Mack Williams: Dash, dash, dot, dash

Published 12:00 am Sunday, April 26, 2015

The title for this week’s column should ring a bell (and sound a horn) for those from railroading families. To them, it’s code: “dash, dash, dot, dash” is as familiar as the Morse code: “dot, dot, dot, dash, dash, dash, dot, dot, dot” (SOS) is to maritime families. The railroad code only refers to the number and duration of the diesel horn’s sound blast, not to letters of the alphabet.

Growing up not far from that heavily railroaded area of Salisbury and Spencer, I remember seeing signs with this code posted (vertically, not horizontally) to let the engineer know to sound his horn in warning when approaching what the motorist calls a railroad crossing, but which could equally be referred to by the engineer as a car crossing. The number of such signs I’ve seen from the highway are much less in number than those heard.

Since railroads frequently intersect roads, this warning is the one most familiar to “civilians,” rail-yard signals committed only to the memory of men who work at places like Linwood (and some railroad buffs).

When I was growing up on the Old Concord Road, I heard the railroad diesel horn in the distance across Interstate 85, but the drone of traffic and horns of the lesser diesels on that highway diluted it. I could also hear the faint horn of the “Yadkin Local” crossing the Old Concord Road further north toward Salisbury.

Later on, in 1974, my mother moved to Hanford Apartments in Salisbury, and I got married in Yanceyville. My late wife Diane and I visited my mother one weekend and went to see “Doctor Zhivago” in re-release at the Capitol Theater. I could pinpoint the week if I avail myself of that extensive web archive which Mike Cline has compiled, known as “Mike Cline’s Then Playing.”

After watching a great deal of epic train footage, we came back to my mother’s Hanford apartment for the night. Not in freezing surroundings like those in “Zhivago,” but in a warm room, under warm covers, our warm selves heard trains of Southern Railway’s main north-south division traversing Salisbury. These were much nearer than those experienced distantly, down on the Old Concord Road.

(After checking “Mike Cline’s Then Playing,” I’m sure we saw “Doctor Zhivago” at Salisbury’s Capitol Theater on Saturday night, Oct. 19, 1974. Although the passing years had made me unsure of the date, Mike was certain. You can check such things, too, those of you whose movie-going lives were also playing during the years posted by Mike Cline).

Now back to trains experienced, rather than trains of great film (there was some cool train stuff in “Von Ryan’s Express,” too). From where I live and work, I hear (and often see) trains going through Danville.

Most of the railroad is inorganic (wooden crossties are organic, but dead) consisting of the metal of engines, boxcars and rail; however, its human element, expressed by the operation of the diesel’s horn, stands out loud and clear (decibly so).

The difference in diesel horn manipulation is just as individual as the differing sets of fingerprints deposited on its control lever (a pull chord years ago, no printing possible then). To encourage the modern-day diesel engineer to sound his horn, children should make like they’re pushing a button instead of pulling a chord. (Just not the same, is it?)

Some engineers play the “dash, dash, dot, dash” with a slow “Andante,” and some play it in brisk “Allegro.” Some play with the fluidity of “Legato,” while others play in short, choppy “Staccato.”

Variation is also rampant with the number of rests, ritards, fermatas, and sometimes even a few grace notes.

I’ve heard that code played in styles which reflected the different periods of music’s development. I’ve heard the strictness of Baroque, the more freed-up classical of Mozart and Beethoven (whose own “dot, dot, dot, dash” comes to mind), and the Romanticism of Wagner , for which the diesel horn’s volume seems a natural fit.

Concerning music’s modern era, I heard one “wee-hour” train whose diesel horn sounded as if Igor Stravinsky himself were sitting in the cab, blasting it in “Firebird” fashion!

As we hear hundreds of thousands of train tonnage rolling by, both day and night, let’s pay particular attention to the only living thing in this “dead” orchestral sound: the horn — namely, the horn player.

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