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JACK SMITH

The Sounds of Youth : Remember Old Train Whistles? Good Humor Trucks? Organ Grinders?

March 23, 1986|JACK SMITH

"Do you miss certain sounds we both heard as kids, that are now gone forever?" asks Bob Williams of Fallbrook.

Two sounds Williams misses are the clicketyclack of train wheels hitting the spaces that once existed between rails, and "the wonderfully sonorous tones that railroad engineers played with their whistles."

He wonders: "How many others are there that people miss?"

True, the old steam whistles of the trains are gone. What nostalgia that sound inspires when we hear it in old Western movies!

It was a sound that accented and measured the lonely reaches of the great American West. It pierced the night in small towns, melancholy but reassuring: Old 98 was on time again; the world was an orderly place. It was a sound that challenged distance; it called out to the wilderness; it marked the coming of civil amenities to the plains.

And what about the huff of the big steam engines when the trains were laboring in the station. We stood on the platform close enough to the great boilers to feel the heat; we were enveloped in steam and satanic hissing. Gradually, as they pulled away, the locomotives gained speed, the huffs coming closer and closer together until they melded into a continuous symphonic din.

How mighty a sound it was, but how friendly and benign, compared to the deafening shrieks of today's jet airplanes.

Even in the clamorous modern city there are sounds that I miss. Remember the Helms bread trucks that used to come down residential streets, tooting their familiar horns? And whatever became of the Good Humor man, whose arrival in your neighborhood was announced by his tinkling song? Alas, the Good Humor man has gone with the bread man.

A familiar sound of my boyhood was the cry of the rag man, coming down our street on his creaking old wagon.

"Rags!" he cried. "Any rags today?"

His wagon was heaped with rags, and if you had any rags, he would pay you a few cents for them. He was an old man, or seemed to be, dressed in rags himself, with a misshapen, old felt hat, and there was something frightening about him, though I'm sure he was harmless.

My mother used to use him as a threat: "If you aren't good, I'll give you to the rag man."

Sometimes, when I heard the rag man's cry, I would hide under the hedge or in the cellar.

Are there no organ grinders left? They were usually Italians--or looked like our idea of Italians--with large, black, flamboyant mustaches and funny clothes. They ground out familiar opera arias and Italian folk songs on their organs. "O Sole Mio" and "Funiculi-Funicula." Their monkeys hopped from one enchanted spectator to another, collecting pennies.

High-fidelity sound has replaced the tinny, otherworldly sound of our old Zeniths and Atwater Kents. I can remember walking down the streets past the houses on my way home from school and hearing the faint nasal sound of Rudy Vallee singing: "I'm just a vagabond lover . . . ."

I miss the clang of the streetcars. They were wonderful conveyances, rattling along their tracks at midnight with their loads of tired waitresses, clerks, night-school students and weary revelers.

The motormen who drove them seemed to relieve their boredom by clanging their bells, which they did, as I remember, by stomping a heel down upon a button in the floor. "Clang, clang, clang went the trolley. . . .!"

I remember the pleasant sound made by small airplanes flying over town on a summer afternoon. There were no jets, no airliners, no helicopters. The airplanes had hardly changed since World War I.

They were made of canvas and sticks and glue, and they were flown by crazy barnstormers and young geniuses like Glenn Martin, Glenn Curtiss and Charles Lindbergh.

They made a flat, droning sound that stirred the imagination of small boys and had no menace in it. The sound would fade in and out as they turned and stunted in the sky, buzzing the houses and showing off over the town.

The movies have sound now, but not the kind of sound the silent movies had. The old theaters used to tremble with the big sound of the Wurlitzers as the resident organists matched their music to the action on the screen. How many times we heard the William Tell Overture as Hoot Gibson rode to the rescue! And every time the screen showed a Lower East Side street, we heard "East Side, West Side."(CQ--DB) "New York, New York" has replaced it as everybody's favorite New York song, but to me "East Side, West Side" will always be more evocative.

There was always an organ grinder on those Lower East Side streets, too, and the theater organist dubbed in "O Sole Mio" and "Funiculi-Funicula."

Play it again, Tony.

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