More to whistling than passing time

By Karl Terry: PNT columnist

Do you whistle while you work?

I like to whistle when I paint but my mother looks nothing like Whistler’s Mother. I can’t paint pictures but I can paint walls.

I also like to whistle when I do housework. It irritates my wife to think I’m actually enjoying chores. But a recent whistle at work made me stop to appreciate how universal and utilitarian a good note from the lips can be.

I was recently outside at work when a young man approached me for directions. His English was poor and so was my Spanish so the directions I gave the young dairy hand obviously didn’t quite connect. I looked back a few seconds later and he was 30 yards away and headed in the wrong door. I quickly gave a sharp whistle, he turned to look and I pointed to the right door.

On the farm learning to whistle is almost essential because it is a way to communicate over distances and loud machinery. A whistle can be used to help herd livestock and call straying dogs or kids. Mostly it’s just used to get someone’s attention though.

Anytime a machine, tractor or backing vehicle needs to be stopped immediately a loud whistle will do the trick. My mom likes to tell the story about how she engrained the real use of a whistle to a bunch of teenage boys one day. A group of neighbor boys had been enlisted to ride a sweet potato setting machine being pulled by my mom in a pickup.

These guys were riding along on these old iron tractor seats atop the machine when one practicing his new whistling skills let out a blast from his lips. Brakes were applied quickly to the pickup and everyone lost their chair.

I don’t really ever remember not being able to whistle or having to teach myself to whistle. I’m sure I learned it though, and I worked on it all my life to get to the skill level I enjoy today. I can perform an extremely loud lower lip whistle (the attention getter). I can whistle tunes with the pucker whistle and I can do a low through-the-teeth whistle (used often as an exclamation).

Every dog I’ve ever had instinctively came when I whistled. I don’t remember ever having to train one.

We also used a whistle the same way the movie cowboys and Indians did to signal a buddy without others detecting the sign. Usually the cowboys used a whip-poor-will call but a bobwhite quail imitation worked better in these parts.

Another good use of a whistle was for letting girls know you noticed them with the classic wolf whistle. Back then a poorly timed wolf whistle when the girl’s favorite guy was within earshot could get you in lots of trouble.

These days whistling while I work has become such second nature I’m up for a part in the remake of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves” to be re-titled “Snow White and the Seven Short Rednecks.” I’ll be the old grumpy one.

Karl Terry writes for Freedom New Mexico. Contact him at: