Far-Off Trains

I grew up in the Oakland Hills in a genteel community called Piedmont. If you parted the trees that surrounded our town, you could see San Francisco shimmering across the bay. Most of my friends’ fathers worked there in the skyscrapers that shaped that famous skyline. Their mothers, like mine, were housewives or community leaders. It was a proper community where people celebrated and grieved together. We had small-town rituals like Friday night football games where everyone went, even the bookworms like me, and Fourth of July Parades where neighborhoods got together in work parties to build floats and then picnicked together in the city park.

We also had quirkier rituals like an annual Bird Calling Contest, which was started as a joke but then rose to national fame as people took the joke seriously. Its participants – including my younger sister – would fly down to Los Angeles each Spring to be on the Johnny Carson show and tweet like exotic little birds. For years my sister got an annual royalty check for chirping on national TV.

There were keg parties where all the jocks got drunk. But there were also people who thought it wasn’t right that odd birds like me were left out of the party scene. I remember a good-natured guy named Rob who came by one day to tell me he and his buddies were starting a new club that would include guys like me who were liked well enough but didn’t play sports and so weren’t invited to keg parties. It never occurred to him that maybe guys like me really truly preferred staying home on Friday night rather than getting sloppy drunk.

It would have been a good town to grow up in.


My bedroom wasn’t part of the house, at least not originally. The main house was built in the 1920s complete with ballroom, solarium and three-story laundry chute. It was a beautiful house built by craftsmen who took pride in the beauty of things made well by hand.

My room was added much later and in a hurry. The family that lived in the house before us was of the good Catholic kind that adhered to the Pope’s edicts and did not use birth control. They had ten kids and apparently needed two more rooms quickly. Hence my ramshackle fake-wood paneled room with rolling closet doors that always fell off their tracks. If you imagined a low-rent, hard-scrabble trailer park unit (like the kind my grandmother lived in a few miles away) tacked onto a 1920s Gatsby-style mansion, you would have my room.

I loved that room. There were plenty of other bedrooms I could have had. But I chose that one. Removed, distant, fake-wood grained and tucked up under the branches of a Monterey pine. It was a room without pretense in a house that pretended to a lot.


After my mother divorced my first father and re-married, we all moved into the Gatsby mansion. I woke up many nights screaming bloody murder. I still remember it so vividly: sitting bolt upright in my bed, my mother running down the hall to comfort me. I don’t remember my second father ever coming. Perhaps he knew my screams were an accusation.

I have always attributed the screams to the logical reaction of a five-year-old kid being uprooted. But now I wonder if part of me didn’t already know that this was a very bad move for my family. No one was safe anymore.

Even today I don’t like to go to sleep at night; I put it off until I am so exhausted that I have no choice. If I want a peaceful sleep, I take a nap in the afternoon because at night I do not know where I will be taken.


From my bedroom under the trees I could hear the far-off trains entering and leaving the Oakland switching yard. It doesn’t seem possible that those two worlds could meet: the yards were so far away and the sound of trains so disruptive and poetic. What could a train horn say in that world of carefully sculpted gardens and careers?

Apparently a lot because I would lie there in the dark waiting to hear their call and then rejoice when I did. Knowing the trains were out there, I could then fall asleep.

In my heaven the angels have ditched clarions for the sweet music of an AirChime K5LA horn.


[You can hear the AirChime K5LA yourself here >]

One response to “Far-Off Trains”

  1. Glyn Reed Avatar
    Glyn Reed

    Kevin, I love the Airchime…what a sound. I’ve heard it before, probably in American movies, it’s so evocative as is your writing. I want to read more so please, please don’t stop. I was looking forward to this Sunday’s instalment but it hasn’t arrived as yet…please send!

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