The Sounds of Home

By Robert Cowser

In one of his essays Scott Russell Sanders writes that in centuries past Japanese villagers were cautioned never to wander so far from their homes that they could not hear the village drummer. In ancient times Asians considered drums to be the most important of all musical instruments. The drum beat may have represented security to the villagers by suggesting to them the mother’s heartbeat heard in the fetal stage.

Since I grew up on a farm in North Texas, thousands of miles from Japan and centuries after the era to which Sanders refers, there was no village drummer to give me a sense of security. Unlike the larger schools to the west and east of our rural school, we had no marching band with bass drums. Except for the sticks, tambourines, clogs and woodblocks of the rhythm band in the primary school, the only musical instruments at the our school were a piano in the auditorium and a piano in the room in the gymnasium where a teacher came from a nearby town to give private lessons.

In our community, there was, however, a sound comparable to a drum beat that, on occasion, proved comforting by reminding me that I was not far away from my home. Approximately three miles from our farm there was the Saltillo Station, operated by the Gulf Pipe Line Company, a subsidiary of Gulf Oil. When we stepped outside our houses, except for times when there was high wind or heavy rain, those of us who lived in a three- or four-mile radius of the area could hear the sounds made by six generators in the pump room of that station. The metronomic sound from the generators was comparable to the throbbing of a giant’s pulse.

No more than two generators were ever shut down at the same time and then only when they needed to be cleaned or repaired. The sound of the generators was a constant we could depend on, yet one that we were hardly conscious of hearing. We became accustomed to the sound of the generators as one who lives near a busy railroad track becomes accustomed to the sound of trains on the rails.

There are two experiences from my boyhood that are linked to the sound of the generators. They were both ordinary experiences, like those the poet William Wordsworth describes as “spots of time.” There were certain incidents that occurred in Wordsworth’s boyhood during times when he was alone that lingered in his mind for years afterward. He described the particular sights he saw and the sounds he heard. In later years, in his solitude, he recalled the emotions he experienced during one of these “spots of time.” Some of his finest poetry was inspired by these experiences.

One evening when I was fourteen I attended a party for members of my ninth-grade class. Since I lived five miles from the home of the classmate whose mother gave the party, I arranged to spend the night with my sister and her husband, who lived nearby. After the party ended that evening, I walked along the highway past quiet houses and the darkened windows of the frame building where the post office, the drug store, and the barber shop were located. During the three or four minutes that it took me to walk to my sister’s house, no cars or trucks traveled on the highway. The clouds were heavy that spring evening, so there was no light from the moon. As I walked on the shoulder of the highway, I could hear little else but the pulsing sound of the generators at the pump station almost a mile away. The sound was comforting to me in my solitude. I had heard the sound hundreds of times before, but that evening the sound was somehow more noticeable.

Another time, two or three years later, a high school classmate gave me a ride home one summer evening after we had attended a movie in a town nearby. I stepped out of the pickup truck the friend was driving, and, after he drove away, I stood for a few moments at the crossroads near our farm house. The light from a full moon was reflected against the white sand of the roadway. It was a clear, windless evening. The only sounds were the sounds of the grasshoppers in the field just north of our house and the sound of the generators at the pump station. Though the sound from the generators was mechanical, it sounded as natural as and more comforting than the sounds the grasshoppers made. I stood for several moments as if transfixed.

The Gulf Pipe Line Company abandoned the Saltillo Station in 1958. I had left Saltillo a few years before in order to accept a teaching position in South Texas. I wonder whether, if I had still been living there when the generators shut down, how long it would have been before I noticed that the sound of the generators had stopped.

I prefer to believe that I would have immediately begun to miss hearing the sound.