On a particularly beautiful afternoon last fall, I found myself sitting on the patio of a lovely café, enjoying a cappuccino and some beautiful scenery. The café was situated, charmingly, right off of a railroad track in the heart of a beautifully quaint small town. A picturesque sort of modern nostalgia.
When a slow, soft, rumbling began to ripple through the cafe from somewhere off in the distance, I initially thought nothing of it. Just a train approaching. Another slice of a lost Americana that was almost too perfect to behold.
Curiously, a number of people in the cafe did not share the same enthusiasm for the pastoral nirvana that I was enjoying. A silent, palpable fear slowly rolled over the patio. The patrons looked at each and shook their heads side-to-side – fearful, angry, exhausted. They watched, tensely, as the train approached.
Then, as if it were rehearsed, I watched everyone on the patio firmly and emphatically stuff their own fingers into their ears. Like a coordinated attempt by trained monkeys to hear no evil. I looked on, curious, slightly amused… Oblivious.
One patron noticed my ignorance and madly tried to alert me to the upcoming danger but –
THE TRAIN HORN BLARED….
My ears were ringing. My head felt like it was about to explode. As if the sound waves filling my ear canals indulged in endless constructive interference reverberating through my brain, filling it’s space beyond capacity, like an overcrowded concert stage about to collapse out of sheer exhaustion. I thought this was my end.
When I was finally able to gather my thoughts, the train had left and continued on to its destination, unaware of the carnage it had just wrought. I realized almost immediately how completely and utterly unnecessary the blasts even were in this situation, there was no one one the tracks! We weren’t at a train crossing! There was no danger! It was almost a willful assault on people who had the audacity to be in the vicinity of the train.
Many of the patrons, noticing my distress, came over to see if I was okay. They apologized for not warning me and offered comforting words. One gentleman summed it up simply,
“It’s okay. They got you. They get everyone sooner or later…”
The blowing of train horns is an under reported epidemic in this country. The problem goes largely unnoticed due to its regional exclusivity to rural America. Folks in small towns, many of which have already been left behind by the economic march away from industrialization are now left to deal with a daily aggression. An annoying, exaggerated, blaring remnant of better times.
One resident told me, “Once, I was giving a presentation to a number of senior level managers when the train came by and…”
Fighting back tears he continued,
“The horn blew and I nearly jumped out of my skin. I was so startled. I let out a small, completely involuntary, and highly embarrassing, yelp. A sound of pure terror, like the bark of a small dog. It was so embarrassing. All of my colleagues laughed and made snide comments like ’Whoa, jumpy much?’ I continued with my presentation, but I knew that no one cared anymore.“
This experience is hardly atypical. All one needs is to throw a stone in a small town to make more stories come pouring out…
“I was on a date and it was going well. Really well, actually. We had stopped under a tree over by the tracks for a romantic kiss, like on the movie posters, anyway a train came by mid make-out and I got so scared that I accidentally bit her tounge… She… Yeah, that wasn’t the best…”
When asked about the major reason behind becoming train conductors, 95% of respondents to a 2012 survey by the Train Conductors Association of America, admitted that blowing the horn to startle and/or scare bystanders was either the “most important” or “only reason” for pursuing a job as a train conductor. They went on,
“It’s a thrill seeing people jumpy like that. I suppose it’s similar to what it feels like to murder someone.”
“People take their ears for granted. I’m just reminding them that they’re there. This is the only job where being annoying is totally part of it.”
“Seeing pure fear. That’s a strange joy. You don’t see that very often in life”
One conductor, Michael, (Who was so ashamed of his behavior he chose to speak to me through a voice scrambler and insisted he keep his face hidden by keeping a paper bag over his head. This, despite my numerous reassurances that the interview was not being filmed, and was strictly being used in print) summed up his experience as a train conductor in surprisingly candid terms:
”I know why I do what I do. I love scaring people. It’s a thrill. Seeing them jump like that. I saw a child pee his pants once. I’ll never forget that.” Michael chuckled. “I don’t really care either. Ask any conductor and they’ll either tell you the same… Or they’re lying”
Rarely as a journalist does a clear cut case of wrongdoing present itself in such stark terms. Both victims and victimizers agree on the existence of a problem. It’s the type of story that as a journalist you hope to get your entire career. One that has an opportunity to affect real change. Yet, when asked for comment on the story, the Train Conductors of America Association had a startlingly simple and tone deaf response:
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