersection, and its antenna wheel fitzing and flashing electric blue at joints in the overhead wires. We walked across the wide pier and up the gangway, aware of the steam venting from the safety valve high on the smokestack. The gangplank came in, the lines were tossed aboard, and that sleeping giant began to tremble with a throb from deep down below. An earsplitting shriek from the whistle, and we swung out into the placid Hudson. My favorite spot on board was up on the top deck, next to the diamond-shaped walking beam. Pivoted in the middle, with a long piston dangling from each end, it rocked up and down like a treadle and sighed softly like the breathing of a very large dinosaur.

Almost across the street from our apartment house stood the Albany Garage, where funeral directors, very wealthy people, and the State of New York kept their cars. Chauffeurs in high leather boots washed and waxed them constantly just inside the open doors. They drove past our sidewalk playroom – Cadillacs, Lincolns, Packards, Duesenbergs – long, black, impossibly shiny – limousines, flower cars, hearses – slipping quietly by with a tiny futt-futt from their exhausts.

At my grandparents’ house, there was a Victrola: Crank it up, put on a record, open the doors, and listen. No electricity required. Everything from Caruso to “The Gingham Dog and the Calico Cat” and when the record was done, it made a scratchy, hissing sound bound to make anyone jump for the heavy swiveling tone arm. There was a toilet with its water closet mounted high on the wall, which, when you pulled its brass chain, erupted with a boom. A floor-model radio, too, with a deep bass frequency that, leaning against the wooden case, you could feel in your bones.

But the sounds I remember best were associated with my father. He almost always descended stairs like a landslide. Stone-deaf, he couldn’t hear the racket he made with his teaspoon when he stirred his coffee, which he did occasionally for a very long time. But the best sound was when, driving home late at night with me half-asleep in the back seat, he shifted gears with the famous Chevrolet vacuum-assisted “two-finger” column shift. That sound, as much as any other, ever, assured me that my father was wide awake, and all was well with the world.

Photo by Willem lange