Thursday, May 24, 2018

Honk if You're Horny

The other day I sent a link to a Business Insider article to a friend of my late brother Rob. Since Matt works at Amtrak, I thought he’d be interested in the piece about Chinese bullet trains that go from Beijing to Xi’an in 4.5 hours. For those of you unfamiliar with Chinese geography, that’s like going from New York City to Chicago. If you try to do that on an American train, it takes about 22 hours.

Matt thanked me and in the next few keystrokes told me that there would be a “horn honk” that very weekend in Altoona, Pennsylvania, at the site of the World Famous Horseshoe Curve. 

Yes, I know that a “horn honk” sounds like some sort of euphemism straight people would look up on Urban Dictionary and then wish they hadn’t.

But it’s really not anything like that.

A horn honk is a gathering of train horn enthusiasts. Matt is one, and my brother Rob was one.

I’d never been to a horn honk but the thought of a bunch of guys getting together to toot their own horn, so to speak, sounded like something not to miss, and not just in the Urban Dictionary kind of way.

I know what you’re saying: “People collect train horns? WTF!” 

Yes, Virginia, people collect train horns.

If you have to collect something, it sure beats Scottie dog memorabilia. 

When I think of collecting oddball stuff, sooner or later I return to an article by Jane and Michael Stern, published in the September 21, 1987 issue of The New Yorker. I don’t know why this article stuck in my brain, but it’s there, like a piece of gum stuck to the underside of the counter in a diner. The article was about a weekend long swap meet for collectors of Scottie dog memorabilia held in a Ramada Inn in Indiana. Just a wee bit crazy as they might say back on the auld sod. I suppose this is what Americans did in their spare time before someone invented the internet and laced it liberally with porn.  Who knew? Not me, that’s for sure!

I’m not much of a collector. But life as a minimalist is something I aspire to, not my current situation.  While I am, to the best of my knowledge, the only person on eBay who buys Old McNichol’s Stonewall China, I make lots of excuses about that.

1. I use it regularly. OK, I use some of it regularly.

2. I am only trying to complete a set...that no one will want when I'm dead.

3. It’s a chic Russel Wright-ish mid-century design. What do I know about Russel Wright or chic?

4. It’s inexpensive...because I'm the only guy in America who wants it.

OK, I collect more stuff than I care to admit to. But not Scottie dog memorabilia or train horns. That would be crazy.

So, last Saturday, after my sister and I did a lap through the Penn State Master Gardener’s plant sale, my sister said, “Would you like to go to Martin’s Greenhouse?”  I said sure, and by the way, we could also go to a horn honk at the World Famous Horseshoe Curve. I mentioned that Rob’s friend Matt said he would be there.

She said, “When were you going to spring this on me?

At the last possible moment, obviously.

So, with our plants in the back of her truck, we set out for our first horn honk. At the World Famous Horseshoe Curve, no less.

How famous is something if it incorporates the words World Famous in its title?

The World Famous Horseshoe Curve was built in the middle of the 19th century just outside the city of Altoona by the Pennsylvania Railroad. It’s on the main line from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh and helps the train ascend the face of the Allegheny Mountains.  Yes, it’s shaped like a horseshoe, a big horseshoe. In fact, Wiki tells us it’s 2,375 feet long and 1,300 feet wide at its widest point. That’s a big horseshoe. During World War II as many as 50 trains a day went around the curve transporting troops and whatnot (guns, ammo, Betty Grable pinups, etc.). Its importance to the war effort was such that the Germans planned to have saboteurs blow it up. Fortunately for us, some of the commandos defected and that was that. The National Park Service declared the curve a National Landmark in 1966.  Makes sense that it’s World Famous, right?

My sister and I hadn’t been there since we were kids. I’m not much of a train buff so unless a train was going by I thought it underwhelming.  When a train went by it was somewhat less underwhelming. As I recalled, in addition to the actual curve, there was a static display of a rusting steam locomotive parked next to the tracks. Its honking days were lone gone.

