SOUNDS OF THE PAST

By Bill Grosboll
November 10, 2007

    

The other evening as I was watching television, I noticed a very loud drone coming from outside, a drone that I typically didn’t hear.  I went to the slider and opened it and then realized it was a propeller-driven plane at the airport.  I listened to it for quite a spell and realized that the plane was leaving the airport which is approximately two miles distant.  After the plane’s sound diminished, I noticed a ‘roar’ that was steady and never changing.  This I reckoned was traffic on the freeway, which is also about the same distance away as the airport.  I decided to check out the humidity on the weather channel and sure enough, it was 100 percent (very unusual for this area).  Sound travels so much better in high humidity that I was able to hear things not normally possible.  This got me thinking about those quiet mornings on the farm, right at sun rise, when the humidity was high.
 
The strongest memory, and most missed, is the clanking of the metal milk cans.  Almost every farm family, when I was a kid, had a milk cow or two, just to have fresh milk for daily use.  Some of the farmers had enough milk cows that a daily milk truck made the rounds and picked up the extra milk that these farmers would sell off.  As these cans were being handled, they made a very distinct sound, not too pleasant but it would sure nice to hear those cans now.  The sound from those cans could be heard a couple miles away on those quiet mornings, as well as any conversations the neighbors were having.  They would be talking in their normal tone of voice but they could be heard almost as well as if they were just a hundred feet away.  Of course I was too young to really care about what they were saying, so I didn’t learn any hot gossip! It was on those mornings that I could hear all the neighbors' dogs barking, cows mooing, steers bawling, and pigs oinking (mostly grunting).  For you city folks, steers are male bovines that have had a not too pleasant of an operation to make them unable to reproduce, therefore they make a different sound that a cow, which is called bawling.  I guess I would bawl too if that were done to me.  Very seldom was a horse ever heard, simply because the first thing the farmers did with the advent of the automobile and tractors, was get rid of the horses as soon as possible.  They were expensive and time consuming to keep on the place. 
 
There was an unlimited amount of song birds to listen to, many more than today.  I liked listening to their various songs, which they began singing as soon as the sun came up, more so than any other time of day.  Then there were the sparrows, starlings, and those darned chickens that have no songs, just making a lot of ugly noise.  The bird song that amazed me most was the cooing of the doves.  The doves always cooed until they sensed that rain was in the forecast, at which time they changed their song to a very distinct song that was completely different.  Whenever this song was heard it was called the call of the ‘rain crows’ but actually it was the doves.  I must admit, they were pretty good at forecasting rain and very seldom did they miss.  The farmers paid attention to them because of this accuracy. 
 
In the evening, about sundown, the birds hushed up and the insects took over.  It was great to sit outside and listen to the crickets and locusts.  Locusts go through cycles, when they are most numerous, about seven years, I believe.  During the period when they were at their peak, it was one noisy place for a couple hours after dark.  Noisy at the time but I miss that noise now.  We also had a creek not too far from the house and each evening we would hear the frogs croaking, another sound I miss.  While I’m discussing evenings, I would like to comment about something other than sound and that being the extremely dark and clear skies of my childhood.  As a child growing up in the forties and fifties, there was not nearly the light pollution we have today.  Once in a while a neighbor would have a pole light they left burning all night but usually the light was turned on only when needed.  In the summer months when it was nice to be outside at night, the corn had grown to such a height that it blocked all the light coming from the various neighbor’s houses.  Of course there were very few cars in the country so we didn’t have their noise or head lights being a bother.  On a clear night, thousands, maybe millions, of stars could be seen, bright and dim.  The stars making up the Milky Way were so abundant that the Milky Way appeared as a faint white cloud in the sky.  No matter where you live today, that is a view the children of today will never have, merely by stepping outside their door.  What a loss for them!  I drive out to the country once in a while to see the stars but even out here where we don’t have the population density of people as back in the Midwest, I am unable to see the heavens above as I did when I was a child because of all the light pollution.  I do miss the beauty of the stars!
 
Getting back to sounds of the country, all those sounds of my childhood have been replaced by the roar of traffic on nearby highways or other noises of modern conveniences.  I just thought of another sound that was just beginning to make it presence known and that was the modern jet.  Up to the Korean War, in the early fifties, all aircraft were propeller-driven but then, once in a great while, a jet plane could be heard.  Dad and I would stop what we were doing and watch it fly overhead, amazed at it’s speed.  It took some time to learn to look far ahead of the sound to see the plane, due to it’s speed.  These aircraft were entirely new to we farm boys!  Very seldom did we see contrails from the airplanes passing overhead, not at all like we see today.  Also, as the planes got faster, it was not unusual to hear the sonic boom they made as they flew faster than the speed of sound.  There were no restrictions at that time which limited their speed and not until people starting complaining about the ‘boom’ were restrictions imposed on the aircraft as too how fast they could travel.  I always like to hear the ‘boom’ since it meant that the pilot was really getting with the program.  As a teenager I loved speed, as anyone will attest, who had the misfortune of riding with me after I got my drivers license.  What that has to do with sound, I don’t know.  Just thought I would throw it in!  Anyway, enjoy those pleasant sounds that you can still hear.  It’s a changing world and they may not be there to enjoy much longer.  I’m glad that I had the opportunity.
 

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