A Time When It Seemed to Be Quiet

Ben Scholl’s Moment
A Time When It Seemed to Be Quiet

Several times a week we get in the mail advertisements that say in large letters, “Absolutely free, No obligation,” etc. If the ad also reads “Free hearing check,” my wife hands it to me, saying, “You don’t hear a thing I say, you need to get your hearing checked,” to which I usually reply, “I have selective hearing.” Sometimes I even get up the nerve to say, ” If you didn’t mumble, I would hear you better.”

Recently, while getting the paper from the driveway at about 5:30 a.m., I noticed it was one of those mornings when sound travels very well. To the east, a diesel engine was switching rail cars and to the south, delivery trucks at the hospital were making “Beep, beep, beep” sounds as they backed up to the unloading dock. To the west, a steady hum of heavy traffic was going toward Houston on Highway 249. With paper in hand and stopping at the stack of firewood under the carport to pick up several chunks of wood for the wood-burning stove, I walked through the backyard. As I stood still I was surprised to hear, besides the roosters to the west, three or four different birds twittering or chattering in the predawn darkness. It seemed a little early in the year for mating calls, so maybe they were just enjoying the sound of their voices in the early morning stillness.

By living in almost soundproof houses we seem to be missing a lot of the sounds I remember hearing as a child. On the farm, the scissor-tails were the first to chatter in the morning. Then other birds chimed in and woke the roosters to officially announce the day. The nocturnal wolves on Little Cypress Creek were giving their last bark-howl before going to sleep. Under ideal wind and weather conditions, I could hear the steam engine on the Southern Pacific tracks between Hockley and Cypress and occasionally the Zephyr train as it traveled through Tomball at a high rate of speed. Our neighbor had a dog (I think her name was Queenie) who liked to nip people’s heels, and in the morning I would hear the neighbor call her to tie her up for the day. Field larks, mourning doves, grackles, crows and other birds would call in the morning before it got hot. My uncle O.B. Schauer had a loud voice and some mornings could be heard yelling at his mules while plowing in the field. The advent of tractors started noise pollution on the farm.

Dogs seldom barked during the day but at night they were self-appointed deliverers of “messages by barking,” as shown in the movie 101 Dalmations (the main dog characters depend on other dogs to help find their kidnapped puppies). During the night our dogs would bark for no obvious reason. Then the neighbors’ dogs — Fehrle’s to the south, Schwarz’s to the east and Borgstead’s to the north — would bark, then their neighbors’ dogs would bark. Sometimes these messages would continue until my mother made Dad go out in the yard and assure our dogs that we had gotten the message. By then it might have traveled to Conroe, Houston or Waller. I wonder if government has ever given a grant to study this way of communication. At that time there were fewer trees, which permitted sound to travel farther, and we could also see farther. We could see the smoke from steam engines on the SP track between Hockley and Cypress and at night we could see the car headlights on Highway 290 going toward Houston. Now our senses are numbed by too much noise and too many visual images, and our sight and hearing has had to become more “selective.”

Written by Benjamin H. Scholl