As we drove up the country road to the site, we heard a train horn. We were definitely going in the right direction. But then a pickup truck, with huge air horns mounted on its roof, passed us going in the opposite direction. Had we missed the goings-on we wondered? I thought Matt said that they’d be there honking all day? 

We needn’t have worried. After a few more turns, and a few more blasts of distant and not so distant air horns, we were at the base of the World Famous Horseshoe Curve. There, in the parking lot of the new (at least to us) visitors’ center and matching picnic pavilion, were perhaps 15 trucks and cars, most of which had giant air horns mounted to their roofs. The long tables in the picnic pavilion were covered with giant air horns, like great cast iron mushrooms sprouting in a lawn after a rain.  I had no idea that there were so many different varieties of air horns.

Carolyn parked and we walked over to the scrum of honkers. Everyone pretty much ignored us.

Obviously, no ticket or secret handshake was required to enter. 

I asked someone if he knew Matt and if so, was Matt there.  This fellow said he hadn’t seen him yet, meaning that we knew exactly zero people there. In other words, not a good place for a shy introvert like me. Shortly afterward, someone came up to me and asked me if I were Doc’s brother. 

Have I mentioned that my brother was Rob to his family but Doc to his friends?

Soon enough we were chatting with two of Rob’s friends. We shared the reminisces someone would share at a viewing, except with a sound track of train horns echoing in the lee of the World Famous Horseshoe Curve, instead of How Great Thou Art done by Tennessee Ernie Ford playing over the sound system of the Koch Funeral Home.

As Rob slash Doc would have told us, the basic premise of a horn honk is that people mount train horns on their vehicles and then drive around blowing them. That’s all there is to it. It’s equal parts loud, crazy, and fun. On this particular Saturday all the principals were guys, though my guess is that the hobby has a certain appeal to women in sensible shoes. If there were any locals there, I didn’t meet them. Horn folks had come from Maryland, Ohio, Michigan, and even California for the event.

Because a train horn requires LOTS of compressed air to make its joyful noise, horns are usually mounted on racks attached to the roofs of full sized trucks that have an air compressor or air tank mounted in their beds. Presumably honkers take the air handling equipment out when they need to tote a full-sized sheet of plywood someplace. A couple of guys had their horns mounted on racks on their crossover SUVs, but they were the exception rather than the rule.

With the horns attached to your vehicle, it’s just a matter of running some big air hoses from the horns to the air tank and adding some controls in the cab to complete your rig. It was pretty simple, really.

Honkers would fill their air tanks, pull out of the parking area and give a few blasts of the horn as they drove down the road a mile or two. Then they’d turn around and give a few blasts on the way back. It was practically the second coming of the Broadway Limited. It was good clean LOUD fun.

How loud was it? It was loud. As loud as a train, really. Since the site was at the base of the World Famous Horseshoe Curve, we were smack dab against a steep mountain so there was an echo.

One of the guys was stationed at a camera mounted on a tripod so that he could record each honking episode, perhaps to share with the guys and women in sensible shoes who could not make it that day.

If that guy had any hearing left, I’d be shocked. 

It’s not just a matter of showing up with your truck and blowing your horns once and calling it a day.  The horns have a universal mounting, so the guys swap out their horns so they can have a go at someone else’s unit, so to speak. There were several picnic tables laden with horns—sized large and even larger—waiting for their big moments. It was a grown up straight guy version of playing with Barbie dolls.

Some little girls want to see how Barbie looks in a wacky hat, headed to a royal wedding, or maybe in a lab coat, since she’s also a famous scientist. Sure, to adults she looks like Barbie, but kids can easily imagine that she's Pippa Middleton on her way into St. George's Chapel, or Marie Curie as portrayed by Stormy Daniels in MILF Nobel Prize Laureate.

I think borrowing someone else’s horns gives the horn aficionado the chance to make believe he’s taking a ride on the Reading or about to stop at a Harvey House on the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe.

