Social Commentary

Losing Our Whistle


            Since before I was born, my little hometown had a Dairygold creamery with a loud, piercing steam whistle stuck on its roof. It blew itself hoarse each day at 8:00 a.m., noon, and 5:00 p.m. and I could organize my day around it. It was sort of like living in the opening of the old Flintstones cartoon where Fred slides down the dinosaurs back at the end of the day after the whistle calls quitting time. My whistle was more unassuming though, more of a backdrop on the canvas of small town life than an anticipated happening. Although I eventually moved away from McMinnville, it remained my own Bedrock of sorts to which I could return and visit at my leisure. It was comforting, and stabilized the craziness of my own cartoon life when I needed it.

 In years past, whenever I hosted a visitor from a big city, they always looked at me bug-eyed when I answered their questions about the mid-day roar. For them, it seemed a Norman Rockwell painting had sprung to life and walked into the world of existence. It was a piece of Americana that bravely staked out a final toe hold from a world where farming and Model T’s had been the standard. I never expected anyone would end this time-honored tradition, but time waits for no whistle, and it was gone.

 It happened one day in the back alley shadows of corporate America while I pursued a career outside of town. When I returned to the community a few years later, I noticed a black hole in my auditory universe – the whistle was silenced. Broken? I thought. Possibly worn out? I didn’t know, but through a coincidence of odd significance I bumped into an old high school classmate who happened to work at the very dairy where the whistle staked its claim. We had run into each other at the last independent, family run video store in town while rushing at the check-out counter before a line could form. He was wearing the heavy boots and white lab jacket of an employee of the dairy, and had popped over during his lunch break for a couple of videos. As soon as he turned and looked me in the face, we recognized each other.

“Hey, you’re Mike K. right?”, his eyes lighting up as he searched my face.

“You got it Jerry, it’s been a while. What have you been up to?”

 He explained that he had been employed at the dairy since leaving the army several years before when he moved back because he craved the slow pace of country living. He still wore the easy smile that was so characteristic of him in high school and seemed interested in catching up. We chit-chatted our way through the customary small talk and video check-out before I finally asked him about the whistle. I told him I was stunned that it was ever allowed to disappear when there had been such a long standing tradition of marking time that way. Jerry’s happy face turned cold and he looked at the ground a minute before sadly spilling the story of our missing institution. The month before, a large corporation from Los Angeles had bought out the local dairy and immediately looked to cut costs by doing a time assessment of the plant. Then, true to form, they downsized everything not nailed down to ensure an instantaneous profit. The whistle, it turned out, required an individual one minute three times a day to make the journey down a back hall to push the red button that released the pressurized sound producing steam. The time use analysis model determined that three minutes of community service was three minutes far better spent increasing their productivity. He pointed out that there had been a very heated battle across the pages of the local newspaper for weeks, but profit, as always these days, won out and the whistle ran cold.

 I suddenly experienced a flashback as I remembered an incident from the previous day. A rich Californian investor, who had shown up at my apartment complex to inspect his newly acquired property seemed to foreshadow things to come. He had little interest in the property, but drooled at the site of the nearby Coastal Mountains on the western horizon. Through a wolf-like stare visualizing a flock of sheep, he mumbled something as I attempted to speak with him. It was about his development scheme to expand into the mountains, and he barely looked at me as he drew a mental blue print for a future mall world. Unfortunately, he was not so distracted as to forget to cut back on complex services later that day. The large trash station was replaced with a grossly inadequate smaller bin within the week which quickly overflowed in half the time and sent trash blowing down the street into neighborhood lawns.

 Our rent probably covered his weekly yacht fuel expenses, and quality of life for the community never entered his selfish little peanut brain. It might have gone unnoticed if not for the fact that our former landlady was so spectacular in her management skills. She was a small time business woman from the area, and always chose to be generous with her time and smiled when she helped. I bumped into her a few months after she had sold the complex and she was genuinely disturbed. She was overwhelmed with calls from former tenants due to the complete lack of responsiveness from yacht boy on general maintenance. The yahoo he hired to take care of the tenants never returned their calls and problems with the building piled up.   

 As our economy tumbles and we consider changes that will mold our future course in the world and those of our children we cannot leave decisions solely to the people who got us here. So here it is: people matter, and people need to push back on politicians and corporate deadbeats who pass over people and community for strict self-interest. We must challenge the concept of dominance by the few, and demand corporations either decide they are part of our community, or they are not. If not, they can build their mansions right next to the broken down factories they created in polluted third world countries and not in my neighborhood.

Barbers, street pavers, waiters, truck drivers, baggage handlers, etc. are the economy that I care about, and it is this economy that provides stability and self-esteem to my friends and neighbors. It is the economy that allows children to walk to the store without fearing abduction, it is the economy that sees other people as deserving of a decent retirement, and it is the economy that sees equal health care as a top priority. 

            I think it is important to ask what messages are currently being received by our children in an anything goes world. Do we really want our kids to get their values from reality television and insult sitcoms where self-centered goals are acceptable? 

 I remember how much of a community function grade school fairs and outdoor school played for me while growing up and hope that our children will get equal character (community) building opportunities. Unfortunately, most of the schools today don’t even have enough money for band class, much less socialization. But does anyone doubt that we risk losing our national social cohesion if we choose to continue investing the majority of our monies into military hardware, advertising, and (former?) tax cuts for corporations? We need more opportunities for families to socialize as families; we need an old school attitude free from racism and intolerance that can create these opportunities. Family sport competitions, spaghetti feeds, fairs, and parades may seem like dusty old relics of a by-gone age, but they may yet prove to be useful.

Ending rural cultural values like McMinnville’s steam whistle is just another sign that we are slipping into a place that will be hard to climb out of if and when we change our minds and give up this self-centered, egotistical madness. 


1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Cedarhike
    Sep 24, 2012 @ 03:47:17

    McMinnville had been losing its voice for years with the influx of outsider values before the whistle stopped. While some positive changes have come to town, it is sad to return there and feel its strangeness.


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