Chime whistles in the choir loft

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Wednesday, September 16, 2009

At church last Sunday, the recessional hymn was a golden oldie: “The Church’s One Foundation.” I had sung it a hundred times growing up. I whispered to my wife, “This is really taking me back.” Indeed it did. By the time we were halfway into the first verse, I was pretty wiped out, tears welling up in my eyes and my voice unable to continue singing. Suddenly I was not in an Episcopal sanctuary in 2009 but carried back to the choir loft of the First Presbyterian Church of Sulphur Springs, Texas. Funny how a hymn can make you a kid again.

Please keep reading. Those tears were not just ones of sorrow, missing my parents as I do after all these years. They were also ones of joy. I was crying and laughing at the same time, which explains why my throat was choked by conflicting emotions.

Into Verse 2, I was remembering how I would enter the choir loft at the start of services with a silent prayer, which went something like this: “Please don’t let No. 53 go by before we get out of here.” That’s a lot to ask of my Creator, but the stakes back then were high.

Sulphur Springs is a two-railroad town. But Sundays, without local freights, were one-train days. That train was Kansas City Southern’s Dallas-to-Shreveport, La., freight No. 53. Due through town at 8:56 a.m. by the timetable, it would actually appear any time between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m.  (That's train 53 above, near Sulphur Springs, in 1961.)

So every Sunday between 11 and noon, I played the waiting game. I knew I had lost when I heard that first faint whisper of a chime whistle. That would be League Street, on the other side of town. Any hope of following the logic of the minister’s sermon would be suspended as the train crept through Sulphur Springs at an agonizing 12 mph.  

The whistling was endless, becoming louder with each cadence. Locust Street. Main Street. Moore Street. Texas Street. Oh, I wanted to see this! In my mind’s eye, I envisioned five or six red-and-yellow F units, a couple of 40-foot trailers on flatcars, and then anywhere from 90 to 160 cars of mixed freight, whatever Santa Fe’s East Dallas yard had accumulated the previous 24 hours.

Davis Street. Gilmer Street. Oak Avenue. Now train 53 was two blocks away, and even the minister had to acknowledge its presence, raising his voice to be heard. Me, I was in agony at the thought of all that I was missing. But now at least the incessant whistling was fading as the train passed Putnam Street and went on its way. In a pew facing me, my mom and dad seemed oblivious to my suffering. The fact was, I had nothing to look forward to the rest of the day.

So that’s what came rushing back to me last Sunday as the congregation sang that old Samuel J. Stone hymn, and I gasped what words my constricted throat would permit. Maybe you’ll recognize the lyrics, and maybe you have your own story to tell:

The church's one foundation is Jesus Christ her Lord;
she is his new creation by water and the Word.
From heaven he came and sought her to be his holy bride;
with his own blood he bought her, and for her life he died.

Fred W. Frailey

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