The only traffic you can hear when you lie in bed at night at my brother, Keeter’s, home, situated half way up the mountain there at Red Star, is the CSX coal train. The train rattles, rumbles and wheel bearings, in bad need of axle grease, grate your nerves, like someone scraping his fingernail tips on an old school chalkboard, as it makes commerce happen in the North Fork Valley of the Kentucky River half a mile below Keeter’s place.
A couple or three times, in the wee hours, every night, you hear that lonesome whistle echo off the high cliff ridges.
It still sounds exactly like the whistle of my youth in the 1950s. When I was just a strapping lad, I could stand in the mountain gap at the head of Blair Branch and hear the whistle blow, nearly three miles away, as the train approached the crossing at the mouth of the holler.
Dad said the diesel locomotive whistles were designed to sound exactly like the early steam whistles they replaced. So that mournful sound has been echoing in the valley, for at least a hundred years, because it started well before coal became its only reason to be there.
There was a time, predating World War II, when the rails carried mostly people and regular freight; when catching the train was the easiest and surest means of getting into and out of the hills and the only means of getting that new washing machine delivered from Montgomery Ward’s in Chicago to Blackey, Ky. or to one of the many other railway stations once scattered throughout the mountains.
But I’m betting those old passenger trains, of days long gone, did not have frozen wheel bearings screaming, like scalded banshees, for attention. Their human cargo simply could not have tolerated the sound. As it happened , on a recent visit, most of the pleasure I might have taken from the sound of a midnight train lulling me to sleep was destroyed by improper maintenance, if not absolute neglect, to the service needs of some coal gondolas.
Fortunately, the late trains are not the only night sounds you can lie in bed and enjoy there on the mountainside in Red Star.
My house in Paint Lick is nearly sound proof because we have triple pane windows, thick steel doors, and because numerous layers of new siding and insulation have been added to its exterior walls over the 100+ years that it has set here on Charlie Brown Road. When we turn off the lights and shut the doors, our place is silent except for the gurgles and trickles of Loretta’s aquariums.
To enjoy the night sounds of Mother Nature at work in the woods across the way, I have to go outside and sit on the front porch swing. I am especially fond of the year-round screech owl chorus and even more so when they are occasionally joined by their great horned cousins. I can’t tolerate a cricket inside the house but they seem necessary to the outdoor orchestra this time of year.
But at the place my brother built in 1975, the walls and windows allow house guests to lie in bed and enjoy post midnight serenades.
On my last visit, just a couple of weeks ago, the night woods surrounding Keeter’s house were very much alive with the songs that nocturnal critters sing to one another, as well as to humans who care to lie in bed and listen.
Two red foxes barked so close to the house that I got up to make sure that Boo-boo, my niece, Tracy’s, big white Turkish Angora Tom cat was safely indoors. Sounding near the top of the mountain, a lone coyote yelped as though it was auditioning for a role in the remake of some old western movie.
First one barred owl, sounding almost atop the roof, then another just around the hill and then two great horned owls, higher up the mountain, chimed in. More reason to make sure Boo-boo keeps his bushy tail inside the house unless he wants to be the main course for dinner.
All this accompanied by the aforementioned cricket chorus and the first katydids I’ve heard this year. Even a dove, though rarely heard at night, joined in. We sometimes refer to them as “rain crows” in the hills. But whatever you call it, you have to think that it was not a very intelligent fowl to be announcing its presence with all those owls nearby. Or maybe, it, too, was offering itself up for the dinner menu.