Sound Remembered

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.

10 responses

  1. Loved the story ~ I could almost hear the sounds ~ Excellent

  2. I didn’t grow up on a dairy farm, but many of my friends did. My little corner of Upstate New York was dotted with them.

    However, take out your father’s old barn in the last part and insert abandoned paper mills and warehouses and you’ve set the mood for what I went through the last time I visited my old hometown.

  3. Very nice.
    I have spent the day home sick, and have been acquainting myself with the daily sounds of my own house — which don’t amount to much more than the fridge and the mailman, it seems.

  4. It’s so easy to forget that the sound of silence – when the din of our gadgets and daily life quiets – isn’t so silent after all and, as you eloquently expressed, pretty darn comforting.

  5. Very nicely stated. While driving through central Wisconsin on U.S. 8 on a trip to the UP a few years back, I was struck by the number of traditional old dairy barns that were in advanced stages of decay, not to mention how many had been replaced by utilitarian pole barns and the like.

    Your mention of John Mallow’s ‘Music Unlimited’ on WGN brings up comparisons with John Doremus’ ‘Patterns In Music’ program, originally heard beginning in 1962 on WMAQ. The version John did in 1966 for KNXR-FM/Rochester is still airing each evening on 97.5, and I’m listening to him right now. Chet Atkins, the Norman Luboff Choir and Mantovani are coming up, according to John.

    Taking your sound symphony in reverse, when I got into my car after getting hearing aids six years ago, the first thing I noticed was the radio when it came on. It was tuned to the local AM nostalgia station; I thought there was too much treble, so I turned it down. Too much treble. On AM. *That* was a first.

    I then drove out of the parking lot, and was actually startled when I turned on my turn signal. TICK!!! CLICK!!! TICK!!! CLICK!!! Yikes! It was like hearing things for the first time, all the while making it apparent how much the patina of hearing loss had been robbing from the department of hearing.

  6. I read an interesting book a few years back, Charlatan, the true story about a quack doctor who owned a “border-buster” AM station back in the 30s. The book not only delved into his medical quackery (goat testicle transplants into human males to restore their “virility” and “vigor”) but also his role in the history of radio and a few of the early country musicians whose careers he helped launch. Incidentally, I was far more interested in the bits about radio than the bits about his medical quackery. I do recommend the book based largely on your background and your love of radio.

  7. Great piece of writing, JB. Whatever the audio equivalent of “cinematic” is…..you’ve nailed it.

  8. Nicely done. As I began this note, I heard the click of the furnace in the basement and knew that the fans would start to hum shortly . . . as they did.

  9. […] always: about the girl who made me a chart geek, about a painful first semester in college, about how a particular place sounded, about feeling my age, and about the things high-school graduation speakers don’t […]

  10. Seems a shame there’s so very little about John Mallow’s career to be found on the net. He was my dad and the inspiration for my own radio and voice-over career. Thanks so much for your kind comments.

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