19.9.10

WILL THE SUNDOWN TOWN LEGEND GET NEW LEGS? A number of towns are again sounding the curfew.

The wailing of a curfew siren, usually from the local fire hall, was for many years a tradition in small towns across the USA.

"When that siren went off, it was 10 p.m. and curfew. No matter where you were, you were beating feet to get home," said Rick Olson, who grew up in Montello, Wis., a town about 100 miles northwest of Milwaukee. Olson spent his boyhood adhering to the curfew siren.

Today, that nightly siren endures, and Olson, 40 — Montello's police chief — enforces it.

In some communities that siren - rightly or wrongly - carries a different meaning.
The most glaring such illustration is the tradition of the six p.m. siren, which residents of at least one Illinois town told him, or not, was a reminder to any Blacks doing business in that town. At that town's latitude, six p.m. is after sunset five months out of the year, and long before sunset three months. As a reinforcement of oral tradition, however, it works. That oral tradition served as the principal technology of control.
A siren sounding each night at ten p.m. does not appeal to everybody.

The sound of the curfew siren in Palmerton, Pa., isn't so comforting to Kathleen Rehrig, 60, who lives within 200 yards of it.

The siren in the borough 80 miles north of Philadelphia blows to mark the noon hour — a vestige of the shift-change whistle at the old zinc factory that was central to the community — and again nightly at 10 p.m. weekdays and 11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays to note the curfew.

"As we're sitting on the porch on a summer's evening, and 10 o'clock comes around, and the dogs start barking and the babies start screaming, it's not very pleasant," said Rehrig, who's lived in the borough all her life.

Rehrig, her husband, Glenn, and her son and neighbor, Seth, have circulated postcard petitions in the borough of 5,200 residents in recent months, trying to get the curfew whistle silenced.

"It's turned into a bit of a battle in Palmerton," Kathleen Rehrig said. "It's a siren. People have gotten emotional about it. I can't work up any nostalgia for a 140-decibel siren at 10 p.m."

I recall quiet nights in Milwaukee. When the wind was calm, the quarter-hour chimes from Blessed Sacrament Church at 40th and Oklahoma were audible at 79th and Morgan, and assorted factory whistles from the Menomonee Valley suggested that the end of the third shift came at 11 pm Central plus or minus the timekeeper's margin of error. All gone, now, probably to the relief of people living closer to those whistles.

There was a public service announcement on television. "It is 11 p.m. Do you City of Milwaukee parents know where your children are?"

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