Preparing for a Thunderbolt

(Well, I can dream, can't I?)

Above: how I'd paint my own Federal Signal Thunderbolt 1003 - to match my 1996 Honda Magna motorcycle, of course.

I love loud, rude noisemakers; consider this one...

Long ago, I remember walking down Canal Street in downtown New Orleans with my grandmother. We had ridden there on the St. Charles street car line, one of my favorite childhood outings. I remember the heat, the smells, the sounds - walking over a metal grate in the sidewalk, and hearing the intense, serious hum of a huge power transformer, and feeling its heat. So different from the boredom of home it all was. Old, dust caked fans blew the scents of food - and refuse - out over the cracked and uneven sidewalks we tread, my grandmother occasionally stumbling in her high heel shoes.

In and out of the major department stores we went - Maison Blanche, D.H. Holmes, and Kress - a true antique from another age. In one place, a lesser department store than the others, I encountered the peculiar moaning drive systems of a bank of soft-serve ice cream mixers. I loved sounds - even if they were odd. But just then, I had one thing on my mind. As it turned out, we wended our way back out to the sidewalk just in time.

"Is it twelve o'clock yet?"

"Just about," grandmother replied. "It's about to blow."

And then it would come, out of nowhere, the rising call of the 'twelve 'clock whistle.' That's what she called it, and that's what it was to me. And it was more and more fascinating every time I heard it. It drifted on the air, touching everything with sound. I stopped, and listened with awe. Then it wound down to silence and was gone. Wow!

"What's it for?"

"To let everyone know it's noon!"

She must be right, of course. She was my grandmother.

I loved that sound, it sounded... awesome. It was a chord, I knew that. But then, at the end, it fell off, like it was dying. It seemed so forlorn. Why, indeed, was there a twelve o'clock whistle?

Like most kids, I soon found out. TV told us. Duck and Cover - With Your Lover. And at school, we saw 'training' films, with brief scenes showing these amazing rude noisemakers in action. I was still fascinated.

Then we moved - twice. Finally, we moved back to New Orleans - and less than half a mile from a yellow Federal Thunderbolt. I didn't yet know it, but this was one of my my sacred 'twelve o'clock whistles.' I came to know it well.

I'd heard it, off in the distance, and within a few days I had located it. I had never seen one up close, and never while it operated. One day, I showed up at noon to watch it, and found a group of kids waiting patiently for the same thing. We talked, and it seemed to these guys that coming here to hear the noon air-raid-siren test was not too far down in status from popping firecrackers or shooting your Red Ryder at the neighbor's cat.

The riual endeavor for these guys was this: when the Thunderbolt (there was a logo on the ground-based compressor case, so we knew the name) went off, you would ride around the block that housed the elementary school, and try to make it back to the siren before it started winding down - about one minute. Sometimes you won, sometimes you lost, and almost always, your ears complained. After all, a T-bolt puts out over 127 dB of sound pressure level at 100 feet!

Incidentally, a Thunderbolt 1003 doesn't just sound a minor third, it adds a growl due to the pulsing compressor that blows air through the chopper assembly behind the horn. It's the kind of rotary compressor you see used as a supercharger on dragster engines, but on a smaller scale. There is no other siren that makes a sound like this one, and no recording can do it justice. It really does sound haunting. I'm not sure if the siren in the opening of Black Sabbath's 'War Pigs' is a Thunderbolt, but if not, it ought to be.

Eventually, I saw the original 'whistle' of my childhood from a window in my dentist's office - it was indeed a Thunderbolt model 1003, nestled in the central open space of the Maison Blanche Building. Things had come full circle.

It wasn't exactly an obsession - it was curiosity, and the strangely mixed feelings these warning signal devices produced in me.

My first experience with fire alarm horn buzzers, for example, was nearly traumatic. No warning, just a loud, rude noise made by this odd-looking red siamese twin of a horn. First impressions, as they say, last forever. Naturally, I want one for my wall at home - kind of like a trophy buck head.

That's how it often is with grown-up kids: Form conquers phobia. I love loud, rude noisemakers (but I do wear ear protection when playing with them.) I have worked in the haunted house business on and off since I was young, and I will keep making loud noises with rude devices until I can't hear them anymore.

Thunderbolts (models 1000 and 1003) were everywhere in the 1960's. Many cities used them. Now, here in my hometown, and in many places across the nation, they are being scrapped. Recently, I discovered that there is a new and growing siren enthusiast presence on the web (big surprise there) and that these folk consider the Thunderbolt - in all its variations - the holy grail of Civil Defense sirens. Any of them, it seems, would love to have one ready for action in his or her back yard - even if the chance to sound it legally never came. (Can you see me grinning?)

Since I got married and returned to New Orleans from Fort Worth, I have had my eye on a disabused and neglected model 1003 sitting and rusting by the Jefferson Parish waterworks plant on Jefferson Highway. I intend to approach the powers-that-be this week to assess my chances of being allowed to remove and restore it - for a good cause. And indeed, I may find out that the very siren I raced around the schoolyard is sitting in a warehouse waiting for the scrap pile... so stay tuned, if you're interested!

What on earth am I going to do with it? I certainly can't sound it at full volume, as I don't have any desire to be interviewed by the FBI. Actually, I plan to make it the centerpiece of a traveling exhibit promoting and the internet siren enthusiast community. The idea is to get others who are interested to find and preserve these nearly antique warning signals. (Sirens For Cities provides affordable, non-profit rebuilds for communities that haven't the funds for a new warning siren.) I'd take it to Bike Nights and other gatherings where police and fire personnel are present in numbers - the nostalgia value, along with a unique 'hot rod'paint scheme would make it an irresistable draw. And if I can make it sound at modest levels - wow!

If you love these old howlers as much as we do, start with - there are a number of links to other siren sites there. Just keep surfing...

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