The sound of TERROR

To the Max, manAs I’ve gotten older, I’ve developed an occasional fascination with reading up on stuff that scared the hell out of me as a kid, even if the scare-the-hell-out-of-me factor was impossibly silly and irrational. I’ve gotten to where I value reason, and knowing, over knee-jerk emotional reactions. (Let’s face it, in this house, I kinda have to be the one to do that.) Sometimes it’s something as silly as figuring out why a certain movie freaked me out as a kid. Sometimes it’s about figuring out more about a specific sound used to scare the hell out of me. Something like this sound.

This is a garden variety, Cold War-era civil defense siren, or, more specifically, a Federal Signal Thunderbolt 1003, singin’ its thing in “alert mode.” I used to get to hear this fairly often for two reasons: as I’ve mentioned on quite a few occasions, the whole tornado alley thing, and there was one at the elementary school I attended, which was close enough to the house that it could be heard there without a problem (what with one of the basic operating principles of such sirens being that they could be heard for miles). This often came with little warning, sort of like tornado warnings did on TV in those days. And since the siren didn’t go off until there was a tornado warning going, it would frequently scare the piss out of me.

As with most sirens, the Thunderbolt was a fairly simple forced air device – you know the handheld air horns at sporting events? It was like that, on a grand scale. To walk home from school, I’d have to walk right under the thing, and even on a clear, sunny day, I would’ve preferred to dig a tunnel to the house just to avoid it. Whether I was inside or outside when it did go off, I’d clamp my hands over my ears, almost like an autistic child: I just didn’t want to hear the scary sound. I have some vague memories of being an inconsolable crying wreck during those few occasions at that school where we had to take shelter out in the hallway for real.

The reason I’ve delved into this area is that my son exhibits some similar behaviors. We go to a local park semi-frequently, where there’s a train track adjacent to the park. On some days of the week, a passenger train runs from Van Buren to Siloam Springs, passing by this park on the way. And it never fails that the train shows up while we’re there, blows its horn, and scares the bejeezus out of him. And he does the exact same thing I used to do. It’s a perfectly normal human reaction to an exceedingly loud noise, but if the reaction is still ongoing long after the sound is gone, that’s a pretty good sign that something is amiss.

I really wonder if I would’ve been flagged by the same tests that Little E’s been through, for the same reasons. The structure and awareness of these problems just wasn’t there, so I went through school being “weird.” That’s what I want him to not have to go through.

In the meantime, even the sound on that Youtube video can make stand stock still for a second. It’s just old, deeply-ingrained habits. I think I’ve gotten past having to put my hands over my ears though. Just knowing that the thing has an innocuous-bordering-on-silly-name (Thunderbolt 1003? not much of an arch-nemesis…) robs it of some of its power. And in any case, Federal Signal Corporation, after installing a bazillion Thunderbolts across the country, stopped producing it in the ’80s – they had some crazy ideas for a new model, such as, oh, I dunno, a battery backup system to keep it blaring even after the bombs have dropped, the tornado has hit, or the space invaders have landed.

What’s really funny is that this thought didn’t occur to anyone until the ’80s.

4 thoughts on “The sound of TERROR”

  1. My youngest nephew Sam reacted badly to the sound of Hot Air Balloon burners going off even when the balloon was distant. Mostly his reaction was a frightened look and then, if it was loud enough, start bawling.

    Different people react differently to loud noise. I never cried. I might have cried out once or twice to distract me from the pain if the noise was sustained long enough. Normally I just cover my ears if it hurts (like I do when the fire alarms go off during a drill at work – ow!).

    Years ago I read a WWII novel for a literature class. It was about a young officer in an artillery unit. Whenever the guns would go off to fire on targets the protagonist, if the noise was sustained long enough, would get aroused. My literature professor scoffed at the idea since he was in an artillery unit at Nam so I don’t know if anyone ever reacted that way to loud noises. Still, makes you wonder.

  2. My dad has one of those tornado sirens in his backyard. I can attest to the fact that you can hear them for miles. Did you also know they test them every Saturday at noon? If you happen to be standing outside my Dad’s house any Saturday, you will know it.

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