"O" Is For Ooh-La-La!


“What on earth?” you may ask yourself if this is the only part of the picture you see at first. A Transformer’s eye? The inner components of an old safe? Maybe the door to some underground bunker or a modern art sculpture? No, this is the nose of a locomotive!

The rotary snow plough in the Verkehrshaus (Transport Museum) in Luzern, Switzerland commands attention from its visitors, as is evident from the amount of photos and comments available online. But the centre of the bucket wheel (with a diameter of 3 metres) against the black industrial steel background caught my eye immediately.

This plough used to shovel snow from train tracks in one continuous stream. The snow could fly as high as 18 metres into the air, and land as far as 90 metres from the train. Take a few moments to picture that. Oh, wowie!

The thought of this machine clearing the path for other trains to travel on snowladen tracks grabbed my imagination and transported me to a place deep in the alpine forests, glistening white with new snow, untouched by footprints, animal tracks or anything else. A cozy blanket of silence covers everything. And then, in the distance, a whistle would be heard; a soft, airy breath of sound that announces the arrival of man-made interference.

The steady huffing and puffing of a steam engine would start its crescendo in the distance, and the animals in the woods would start chattering, discussing their options to stay and see what happens, or find a hiding place deeper in the woods. The animals know the sounds of a steam engine by now, but a strange percussion adds an unfamiliar sound to the ensemble.

As the train draws closer, the volume increases. The whistle’s melody is limited to one note, with many gaps of silence. But the rhythm section of the band makes up for the monotony of the whistle. The steam engine’s CHOOK-chook CHOOK-chook CHOOK-chook CHOOK-chook is complemented by the sound of the wheels on the track: click-click-clack . . . click-click-clack . . . click-click-clack . . . click-click-clack . . . The mysterious SWO-O-O-O-O-OSH adds a continuous flow to the texture of the music, and all of this hides the menacing face of the machine that creates this glorious symphony.

The practical reality of the snow plough is that it has steel blades, adjustable to the texture of the snow, which clears snow from train tracks, sending it into the air as high as 18m and as far away as 90m, so other trains are able to pass through after heavy snowfalls.

The red centre of the snow plough’s nose is red and smooth, and contrasts in both colour and texture with the rest of the machine. This is what drew my eye to it. What a dramatic letter “O” it would make. The perfect dimensions of the circle is enhanced by the radial symmetry of the background. It has been one of my favourite letter photos since the day we discovered this gem, and will remain a cornerstone in my collection for a long time to come.

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