Whistling…you either can or you can’t. There’s no middle ground.

* * *

I was about 10 years old when I first heard the question, “Son, what do you want to do when you grow up?” I knew without even thinking…. all I ever really wanted was to be able to whistle.

It’s a tough question to answer at any age. At 10, I was nowhere close to putting away childish things. I had barely broken the habit of sucking my thumb, a necessary rite of separation which, for some strange reason, led to biting my nails. But that’s another story altogether.

Now I know whistling is a low bar to maturity, and there’s not much future in it unless Lawrence Welk is resurrected. But for some strange reason I felt it necessary to want to stand on the corner and let out a shrill whistle that would turn heads and stop traffic. A perverse need for power begins at an early age.

But alas, the only instruction I ever got was, “Son, keep trying; it’ll come.”  But it didn’t come, and it was really stupid to walk around constantly blowing air out of my puckered lips. I felt like failure was a perpetual way of life.

Now trying to teach a 10-year old boy anything associated with art is like teaching a stone to talk or training a mule to sing opera. No sir, it’s worse than having to memorize algebraic equations. The art of whistling is a learned trait.

I was still too young to join the after-school marble shooting games, which was a good thing I think.  Basically, shooting marbles is the threshold to a greater problem: gambling. Bets were made, marbles were lost, marbles were won. Winners laughed, losers lamented. So I kept blowing air out of my mouth, hoping and spooking my dog.

Maybe whistling is not high on your list of achievements. But conquering the problem of making sound from blowing air will guarantee fame and financial success in such endeavors as politics, preaching and selling used body parts.

So for months I lay awake at night, twisting my tongue in various contortions and blowing air between my teeth. Finally one night a small sound slipped over my bottom lip. I had just scaled the Everest of whistling. Euphoria erupted, and failure retreated. Things began to look up.

For weeks I coaxed my ephemeral, fledgling sound. It grew like Samson in strength and volume. I was as proud of the accomplishment as I was of the fuzz that was forming on my chin. I’m whistling, and soon to be shaving. Maturation was happening.

There are no secrets in learning to whistle.  No rules, really, it all just depends on the alignment of tongue, lips and breath. For me, whistling Rock of Ages in D major was my crowning achievement. Ok, so it drove my parents mad, even as rap music does most today. Some things must be endured in silence.

Like the multiple uses of tongues and lips, those mischief-making co-conspirators, one has to be cautious about whistling. I learned this the hard way some years ago. Let this story be a warning to all you whistlers out there.

A friend and I once hosted a very large party complete with a full petting zoo. The prime attraction was this enormous orangutan swinging from the bars of his cage. Harmless, the handlers said. Regrettably, I took their word for it.

So I walked over whistling a tune, maybe it was Fly Me to the Moon, I don’t recall. The creature obviously mistook my whistling for amorous intentions. Suddenly an enormous hand with eight-inch fingers attached to the end of a five-foot arm reached out, gripped me by the nape of the neck and planted a long, wet kiss on my lips.

Being proud of his conquest, he released me with a wink and a smile. Now take it from me, you haven’t been kissed until you have been smooched by an ape. It broke me from whistling in zoos.

* * *

It was long ago and far away when I was a boy learning to whistle. Life moves on with its simple rites of passage. But whistling remains as long as you can blow air out of your puckered lips.

So if you’re learning to whistle, keep trying; it’ll come. And, friends, that’s not just whistling Dixie.


Bud Hearn

October 30, 2020