My connections with coastal Maine run deep and strong; one branch of my family was among the first pioneer settlers of that island-studded and fog-bound land to which I have escaped myself almost annually for more than fifty years. In a way it is my “spiritual home” and the best place to go when my internal batteries need recharging. While I see it as a piece of America that clings to history and tradition more than almost anywhere else, even that is changing. Very few of the state’s light houses still function as key navigational aids, but now even the companion fog horns are being shut down to save operating and maintenance costs, inasmuch as space-age navigation aids and GPS pretty much do the job.
But for many “Mainers” this is a step too far. From West Quoddy Head down East to the Nubble on the South, the sound of Maine’s fog horns has played folks to sleep and called lobster boats home for two hundred years – all the way back to a time when they used cannons and striking bells to warn of rocks and shoals and points of land where it is said fog was born. How often have I snuggled into my bunk in a tiny white cottage on John’s Bay to the background music of the great horn at Seguin Light, one of the three foggiest pockets in the entire Northeast, or taken refuge at a campsite in the Camden Hills where the fog horn at Owl’s Head announced the changing weather on Penobscot Bay. I can’t quite picture a world without the sound of those “voices” of a proud maritime tradition. I may have to respond as many Down-Easters are; by purchasing a CD recording of Maine’s historic fog horns with which to play myself to sleep.
Sadly, there are other sounds I am having to think of in a past tense. For one thing I am thankful to have lived when the sound of a steam locomotive whistling its way through the dark of a moonless night was a serenade to the ears of listening kids huddled deep beneath eiderdowns dreaming of the day they might grow up to have their own hand on the throttle of such a hundred-ton monster following the path of a bright white light through canyon draw and curving riverside right-of-way; from somebody’s home town to some distant destination two-day’s into someone else’s tomorrow. How many times have I listened to the clack, clack of the tracks passing beneath me and the whistle left behind by the charging steam horse up ahead while swaying comfortably in an upper rack of a Texas Katy sleeper car halfway across America’s west or through an echo-shouting cut in a Rocky Mountain gorge. (Or once in a pitching hammock hung from the overhead in the passenger car of a coal-burning narrow-guage over miles of gleaming track and through hundreds of tunnels between Tokyo and Iwakuni at postwar Japan’s southern tip.) Nothing fathered by the electric horn of a modern diesel locomotive can compare with the primitive wail and wavering notes of steam being forced through the heart and soul of those artfully-tuned 5-chime beauties atop an iron monster of the 30s and 40s!
Thinking back I realize that there was something reassuring about the sounds of truck brakes and clinking bottles at 5AM in the morning as the milk man made his rounds. Amid the fears and uncertainties of a world at war it spoke of continuity and order. Somehow I realized that young kids in Poland and Lithuania would not be waking up to those sounds of freedom.
Perhaps more concerning than the demise of any other sounds of my time is the tolling of church bells on Sunday mornings. In the small New Jersey town of my birth I would hear first the bells on the tower of the Dutch Reformed congregation, then the local Catholic Church’s call to Mass, then it would be my turn to pull the bell rope in the space behind the organ loft in Saint Stephens Episcopal where I was also an altar boy. When the French scholar Alexis de Tocqueville visited the New World in the 1830s he concluded that representative democracy worked here because we were a nation of virtue. He noted that there was a church in every town and village and a bible in every home. I wonder what he would think in the silence which tolls so loudly in much of today’s New World ?