Steam whistle affirms that a day’s work is done

Contributing WriterDecember 16, 2013 

The piercing blast immediately captured my attention. It was a steam whistle, the kind most commonly heard from old-fashioned steam locomotives. At the time, I stood no more than a few feet from the railroad tracks in downtown Olympia.

For several months last summer I was one of the thousands of worker bees who service electronic hives in nondescript buildings near the state Capitol. Often, my workplaces evolve into second homes. Usually, I’m fortunate to appreciate the locales for their idiosyncrasies. Those sometimes oddball qualities influence my relationship; they evoke potent reminders of place and time.

Years ago, when I had a full-time job near Tacoma’s Nalley Valley, summer days were accented by the scent of pickles soaking in Nalley’s giant outdoor vats. The aroma didn’t make me pucker — I’m not much on pickles even though my husband bottles them from his own cukes — but just taking in that smell made me feel at one with the neighborhood. The odor was part and parcel of the place. So it is with the steam whistle and downtown Olympia.

The blare first interrupted my thoughts one afternoon after I slipped out the back door of my workplace, my shoulders dragging stuff that had added fuel to my day: a sandwich sack; my husband’s old vacuum bottle, drained of coffee; and the sneakers I wore during my lunchtime walkabout.

I had crossed the railroad tracks to the parking lot and was about to toss everything into the front seat when the whistle surprised me. At first, the incongruity made no sense. Here were the tracks, but vacant — a little train had lumbered through earlier in the day. Regardless, Tacoma Rail, which slowly pokes through Olympia’s downtown, employs diesel engines.

I don’t know how many times I heard the whistle before I traced it to its source. Luckily, the sound and motion are synchronous. I recognized puffs of steam from a narrow pipe sticking out of the roof of a nearby building. What looked like a warehouse straddled a block not far from where I parked.

OK, I thought to myself, it’s the end-of-shift whistle. Not always strictly on time. Sometimes a few minutes after the hour. And not always the same sound. There’s playfulness to the toot, as well.

I regularly passed the warehouse’s rear door during my walks. Often, the freight bay was wide open; it spilled loud music into the street. Inside, long-haired guys wearing noise-blocking headphones rolled back and forth on forklifts. What was this place?

I made a quick detour around the block to gaze at the sign brightly painted on the building’s front. It was Fish Brewing Co., producer of Fish Tale Ales, Leavenworth Bier and Spire Cider. Steam from the brewery’s boiler powers the 5 p.m. whistle.

Just hearing it every afternoon formed a smile on my face. The sound reminded me of my birthplace — a mill town, in its heyday driven by manufacturing, where paychecks and livelihoods hinged on production even after most of the mills shut down. In contrast, Olympia is government hub, a port, a college town and a military bedroom community. It is not, by and large, a making-things kind of place.

Which isn’t to say that cubicles don’t produce, that there is no value added in those state office buildings. But in the bureaucratic maze, what with the ping-pong pace of emails and the endless meeting circuit, at day’s end it’s hard to know what has been accomplished. Whether a day’s labor has contributed to the general good. Whether thanks to you the hive runs smoother. Or not.

The 5 p.m. whistle delivers the message. Regardless of what anybody thinks, you’ve put in your time. You have value.

The brewery’s website calls the whistle a signal to happy hour, but I think of it as a daily tribute, a salute to workers, whoever you are. Your day’s over, it’s done. That’s enough.

Susan Gordon, one of five reader columnists whose work appears on this page, lives on about five acres north of Eatonville with her husband and son. She’s a former staff writer and currently a part-time copy editor at The News Tribune. Reach her at SJGordonCommunications@gmail.com.

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