My father was a whistler. He whistled while he waited for the bus and for the family to get ready to go wherever we were going with him. And he whistled in his hospital bed until he ran out of breath.
When I was a young boy of seven or eight, leaning to whistle was a big deal. My father showed me the pucker method though he preferred using his teeth. I practiced every day and when I thought I had it, I ran to my Dad to demonstrate my skill. I pursed my lips and blew, only to produce a mostly soundless stream of air with an occasional squeak. One day it all came together and I was actually whistling. “I’ve got it. Listen to this,” I shouted as I ran into the kitchen to show off my achievement. Exhaling through puckered lips, I produced a sustained tone. I was elated. I felt the way I did when I had learned to ride my bike. One day, after untold numbers of failed attempts, you finally accomplish what you were working so hard to achieve, and soon enough it seems automatic.
When you finally learn how to whistle, the next thing you need to learn is when and where whistling is tolerated if not appreciated. You don’t whistle in school or in church or in front of grownups when they are trying to have a conversation or watch TV. If you whistle to impress your friends, you may very well discover that they’re better at it than you are.
“Hey Bobby, look what I can do.”
“Yeah, that’s okay, but can you do this?” This is where Bobby puts two fingers inside his mouth, takes a deep breath and produces a sound loud enough to blow the leaves off the nearest tree.
“Now you try,” Bobby urges.
You can imagine what happens, so I won’t go into the embarrassing details. So you practice your whistling alone in your room, moving from simple tunes like “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” to Billboard’s top 10 of the week. You experiment with your Dad’s blowing through your teeth technique and ask him to demonstrate and give you some tips. You learn the basics of the method but realize that you are a pursed lips guy at heart and stick with what works best for you.
Whistling becomes another skill like walking, talking, and riding a bike. You don’t think about it, but it’s there to use when you need it. You whistle to distract yourself with a favorite tune, to signal back and forth with Bobby when you’re playing cops and robbers, or to mimic bird calls.
Whistling connects us with our earliest human ancestors who may have whistled to communicate over long distances. According to a recent article in Smithsonian Magazine, whistling languages almost always developed in rugged mountainous or deep forested areas, places where travel was difficult and face-to-face communication limited.
Some speculate that the idea of whistling while you work may have originated with the practice of solitary field workers calling out to unseen others to dispel feelings of loneliness. A more practical use of whistled language is the use of whistled signals to coordinate work, for example, hunters pointing the way as they disperse through the woods or sailors issuing commands above the sounds of the roaring sea.
Today, local versions of whistled languages can be found in more than 80 cultures worldwide, though their existence is threatened by the increased efficiency of transportation and electronic communication.
We whistle in the dark and past a graveyard to bolster our courage, acting confident and unafraid when we are feeling the opposite. William James with his pragmatic philosophy of life would approve. We whistle Dixie when we entertain wishes as unrealistic as the Confederacy rising again.
Lately, I’ve become more aware of my own whistling. Perhaps it’s something I’ve been doing all along, or maybe I’m doing it more in my senior years. I frequently catch myself whistling almost silently when I’m in a good mood. The tune is usually an old favorite that I’ve recently heard streaming in the car. “I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now/From up and down and still somehow/It’s clouds’ illusions I recall./I really don’t know clouds at all.”
Judy Collins sings, and hours or days later I find myself whistling her song. I never decide to whistle a tune. It’s just there as if it had hijacked my whistling apparatus while I was busy doing something else.
The something else of our senior years is too often a visit to one of the many doctors we count on to keep the various systems of our bodily self in working order. In this regard, I have developed an empathic connection with our house, which in the eight years since my retirement, has needed a new roof, windows, air conditioning system, chimney repair, and paint job.
There is a specialist for every system in the house and the body. Fortunately, most of my doctors’ visits are routine affairs, but one is especially likely to provoke my anxiety. While I try not to think about the dreaded routine of that regular visit until the day of my appointment, my body knows what’s coming and does everything it can to get my attention.
“Hey, it’s that time again in case you haven’t noticed.”
“Of course I’ve noticed. It’s right here in my appointment book. I’m just not dwelling on something I can’t do anything about. So knock it off with the stomach ache and let me get ready to go.”
No response to that one. Feeling pleased with myself for putting my body in its place, I climb the stairs to change into something more befitting a doctor’s visit than my yard work clothes and notice that I am whistling. It’s Judy again looking at clouds from both sides now, but is this the soundtrack of my reasonably good mood or have I begun to whistle in the dark as I get ready for another checkup?
Soon, I am at the doctor’s office where I’ve had my blood test and now sit waiting for the results and a chat about my health. My mind is busy with many things with not even a hint of a whistle bubbling up from wherever whistles start.
Instead, I think about how crowded the waiting room is with people just like me, and I wish them the same good results that I am hoping for. It’s the news we all want to hear, and grateful to get it, I am soon on my way. It’s enough to make me whistle a happy tune and sometimes I do, but not now. I’ve already whistled about clouds with Judy and take some measure of satisfaction in knowing that I didn’t need a repeat performance in the waiting room. I was whistling in the light, not in the dark, not today, but when you’re the whistler’s son, you never know for sure.