Guest Column

Heard in New Hampshire

On certain gray mornings when I was boy, I'd wake up to the Boston & Maine wailing high and lonesome above Cedar Swamp. And I knew, without looking out the window, that it would rain that day. The B&M's whistle only carried like that, like a railroad rain crow, before a storm. Today, whenever I hear a train moan, I'm carried back home to Kingston, and I can see the blue B&M freight clack-clacking northward.

Writers talk about being touched by landscapes of memory. But just as moving for me is New Hampshire's soundscape: the Granite State din that murmurs in the mulch pile of my writing.

Spring: The chorus of peepers, nature's old-time gospel music, backed by the "buh-WONK" of bullfrogs...The keening of the water-driven saw at Cheney's mill...The boot-sucking mud...painted turtles, sunning on a log, Alka-Seltzering into the pond...Drowsy winter flies stumbling on the windowsills, humming absent-mindedly, old men nudged from a nap for supper...My little sister shrieking at the first garter snake of the season.

My childhood is the bellering of stock cars raging around quarter-mile tracks: Hudson (N.H.) Speedway, The Pines in Groveland, Mass., Star Speedway in Epping. I started going to the races when I was three because my father and his buddies raced a crow-black 1937 Pontiac coupe splashed with a big red No. 75. I loved the hot, heady reek of burnt rubber, gasoline and smoldering steel. I lived for the constant tick-tick of steel nicking steel, the cars whining down the backstretch, the fear and adrenaline at watching a car flip, then bound and bounce along the track.

Even when we didn't get to the races, the cars still had a hold on me, because toward midnight on still summer nights, if it was quiet enough and the wind was blowing just right, I could hear the distant thunder of the race cars over to Epping. And though they were miles away, I could see them, smell them.

Summer: The chainsaw buzz of outhouse flies...Boys, beer cans tied to their sneakers, sparking and scuffing down the night road...The clink-clink of horseshoes at dusk...The mysterious hum of high summer as neon-blue darning needles spin compulsories on Pow-Wow River...The screen door whanging shut...The sputter and squeal of my white Sylvania radio as I listen to the Red Sox...Matches struck, beers hissed open, the men swearing at their broke-down cars.

Fall: Squirrels sprinting in the rafters...November's brittle brown leaves skittering down cracked back roads...Spitting snow sighing onto the pines....22-caliber bullets pinging beer cans, shotguns booming deep (we hoped) in the woods...Pease Air Force Base jets shredding the sound barrier and shivering our ramshackle husk of a house...The late beer bees dive-bombing bottles of Bud and 'Gansett...The blunt voice of an ax.

When my parents got married, they owned two record albums, "Rock and Rollin' With Fats Domino" and "Johnny Cash With His Hot and Blue Guitar." Those two albums are womb music, as much as the beating of my mother's heart. I hear them, and I see the gray and white record-player, the 45s towering on the spindle: Duane Eddy and his twangy guitar, Buddy Holly, Carl Perkins, Johnny and the Hurricanes and, of course, Elvis. (I can't count the number of times I heard "Love Me Tender.")

My parents were teen-agers when I was born, and my preschool soundtrack has a rockabilly lilt. This is the music that blue-collar country kids listened to in the 1950s, in Tennessee and in Alabama...and in New Hampshire.

Winter: Wind-harried snow tick-ticking at the windows...Snowplows, orange lights blinking, scraping by...The constant trickle of water come January thaw...Dad busting the steel pail through the ice in the porch well...The clunk of frozen clothes on the kitchen table: clothesline cordwood...The groan of a balky car on a sub-zero morning...The North Wind whispering through the cracks of the house, the curtains dancing to the tune.

With winter thoughts, I again hear the Boston & Maine, ghosting out of a snowstorm, creeping through Newton Junction, its cry low and muffled, like a child sobbing into a pillow. I close my eyes, and I listen to the B&M until it disappears into the swirling snow, until it vanishes into the past.

Dana Jennings, who studied English at the University of New Hampshire, is a novelist and children's book author. He is also an editor and writer for The New York Times.

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