“You know how to whistle, don’t you? You just put your lips together and blow.”
That’s Lauren Bacall in To Have and Have Not murmuring perhaps the sexiest two sentences in the history of Hollywood cinema.
As a hormone-besotted teenager I was paralyzed when I watched that scene unfold on the big screen.
And I wasn’t even sure what she was talking about.
Oh, I knew about whistling — a simple act (just put your lips together and blow, stupid) — but with unknowable consequences.
There was that time, for instance, that whistling almost got me killed.
I was sixteen years old, working as a deckhand aboard the S.S. Federal Monarch, an oil tanker bound from Dartmouth, N.S. to Venezuela.
I was hustling along the deck, off to daub some paint on a lifeboat, whistling, if memory serves, O Susanna, when a hand attached to a muscular brown arm came out of nowhere and grabbed me by the jaw.
“What you doin’, mon?” asked the voice behind the arm. It belonged to the ship’s Bos’n, a burly Jamaican named Archie. My mouth was too scrunched up in his hand to do anything more than mumble.
“You whistle on dis ship again, I slit you t’roat.”
He was smiling when he said it, but he sported a wicked-looking hooked knife on his belt and if it was a bluff, I wasn’t about to call it. Nor would I whistle on that ship — or any ship — ever again.
Turns out that sailors are a deeply superstitious lot, and whistling is considered to be an invitation to the Gods to sink your vessel.
Just put your lips together and blow. That’s all Bing Crosby did in his recording of White Christmas, but the man played his lips like Louis Armstrong blew trumpet. He whistled a solo that’s engraved on the memories of millions. Just by putting his lips together.
Back in the 1960’s I met a couple of Canucks who had spent a month on Gomera, one of the Canary Islands off the coast of Africa.
They’d hiked to the top of an island mountain and were baffled because the people they met along the way always seemed to be expecting them.
When they reached the top of the mountain, villagers were gathered around an open fire where a goat had been killed and roasted for them. A feast had been prepared.
Understand that this was long before cell phones and WiFi. Gomera was an exceedingly rural island. Most of the inhabitants had no electricity or telephones.
What they shared instead was a phenomenon called ‘Silbo Gomero’.
It’s a language consisting of two vowels and four consonants which could be combined to make some 4,000 ‘words’.
All of them whistled. News of the ‘estranjeros’ had been passed along ahead of them by ‘whistle’ telegraph — islanders just putting their lips together and blowing.
There’s a teenager named Walker Harnden down in North Carolina who’s only 19 years old but he’s already in the Guinness Book of Records.
Harnden got there by putting his lips together and blowing the highest note ever recorded (B7 in case you want to give it a shot).
Harnden admits that he ‘whistles all the time” — up to four or five hours a day.
A lucky thing for the kid that he never went to sea.
— Arthur Black lives on Saltspring Island. His column appears Tuesday in The NEWS. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.