Ashes to Ashes: Noise


February 1, 2006

I grew up in a white clapboard house in Moorestown, New Jersey, just outside of Philadelphia. In those days it was a quiet Quaker town with broad, silent streets lined with huge oaks, elms, and maples, and venerable houses presiding on each side. One still heard the Quaker thee’s and thou’s routinely, especially at the Friends’ School where I was a pupil. You could distinguish the old-fashioned Quakers from the up-to-date ones: The former said to my father, “Good morning Philip Howard, how art thou?” The latter said to my mother, “Good morning Katharine Howard, how is thee?” To this day, I speak the “plain language,” as it was called, with my oldest friend, who comes from a very old Philadelphia Quaker family.

My memory of those streets, even Main Street, calls up a picture of emptiness—no cars at all. It was during the war (for people my age, “the war” means World War II), and no one could get any gasoline. My mother did the grocery shopping for six children on a bicycle that had a great wire basket attached to the handlebars.

The town was utterly silent. Even the soft hum of a passing sedan was rare, and no one had heard of hot rods with their mufflers altered to produce a shattering roar. Motorcycles—either gigantic, satanic Harley-Davidsons or smaller, ear-splitting Yamahas—were unknown. I now live in a small, seaside town north of Boston, and we have all of these vehicles in more or less unsparing procession, almost 24 hours a day. One thing that stumps me about these loud vehicles is the question as to why the men (and they are men) operating them feel the need to gun their engines every five seconds or so. You feel that perhaps you could sustain a general roar; but to have it punctuated with these hammer-like explosions makes things difficult when you are sitting in your study.

But these are only the beginnings of the noises we treasure in Manchester, Massachusetts. There are no days when immensely heavy trucks are not abroad, gunning their own engines. We also take care of our streets: There are no days without heavy road machinery bulldozers, back-hoes, and derricks—lining the streets with their din. And then there are the airplanes. We live under the flight pattern for Logan airport, so we have huge passenger jets sending down incalculable decibels at all times. But they are not as nettlesome as the one-engine pleasure crafts that arrive over our heads and circle and circle—and circle. (One little plane circled my house 18 times. I counted.)

Perhaps the greatest and most unremitting sources of noise for us are the myriad small gas engines that every man now uses for all of his garden work. You start with power mowers. Then weed-eaters (my father and all the men in the neighborhood in Moorestown used sickles and hand clippers). Then chain saws (people didn’t cut up so many trees when I was small, or if they did, they used an ax and a manually powered crosscut saw). Then circular saws: Everyone remodels his house perennially. Then leaf-blowers with their high whine. And leaf-vacuums (I don’t know what they are called, but they make more noise than our old bamboo rakes did). In the winter everyone turns out with his snow-blower (we shoveled with only a small scraping noise).

I calculate that there are a hundred houses within earshot of my house. Multiply that by, say, six or eight noise-makers, and you have a great luxuriance of sound.

Well, hey for the din and nonny for noise. Why tell Crisis readers about it? We are all Catholics, I suppose, and hence en route to sanctity—eventually, to be sure. Noise offers the near occasion for sanctity, or at least for the humble virtue of patience.


  • Tom Howard

    Tom Howard is retired from 40 years of teaching English in private schools, college, and seminary in England and America.

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