Nighttime in the switching yard

It has been hot and steamy in our corner of Wisconsin for much longer than usual this summer. It is, in reality, a typical Wisconsin summer. But not one we’ve had for several years.

On nights like these, muggy nights that follow muggy days that feel like you have to swim through the air, it takes me back to Grandma’s house.

Grandma and Grandpa rented an old house that backed onto the railroad tracks in their small town in south-central Wisconsin. An old wood frame house with cheap asphalt siding that mimicked bricks.

To me, it was just Grandma’s house. One of my junior high friends came along once. He took one look at the place and was mortified.

Grandma and Grandpa were poor. Grandpa was disabled, forced from work in his 50s by a heart condition and then emphysema. They lived on a pension and Social Security. They’d been poor for a long time by the time my friend saw them in the early ’70s.

When we came to visit, my brother and I would share the smallest of three small upstairs bedrooms. There was no air conditioning, only a small sliding screen wedged into the window. On sultry nights, we’d plop into the old twin beds and hope for a breeze.

What I remember most vividly about those nights, aside from the heat that enveloped you, were the sounds of the rail yard. It was out our window, across the small back yard, not even 100 yards to the east.

We’d hear the diesel locomotives rev up, reach a sustained pitch and then throttle back down and they shuffled in and out of the rail yard. Later at night, or early in the morning, we’d hear them idling.

The heat made it hard enough to sleep. The sounds of the rail yard only compounded the problem. You eventually faded, though.

Now if you came all this way and thought you were getting a Warren Zevon song, well, sorry. That tune doesn’t have the right vibe.

Rather, it’s this, which drags along like all parties are being forced to play on a hot, steamy night in a ramshackle old place hard by the tracks.

“Night Train,” Louis Prima, from “The Wildest!” 1957.

That’s Sam Butera blowing that lonely sax.

(Still hacked off about no Zevon? Come on. If I’d headlined this post “Hot August Night,” you’d have passed without reading a word.)


Filed under August 2010, Sounds

3 responses to “Nighttime in the switching yard

  1. Dane

    I don’t know enough about Zevon to be annoyed, but I couldn’t possibly be anyway. I’m sure you probably know how I feel about Prima by now; delighted, thanks, and I took this one.

    Also, you painted that word picture really well; what a vivid remembrance.

  2. I was recently regaling my children with tales of a youth spent sans air conditioning, summer nights spent trying to lay very still on top of the sheets, praying for a breeze. When I couldn’t sleep I’d go to the window and listen to the big kids hanging out on the corner.
    Now a bomb could go off outside and it wouldn’t faze me.

  3. I recall nights like that, too. After a while, I’d sit at my window and stare at the empty intersection beneath the streetlight. And eventually lie back down and fade, just as you said. Great piece, and great call on Prima’s “Night Train.”

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