The refrigerator in our home has a particular hum. The furnace is positively symphonic, opening with the soft rush of a fan, then a low rumble and a whoosh as the burner comes on. We can tell the time in the evening by the slamming of the doors in the condo next to ours, and I am awakened many mornings by the sound of the garage-door opener when The Mrs. leaves for the gym. The shower, the toilets, the dishwasher: each has a sound particular to this place, just as the ones in other places had their own particular sounds. Every place I have ever lived—every place you have ever lived, too—has sounds that mark it unique.
I grew up on a dairy farm, where attention-getting noises were routine. You could hear the cows clomping around in the pasture not far from the house, and the occasional bellow might erupt at any hour of the day or night. Our various dogs barked at every vehicle that went by—vehicles you would hear coming long before you saw them zoom past. The wind through the popple tree in the dooryard had its own music, as did the rain on the metal roof of the sunporch, just outside my bedroom window. We could recognize my father’s tractors by their sounds—his John Deere Model 60 made a putt-putt-putt sound, but his Model 4000 growled like a piece of heavy construction equipment. In the dairy barn, there was the pop and grind of the motor that powered the flatulent vacuum of the milking machines, and the sequence of sounds—click, buzz, roar—that got the milk cooler running. The silo unloader, used to feed the animals in the barnyard, played a whole song: a sharp thwack of the power switch (different from the metallic snap of the milk-cooler switch) followed by the organ-like hum of the unloader motor, starting out low and rising in pitch and volume while the clank of the chain that moved the feed through the bunk played a rhythm figure, and finally, the cascading of silage down the chute, heard long before it was seen, a crackling tumble if it was corn silage, a gentle pitter-patter for hay.
And there was the radio, too. Dad had an old tube-type AM radio in the barn. He preferred the menu of polka music and country on WEKZ, our local station, although after WEKZ signed off at sunset, he would tune over to WGN from Chicago. It occurs to me now that my first lessons on the distant reach of AM radio in general and WGN in particular came on those evenings in the barn. WGN carried a short program called the Midwest Driving Forecast, a regional weather report geared to travelers. It was clear just from listening that WGN reached a long way—to Minnesota, the Dakotas, Ohio, Pennsylvania. Sometimes Dad would tune around the AM dial to pick up distant stations, pulling them in from Texas or even from Canada, and from that I learned that radio itself could reach a long way. After the Midwest Driving Forecast, it was time for Music Unlimited, hosted by John Mallow, whose tenure at WGN reached back into the 1940s. The show was mostly pop instrumentals, Mantovani and the like, but it’s the music of Mallow’s voice—not anything he said, but the way he sounded saying it—that’s stayed with me.
The dairy farm I grew up on is a dairy farm no more. My father sold his cows 16 years ago. On my first visit home after they were gone, the sound of their absence was disorienting. The barn, such an inviting place in the fall and winter with its animal warmth, animal smells, and golden light from fly-bespeckled bulbs, is cold and sad now. The milking equipment is long dormant, and the space once filled by cows and calves and cats and dogs and kids and a vigorous young farmer’s twice-daily routine is now strewn with detritus that had to be put someplace. And it’s quiet. Too quiet for a place that once rang with so much sound, so well-remembered.