In small-town America (the traditional, Midwestern/Northeastern model) the sound of the volunteer firemen’s siren is part of life.
When we first moved to the little town of Woodsboro, Maryland, when I was fifteen, it woke me in the night. I’ve always been a light sleeper, verging on insomniac, and between the freight trains that rushed from grain elevator to grain elevator, to the cracks of rifles in deer season, and the midnight wailings of that hilltop siren, the barrage of sound kept my nights frustratingly long. Countryside noise was alien to my suburban ears, used to the droning boredom of Saturday morning lawnmowers and very little else. I never expected it, but after a while, I got used to it.
City noises are a whole other animal, of course. But once you get used to crashing gears of trucks, slamming doors, shouting in a dozen languages, sidewalk buskers and the thousands of other blurring together sounds, the only noise that really breaks your concentration is the random whoop of a police or ambulance siren. Trust me. It takes time.
Aqueduct’s neighbors, on the other hand, have had to get used to a few extra sounds. They might have thought they’d left these noises safely in the country. Within a few blocks of the stables, roosters are greeting the morning (or pretty much any other time of day) and the whinnies of horses go scattering through the streets. But the sound that surprised me most, the sound that took me straight back to western Maryland, was the siren.
I thought at first it was a volunteer fireman’s siren. Or maybe an air raid siren, left over from the post-war era, being tampered with by repairmen or kids or random miscreants. After all, New York City is an old place, filled with forgotten bits of machinery and buildings and ephemera of other times, stumbled upon at odd moments, behind bushes and unlatched gates.
It turns out that the siren is another part of racetrack life. It’s a caution: rider down, loose horse, breakdown.
Horses sound their own sirens when they get loose. As I was taking a horse out to the track this morning, I heard a frantic whinny. You know the sound – horses make it when they’re running the fenceline after you’ve taken in their best friend before them. “Loose horse,” said a rider next to me, and jogged his horse up the ramp in a hurry to get onto the track, before the horse came plunging down the ramp and set our horses into a tizzy.
My horse, helpfully, froze up, and watched with wide astonished eyes as the shadow of the riderless horse went galloping by on the other side of the chain-link fence between the stabling and the backstretch. He’s a spooky horse on the best of days, and I had no illusions that this was a good day. I sat tight; the horse spun and went in the other direction, racing towards the other gap, near the chute. With an effort, I got my horse moving back towards the track.
The siren went off at that moment, as loud as if I was standing beneath the speaker, drowning out the whinnies of the lost loose horse, looking desperately for his stall and safety, and my horse went dancing sideways, and we lost our last chance to get out onto the wide spaces of the track, where we could gallop a safe distance away from the racket, and instead had to turn back onto the ramp as the horse came plunging back, found the ramp, and went racing past us towards the barns.
Beneath the din, in the early morning sun, my horse threw himself after the runaway, and I stood up, fast, and lifted my hands high, and told him, loud and deep, “You’re alright, you’re alright you’re alrightyou’realright.” His ears at my nose, his hindquarters deep beneath me, bless him he stopped. Bless his crooked little stripe, he stopped.
And the siren stopped. And the loose horse was captured. And all was well with the world.
Except for the neighbors, stirring from their dreams, hardened to the damned roosters, but who can get used to that siren at seven o’clock in the morning?