Memories of my childhood home all begin the same – my Dad with a whistle on his lips. He whistled constantly, always happy, upbeat tunes. In fact, I can’t remember many occasions in which my father wasn’t whistling.
We always knew he had arrived home from work long before he entered the house. His music preceded him, the whistle slipping from his lips as easily as the slide of Glenn Miller’s trombone.
When we were young, we used to love taking walks with Dad in the small Illinois town where he grew up. He’d whistle Big Band tunes as we bounced along beside him and, as we passed the various landmarks, he would share stories of his youthful mischief-making. Rushville’s resident delinquent. “That’s where we hoisted the Model T into the tree. Was my teacher ever surprised when he came out the next morning to find his pride and joy missing … until he looked up.” Then he would whistle contentedly as we followed him like a gaggle of geese to the next landmark.
When we passed his old high school, he stopped whistling long enough to describe the tornado that had ripped through town while all its residents were packed inside the gymnasium watching a basketball game.
Dad had rushed in to warn everyone of the funnel cloud that had touched down, but, of course, nobody believed him, convinced it was just another one of his pranks.
He was vindicated, however, when they filed out of the gymnasium after the game to find debris everywhere–roofless houses, uprooted trees, chimneys shaved off like unwanted whiskers. “There was nothing they could have done anyway; they were probably better off sitting in the safety of that gym enjoying a good game.”
Again with the whistling: Over the Rainbow.
I could never get lost as a child. One time at the carnival I got separated from my parents amid the throng of humanity on the Midway. But I wasn’t scared. All I had to do, I told myself, was listen for the whistle. And sure enough, there it was -- The theme from Carousel. (His choices were always appropriate to the setting.)
My father enjoyed the dubious distinction of being the only person ever rebuked for whistling in Abraham Lincoln’s tomb. You guessed it. The Battle Hymn of the Republic. As the docent clicked her tongue in contempt, he teased. “I think old Abe would have liked my whistling. It was his favorite song, after all.”
You would think the self-conscious, pre-adolescent young girl that was me at the time would have found it mortifying to have all 20+ eyes in the tour group focused on my father, but, as it turned out, group sentiment appeared to run about 20:1 in his favor.
If you asked me what trait I loved most about my father, his whistling would be at the top of my list.
Once, at the mall, we passed a group of teenagers who made fun of him as we walked by, snickering and pointing at him and blowing through their lips in mock whistles, then falling all over each other in peals of rude laughter. I remember wondering at the time what their dads were doing right then.
Like his personality, Dad’s songs were always upbeat – Big Band tunes, of course, and college fight songs … or nothing can beat the Army Air Corp.
He was the eternal optimist, even at the end when he knew he was dying. They gave him six months; he aimed for a year or, better yet, to prove them wrong all together. In the end he had to settle for 4½ months beyond their prediction,but they were good months.
He tied up loose ends, said his goodbyes, made his amends. “I’ve had a long, happy life,” he’d said over and over. “I’m thankful for all I’ve had – my friends, my family, my memories. I’m ready.”
I’m not sure what tune he picked for the grand finale; his words were trapped inside him by then. But of one thing I have no doubt – my father went out whistling.
In Memoriam: Charles A. Dill April 11, 1922 – February 18, 2009