Alas, to the untutored like Carolyn and me, one set of train horns sounded just like another set of train horns mounted on a pickup truck.

I asked if someone would give me a ride so that I could see what this was all about from the honker’s point of view. One of the senior honkers, Ed, said sure he’d give me a lift. The word at the honk was that he’d called my brother Mr. Know it All, something I’m sure I called Rob slash Doc more than once myself. Ed drove a bright red Chevrolet Avalanche with two air tanks in the its bed.

Before we left, Ed pointed out the workings of the horns under the hood of the truck. He’d installed a starter motor connected to a gonkulator that powered the compressor that filled his tanks. Or was it the other way around? I have all the mechanical aptitude of an oyster and so my understanding of all of this was modest, to say the least. What I did understand was that he was no Ed Come Lately to the honking business. He’d been at the hobby since the earth cooled. In fact, he said that the first time he came to the World Famous Horseshoe Curve, the Pennsylvania Railroad was still using steam locomotives.

In a short time, Ed and I were all powered up and ready to go. He patiently explained how the air hose came from the tanks to the controls mounted on the console between the front seats. Some of the valves were right out of Home Depot but the main lever—dare I call it the joystick?—was something unique to air horning. Men lie about their joysticks all the time (trust me on this one) but there was no overselling this one. It was the real deal.

After lots of horn themed sexual innuendo and with a wave to my sister and our new good buddy Ron (who were already laughing), we were off. Shortly after we pulled out of the parking lot, Ed told me to let ‘er rip. I don’t think those were his exact words, but that was what he meant. I pulled the joy stick back gingerly. It was my first time at this kind of yanking.

Ed explained that you could actually blow the smaller horns in a set of horns separately by pulling the lever back just a little bit, since they required less air than the bigger horns in the group. I got the impression Ed was one of those “in for a penny, in for a pound” kind of guys.  I pulled the lever back with more gusto.


What was it like?

Did you ever see that video of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge from 1940 where it vibrates to the point of collapse in a 40 mph wind?  Or have you ever imagined what Magic Fingers, the coin-op gizmo that made motel beds vibrate, would be like if it were powered by a jet engine?

That’s what my ears felt like when I blew those horns at full blast.

And yes, it was pretty darned cool.

In a moment, I was transported to that under-appreciated 1964 Disney film, The Incredible Mr. Limpet, where Don Knotts, playing Henry Limpet, turns into a fish (a fish who wears glasses, actually) and uses his booming voice as a sonic secret weapon to destroy German U-boats in World War II. The Nazis would hear his voice over their sonar sets and in their Colonel Klink accents shout “Das Limpet! Das Limpet” before Don Knotts would send the bad guys to Davy Jones’ Locker.

Blowing that those airhorns, just down the road from the World Famous Horseshoe Curve, I had turned into the land-based Incredible Mr. Limpet, right down to the glasses.

We drove down the road for a mile or two, and turned around, and I gave the horn another couple of blasts on the way back.

Ed was a great teacher and an even more gracious host.  It was a blast, so to speak.

Carolyn and I agreed that we should have brought the box of Rob’s earthly remains along for the trip. I think they’re in a box in her garage. The plan is to scatter them from a train ride on the Western Maryland Scenic Railroad one of these days, but we haven’t gotten around to scheduling that yet. I think his friends would have gotten a kick out of seeing him too, even in a box from the Great American Crematorium in Midland, TX.  Were the horn on the other air hose, I’m sure Rob would have toted my cremains along with him---and then accidentally left me in a booth at Dairy Queen.

After my ride, and while we still had at least some hearing, Carolyn and I said our goodbyes and headed home. We were both glad to meet some of Rob’s friends and reminisce a bit. Since Rob was very specific about not wanting a funeral, we didn’t do much of that after he died, so we were overdue. And, since Carolyn and I are both planners, we talked about how the honkers should sell risqué t-shirts and find a food truck and tell the Blair County visitors bureau and maybe introduce the world to their hobby.

Then again, why mess with success? It was a honkin' good time just the way it was.