As the grandson of a railroad man, I grew up hearing more than my fair share of stories about trains. I spent a lot of time with my grandfather, Dewey Pittman, especially after he retired and moved to an apartment my parents had fixed up for him in our backyard in Pascagoula. While he and I shelled black-eyed peas, picked the best tomatoes from a roadside stand and when he helped me learn to drive a car, he always found a reason to talk about trains.
When he stopped driving, I was often his designated chauffeur. Once, as we stopped at a railroad crossing after the red and white crossing bar was down but before the oncoming locomotive arrived, he said, “Listen – here it comes!”
“The train?” I asked. “I can see it.”
“No,” he said impatiently. “Listen for the whistle.”
Then I heard four urgent, lonesome air whistle blasts. The engineer made two long pulls on the whistle, one much shorter, and then another long one.
“That’s the whistle code for a crossing,” Granddaddy said as he smiled at me. “The engineer is required to use just that pattern so you’ll know the locomotive is coming. Other blasts are for bridges or just to let people know they’d better get off the track if they don’t want to get hit. But two longs, a short and a long always mean the train’s coming to a crossing.”
Thirty years later, after I had moved to Nashville, I lived near the railroad crossing on Old Harding Road near Bellevue Road. A minor back problem woke me up several nights in a row around 1:30 a.m. At precisely 1:40 each morning, I heard the train speak its language to my darkened community as it passed between the then torn-down Bellevue Market on one side and the Masonic lodge on the other as the crossing gates fell. Two longs, a short, and a long. I checked the railroad approved wristwatch I wore each time. Yep, it’s train time.
A song came out of those nights hearing the train go by and memories of my grandfather. To this day, I still wear my railroad approved wristwatch and look for slices of life that happen as they should. And each time I have to wait for a train to pass before crossing a railroad track is a chance to remember the locomotive’s lonesome song: Two longs, a short and a long.
Click the image of the “torn-down” market steps below to listen to “Two Longs, A Short and A Long.”
Two Longs, a Short and a Long Two Longs, a Short and a Long; a diesel locomotive’s crossing song One forty every morning, roll through Bellevue, then you’re gone Two Longs, a Short and a Long This time of night there’s no need to slow down Hi-balling through a sleeping little town You pass the torn down market and the old Masonic hall You ain’t disturbing anyone at all I begin to ramble in my mind When I hear you rumbling down the line I want to climb into the cab and let you take me far away But I’ll wake up right here come break of day You could set a railroad watch by that old crossing bell You’re always right on schedule with your lonesome tale to tell Three diesel engines, headlights burning bright Pulling freight and tank cars through the night You’re hauling railroad memories I just can’t turn a loose You can’t un-couple dreams like an old caboose Copyright 2003 by Les Kerr Publisher: O.N.U. Music, Nashville, Tennessee ASCAP
Text and photos copyright 2002, 2017 by Les Kerr.