Whistletown

by Crawdad Nelson, December 23, 2010

Sacramento doesn't have a noon whistle. Instead, they blow a siren for a full minute on the last Friday of the month. It's not the same thing at all. Probably very early in the industrial age, the mill whistle became the orchestral backdrop of life in towns founded upon extraction of a resource using any form of standardized shift system. Early industrialists were fanatical about getting the most out of their workers, and emphasized uniformity in when people assembled at the front gate and stood ready at their machines. By the time towns like Fort Bragg were built, the mill whistle was taken for granted and could be relied on by travelers in search of work as a sign of economic vitality.

Living in the nearby town, one was never out of audi­tory touch with the mill, from breakfast to bedtime, and with the addition of third shifts in good times the music played around the clock. Thus it was a big part of our lives in the nearby hills. Between that and a rudimentary knowledge of the railroad schedule, one could be fairly sure what time it was without owning a watch.

The particular evening that hangs in my memory might have involved playing baseball in the pasture with the Jacobsons and Bratsbergs, but it may have been something else. It was a foggy summer evening, humid and still, and we were crossing the fence on the stile using that black redwood stump for neighborly assis­tance to and fro, our orchard and the field next door, with its single lane dirt road winding downhill to the flat, then the river. Nine o'clock in June it is still kind of lit, though in the fog it's not as bright as it was the night before. The blast of mill siren sounding time echoes and rolls upriver on two sides of the ridge, so the sound arrives in stereo, split in half by the ridge my great-grandparents wisely selected from among what must have been a dismal choice between one scorched and devastated landscape and the one next to it — stump ranches as they were known — cut and burned not long before and its people penned up a week's hard walk inland.

The way I understand it, people from the part of Fin­land my ancestors came from were long used to similar cut and burn agriculture, scrounging a living from thin forest soil that was frozen six months of the year. In any case they took to the landscape like they were bred to it, raising hay and apples and building a brickworks to take advantage of the deep clay.

There was clear water in a creek not far from the house. We used to inspect the ancient iron water pump with its grievous wheel, in the remains of a pumphouse that had been covered in decades of forest duff, until the boards remaining were not simply rotted through but held together from above by the roots of red huckleberry and deer fern. The ghostly contours of the building some hardy Finnish pioneer and his brothers built one fine day seventy years earlier could be distinguished there in for­est shadows.

Somewhere along the line I overcame my fear of being in the woods alone. That meant I could slip over the fence and appear by surprise at the riverbank. A year or so later I was bold enough to go through the tunnel myself, and walk as far as town, whether I went shop­ping or not. But it was hard to roam far enough to be out of range of the mill's siren, particularly the noon whistle; depending on where you where you could expect those happy chimes every four hours as shifts and meal breaks came and went, and of course if you were in town and paying attention your could make out the millwrights code of long and short toots and know who was broke down.

In December 1964 I stood at the low end of that road to the flat which had been part of the homestead but now belonged to the neighbors, gazing at the broad stroke of the river, in line behind my father with one or more brothers. We saw directly to the railroad on the far bank, a speeder held up there by tracks awash, intermediate shrubbery swept away, a few treetops shivering in the water near the tracks. There was a shouted exchange of greetings and mutual astonishment, and my father fired pellets from his hand-pumped pellet gun into the fresh mud.

Ten winters later we balanced on thin stripes of rail around that same corner, a similar freshet though not as famous because most of what was washed out in 64 stayed washed out. It was just as thrilling — moreso, because we were old enough to break free and take real risks, see up close the new slides, some of which sagged against and threatened the rails foundation of gravel, packed deep. In some spots the river had gone between the ties and under the rails, and ran at a brisk pace, but the water hadn't torn the rails free. In fact they were solid. We used them as reverse skates, pushing along in undeviating single file on our vibram soles, the surging river close enough to tickle our balls if we slipped.

In that condition the river is dangerous to be around. Sections of land can tear away from the bank like peeling the next slice off a stack of bologna. Small islands bravely float and quickly degenerate in the throbbing current, lost in the folds and rolling whole trees, still in leaf. But it's a thrill to stand at the edge, like the abut­ments where Ten Bridge (the original wooden one) was connected to the bank. What landscapes came plowing around that bend headed for the deep sea as we stood a foot or so above the flood, plinking at flotsam with our .22s.

Even then, water surging and in full roar, at noon, you'd hear the long peal of whistle marking the day half over, not quite to the five-mile post on the tracks. What­ever you meant to do you'd better get started.

By the time I worked at the mill I owned a watch, and sometimes visited a girlfriend who lived out of range of the noon whistle. She claimed it was audible when conditions were right but they never were.

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