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The Lost Art Of Whistling

ONE recent blue, dry morning in Waterville, Maine, I parked my car in a shopping plaza and headed for the market. A man, probably in his 60s like myself, was coming from the other direction. He was smiling. ``Nice,'' he said. I looked at him quizzically.

``The whistling,'' he said. ``Very nice. Not much of that around anymore.''

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``Thanks,'' I said, smiling back, and continued a song from ``West Side Story.''

But his comment intrigued me. I knew whistling was not commonplace, but was it really so rare? I began listening closely for it. Since then, in other towns and cities in Maine and Massachusetts, I have seen people, mostly joggers, listening to music with headsets, but I have not observed a single person making music.

So why aren't people whistling like they used to?

Or did they ever?

I don't fantasize that a hundred years ago, women, men, and children strode up and down the roads of the world's towns, whistling in harmony.

But whatever whistling might have been once, I seriously wonder why it is not more common than it is now. Music, after all, is dear to many people, and whistling is probably the simplest way to make it.

Unlike singing, it doesn't presume a certain excellence, doesn't even require knowing lyrics.

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Nor does it bare the individual human voice, discomfiting those who prefer a degree of anonymity when they make songs of love, say, on Main Street.

I myself began whistling at the start of World War II, when patriotic songs like ``Let's Remember Pearl Harbor'' and ``There'll Always Be An England'' were heard often on radios and phonographs. Aching for a heroism of my own but being a mere boy, I often whistled these songs when I found myself walking alone.

I gave them my strongest, noblest feelings, as if I were sending a message of hope to everyone on America's side, and a promise of defeat to the bad guys. In the meantime, I learned that there was more than one way to whistle, that I could vary the tone and pace, add a trill here and there. Whistling, in its own right, became a pleasure.

On the other hand, my sister, when she was a girl, seldom whistled by the home of our street's white-haired matriarch without hearing her intone, from a swing on the front porch, ``Whistling girls and crowing hens/ Always come to no good end.'' To this day, so far as I know, my sister does little or no outdoor whistling.

Her experience leads me to wonder how many others fail to whistle within human earshot for fear of an unpleasant reaction. Some might think whistling would paint them as blatantly happy. In a world where we can sometimes think that con men are almost everywhere, sounding our happiness could be perceived as becoming an easy mark. In this light, whistling could require a certain courage.

But if there's any merit to such speculation - if fear of any sort has got our whistles - greater reason still to wet them and blow. Shouldn't we possess at least enough bravery to make a song to be heard?

A whistle can be a most satisfying vent for the whistler's feelings. For the listener, it can be a reassuring sound against the violence we do to our space and spirits with anti-human noises. It is, at root, primal, as old as the sound of a breaking wave. When brushed by wind, the lip of a hollow thing or the corner of a rock can whistle with an unforgettable poignance. As Robert Frost wrote: ``Before man came to blow it right/ The wind once blew itself untaught.''

Frost's lines make more regrettable the fact that now, being able to blow air right, very few of us do. It could be that for a true measure of how many whistlers are with us, one must journey beyond Maine or Massachusetts.

On the other hand, if whistlers actually abound but are of the closet variety, then more's the pity on this earth, where song, unpretentiously made by anyone moved to it, is somehow the more valuable for sharing.

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