(Small retraction: Historically informed readers may point out an inconsistency, that the hit parade song on the transistor radio was released several years after the change in the name of the airport. They’re right, too.)
Sirens are the loudest.
It’s like the sky is barking right into your mind, and then wailing like air raids in a war movie. The siren is right over on Allen Street, on a pole in Mrs. R’s backyard. One time Mom went to visit Mrs. R., and I ran outside to play with Beagle. Just then the siren went off. Beagle just wailed around in circles, dragging his soft velvety ears all along the grass. I wanted to catch Beagle and help him, but I fell on the ground holding the bones in my skull. They were buzzing so hard I couldn’t think.
Sirens have to be loud in case Russia drops the bomb. Then we’ll have to get under our desks and say the rosary. So the fire department tests them every day at twelve o’clock sharp. Sirens at noon means it’s probably not Russia and probably nothing’s on fire, just time to stop and pray The Angelus and then walk home for lunch.
If sirens go off in the dark, it’s maybe Russia but probably something burning. All that howling and hollering is really a code to tell the firemen what zone the fire is, and how many station houses need to come to the rescue and also volunteer men with blue lights on the car dashboard so everybody knows to get out of their way. If the fire gets bigger there are sirens from the next district over, and maybe the one next to that.
When the sirens stop, the worst fire signal is a loud robot voice growling notes that don’t fit together and sound terrible on your nerves:
EE D-F A, EE D-F A, C-D-C B. EE D-F A, EE D-F A, C-D-C B.
That sounds like code too. Maybe it says All the children, All the children, are dead. It goes on for a long time. Then it stops and the night is silent. Then it kicks up again. Then it stops and the night is silent. Just when you think it’s over, it’s not! It will kick up a few more times. You can hold your ears and hide your head in your pillowcase. But one time I couldn’t stand the robot voice any more, and trying to escape under the covers I tore the bottom bedsheet right in half.
With all that racket there is no way to get to sleep anyway, so it’s a good time to go check the upstairs windows for smoke, and listen for trucks to make sure they are on the way and not on the way here. Also every night after Mom tucks me in I get up again and line up some clothes and shoes and a snow hat at the foot of the bed to grab and go in case the trucks come for us. The closest it got was late one night at Lombardo’s Shoes with the poster in the window of Papa Geppetto hammering a heel with nails in his mouth. Out the window there was the smoke right over the trees! The boys were allowed to get dressed and run down Hillside Avenue for a look.
Then in rainy weather, here comes the jet planes. Dad says if you hear a whistle from away far off, then it’s a real jet and not just a regular propellor plane. We’re on the flight path to Idlewild so in the rain or especially fog, planes fly right over the TV antennas. The boys go out and watch for the different airline and plane types, and argue what kind is going over now. Then in the house, the TV picture rolls up every time, and Dad has to wiggle the rabbit ears on top, or reach in the back and jiggle the knob until the picture slows down and stays put. If people are talking and trying to hear each other, or on the phone, they have to just sit and wait until the plane goes by.
If a room is dark and quiet, and you’re just lying there, it’s easy to hear the first sound. It’s a shivery jingle in the windowpanes, or a spoon in a glass, or china animals on a shelf. If the whistle starts, the jet is on its way. If the lights are really low I go look outside and make sure the pilot is high enough. That’s another reason to keep clothes and shoes handy, because you never know. Then when the lights sweep over the house and things finally stop jingling, it’s ok to lie down until the next plane.
Was that thunder? Oh no. Time to shut the windows and unplug the angel night light, and make sure the lamp is unplugged too. Then I make a nest with the blanket away from the windows at the top of the stairs, and hold the St. Joseph’s Family Bible and look at the color holy pictures inside until the storm is over. If it gets bad Mom will let me come downstairs a while.
There’s another noise to worry about, and it isn’t even real. It’s being sick in bed with a fever. A fever sounds like cotton balls crashing like cymbals on your ears. Then you can even see your pulse flicking on and off in the shadows and tiny bubbles start filling up the room. The bubbles aren’t really there and bubbles can’t hurt you, but it feels like if the bubbles fill the room you’ll drown. So when they climb the walls I wake up and kick off all the blankets until the cotton crash simmers down and the bubbles go away again.
Other noises are pretty loud, but mostly they are just ordinary things. The radiators bang and hiss steam, and Mom comes in at night and fills the metal pans on the side with water. Neighbors are yelling in their windows all around, because they didn’t finish their yelling during the day. The dogs are barking news back and forth, and cats fight in the bushes. Hillside Avenue a block away has motorcycles and sometimes drag racers with skidding and brakes. If somebody hits a pole, there goes our lights. Two times there were crashes and people even died. One night a car flipped over turning the next corner, and the men went running to see what happened and meet the police. After a while the rescue people and the tow trucks left, and the men cleaned up the street. Next day the parents didn’t talk about it, and we kids knew better than to ask. When we went out to play in the morning there was nothing left but some glass sparkling on the lawn around the block.
Sometimes to get some rest I pretend I can’t hear anything any more. I even practice spelling words quietly in the dark, from the hand alphabet in my Helen Keller book.
But some sounds are fine.
It’s nice to hear Mom up at night taking racks of cookies out of the oven. Or the teenage boys outside on the corner chatting and playing their transistor radio. It’s interesting to hear the hit parade of all the songs if it’s not that Napoleon 14 guy with the clowny voice. There’s a rough chime when the men drag the steel garbage cans to the curb on Monday nights. The trains on the LIRR sound like long harmonicas dippling along higher and then lower and then higher up again, and you can picture the people tucked in to bright square windows going home.
There are click bugs and crickets or raindrops or icicles or snow. There’s our maple trees all along the street. In winter the branches hum, and in summer they shush their leaves. In storms there’s the tall flag at the garbage dump, and the rope and metal braces bang on the pole and make a nice bell sound Bink Bink.
Televisions downstairs and in the other houses have the vacuum tubes humming really high eeeee and blue lights flickering through the curtains. You can tell all the different shows by the theme songs. Perry Mason is a spider walking up your arm, and then glass bottles rolling around in a speeding car. Bonanza is horses bouncing around if you put twangy rubber bands on their hoofs. Dr. Kildare has a real melody of notes in a soft pattern and it has a harp and church bells. Twelve O’Clock High is even better with even more church bells.
If we are lucky there’s a Goodyear Blimp going to the World’s Fair with bright electric letters running all along the sides like the sign at Radio City. One time Dad woke us up to go hear crowds of geese honking over the roof, and sometimes he’ll come inside and call us to look out if there’s a satellite. One time the most amazing sound was a mockingbird. My John Kieran book says they are only in The South but there he was right outside in the moonlight, imitating all kinds of other birds.
But the best sound happens right before the sky gets light. First the rooster way over at Rhodes Farm calls out a tiny silver thread of E-e-e-aaa. Then especially if it’s springtime and drizzling, that wakes up the robins. Robins are the nicest sound blending in with raindrops on leaves. There are hundreds of them out there in their trees all over town, knitting their voices together in a whole soft curtain Cheeraleep Cheeraloop wooty-woot Cheeraleep!
That means night is really over. We made it until morning.