The Gift of a Brass Whistle

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In 1946 a 23-year-old Pennsylvania man named Walter was mustered out of the Marines after serving in World War II. He was stationed in the Pacific front on a special base security force, shuttling supplies by plane to the Chinese forces fighting the Japanese. Walter returned to his job working on the Pennsylvania Railroad. Over the years, he worked just about every job available and operated nearly all of the locomotives available. One of them was a steam engine, fueled by coal and used mainly for passenger service and known as a K-4. It is widely considered the greatest steam locomotive of all time. One retired railroad worker said engineers told him it could top 100 mph but wasn’t allowed to do so for safety reasons.

Walter worked as a locomotive engineer for 41 years until he failed an eyesight exam in 1987 just shy of his 65th birthday. The railroad company unceremoniously removed him as an engineer because he could no longer discern various colors — a requirement to control train operations. Rather than take a desk job, Walter retired and lived another 20 years.

By the early 1950s, the railroad companies began to phase out steam locomotives — the type one sees in old Westerns, billowing clouds of steam. A number of restored models still exist today for tourists to ride. Twenty years ago I rode a steam locomotive along the Heber Valley Railroad line in Utah. But nearly all steam locomotives were replaced by diesel-electric versions in the decade or so after Walter returned to working on the railroad.

Joe McCarthy, a fellow railroad worker, met Walter in 1968. He and his wife became friends with Walter and his spouse. Joe says one could always spot Walter in a crowd because he invariably wore a checkered hat — red, white or yellow. Joe said when the steam locomotives were phased out, the old-time engineers naturally wanted keepsakes. The most popular item was a brass steam whistle. Again, if you have watched many Western movies, you have heard that distinctive sound as a steam locomotive approached a crossing. Walter died in 2007. His widow gave Joe the K-4 brass whistle that Walter had kept all those years as a souvenir from his years running a steam locomotive.

The steam whistle, Joe wrote in an email, was designed to play dual, triple and even more notes in combination. This allowed skilled engineers to vary their sounds. Many trains became recognizable by the sound of their whistle. The legendary Casey Jones was famous for his whippoorwill-like whistle as he pulled his train from Jackson, Tenn. to Water Valley, Miss.

A system of signals developed from using the whistle. When a stationary locomotive is about to move forward, the engineer blasts two short toots. Three short toots means the train is about to go in reverse. As a train approaches a crossing, the engineer lets folks know with two long, one short and one long pull of the whistle, with that last long blast coming as the locomotive enters the crossing.

These days, train warnings don’t sound like whistles but more like horns. You can go to YouTube to hear how a steam whistle sounds to discern the difference. Just search for K-4 steam locomotive.

The other day a box arrived on my doorstep, with a heavy brass object packed inside shredded newspaper.  It was about a foot high, an inch-and-a-half deep with a curved handle. It was dinged a bit but handsomely polished. No note of explanation could be found in the shredded paper. Eventually I figured out from the shipping label that it had come from Joe, a longtime email acquaintance. We have never met in person, though we have tried a few times. Joe is a fine storyteller. Sometimes a column I write sparks a memory that sets off an anecdote from him that is far more interesting than my meager offering.

A day or so after the brass object arrived, I received an email from Joe, explaining what he had sent. He decided to give me the K-4 whistle, which can be attached to an accompanying wooden base and displayed. He added that if I hooked it to an air compressor it might actually whistle. I intend to try that this weekend.

The K-4 whistle is a fine piece of Americana. Imagine the miles of track this whistle traveled throughout the Northeast and perhaps along the Atlantic Seaboard, the passengers who heard its call, the townspeople who lived along the railroad crossings and slept to its familiar refrain.

Thank you, Joe.

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