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Echoes of Childhood Found in a Train Whistle

My French grandson wanted to see the train, but it had come and gone. We waited on the platform -- Eric, his parents, and his grandparents -- hoping another train would soon arrive.

It was evening, and the little commuter station at Gif-sur-Yvette was empty. Eric kept looking one way, then the other, to the end of the tracks, waiting for the train that wouldn't come.

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From way down deep, I whistled a train whistle from my childhood in America, the whistle that echoes across the wide plains, that echoes also along the Hudson River north of New York where I grew up. It sounded authentic. I whistled again. It sounded lonely and yet, as I stood there, it warmed me all the way down to my toes.

My two-year-old grandson liked the whistle. It replaced the train. He was satisfied and took my hand as we walked together with his parents to their new home.

That evening I wondered about the train whistle. I was thrown back across the ocean. I remembered waiting for my father at the commuter station of Tarrytown. From farther down the Hudson River, the train would whistle, and I'd run close to the edge of the platform to look down the tracks. In summer it would still be daylight, and I'd see the train far in the distance, approaching, looming larger and larger.

In winter, I'd wait for it to emerge out of the dark -- first the whistle, then the single headlight, then the powerful engine. Did trains still whistle like this in America?

The commuter trains outside Paris did not whistle, they slid along the rails as noiselessly as possible. Nor did the orange, bullet-shaped TGVs streaking through the French countryside. I hadn't heard this whistle for close to 40 years, when I first moved to Europe.

And so last summer, when I returned to the United States and was to travel from New York City upstate to Saratoga Springs, I decided to go by train. I wanted to hear the whistle and make sure I was doing it right for my grandson.

I found myself a place near the window on the side of the coach close to the river. We picked up speed after the tunnel, leaving Manhattan behind us. I looked at the wide Hudson River unrolling, its currents circling. Then, as we neared the Tappan Zee Bridge, the train whistled. It was the same echoing whistle I had made on the train platform for my young grandson in France.

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I leaped back in time. Now I was there, a little girl growing up near the railroad station at Tarrytown. I remembered riding over on my bike and putting a penny on the tracks, then worrying I would derail the entire train. I ran and hid; it was too late to grab back my penny. The train was coming. There was the whistle.

I closed my eyes and prayed that it wouldn't skid right off its tracks. And then I fetched my copper penny, flattened into an oval. I hammered a hole into it, polished it, and wore it around my neck.

My penny has since disappeared, but the train whistle was again with me. It was my French grandson who brought it back, brought it back for his American grandmother living far away from her country.

So, like the train going up the Hudson, whistling to announce itself, whistling not to be alone, I, too, whistled at the train station in Gif-sur-Yvette. I whistled for Eric. I whistled for myself, not to be alone.

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