O. Henry: Ballpark Whistle

There is a Broadway play called “Anyone Can Whistle” which is both true and false. Most people can pucker their lips, maneuver their tongues and imitate a bird call it’s another matter to carry a tune or whistle a crowd to attention.

With the high pitched trill, it can be deafening as the cheers around you rouse up the crowd. Still, the loud shriek echoes in your inner ear forcing those closest to the whistler. Many grimace and cover their ears, looking for the perpetrator. It is a show stopper!

When the whistle comes from 100 yards away, it has a whole new perspective and intentionality. All eyes look in the direction of the signaler, as if hearing it as a call of distress.

Dottie Scheck Donovan, the management of the Valley Country Club, made these startling, rising note commands from the front porch of her house. The sound, as fast as a walkie-talkie, got the attention of the staff and lifeguards at the club. If an employee heard the whistle, they were instructed to rush up the hill and attend to Mrs. Donovan’s requests. Drop everything and hop to it.

One of the preteen members of the pool was Gracie Allen. She had the knack of imitating the Donovan whistle from various locations around the extensive pool area. All of the employees would crane their necks to determine from where Mrs. Donovan was calling. Gracie was so good at the stealth-like ventriloquism that she fooled us lifeguards for days, after we were first hired. Finally, after about 10 days of misdirection, I grabbed Gracie and meted out my punishment: either sit out of the pool for the rest of the week or teach me to make that damned whistle. Gracie considered her options and agreed to teach me. For days she helped me refine the tongue position, the fingering, the shrill sound, and the piercing volume. It took about a week, but Gracie was a good tutor and I was a diligent student.

Once perfected, I embellished my tweets with four fingers, two fingers and no fingers. The loudest whistle, which my kids dubbed “The ballpark whistle,” uses the four finger positioning (index and middle finger from each hand in the mouth, holding down the tip of the tongue).

To this day, I have an ability to use the whistle to call people to attention or to cheer my approval for the play on the field. Thank you, Gracie, for your careful tutelage. I have passed on your talent to many friends and family members as part of our “parlor tricks,” although this one is for outside only.