From our apartment on East Bruceton Road to Cinema World we only had to walk along the sidewalk until we got to Route 51. We’d press the button at the steel pole by the cross walk then cross the street at the light, heading up through the strip of shops at Southland Shopping Center. In no time we were at the corner of the vast asphalt parking lot, heading up to the front entrance of that dome shaped edifice. Cinema World became a dollar theatre when I was maybe 15 years old, which would make Lib 14 and Ann Marie 16 or 17, depending on the month of the year. One dollar was the equivalent of four hours babysitting when we were twelve, but by the time we were official teenagers we could get that in one hour. Or if I folded laundry for the lady in apartment 718; or made one meal for the Sobaslays on the third floor. If I hadn’t been saving for a pair of skis I’d have had many dollars to spare. Still, we had enough that when Sound of Music came to the dollar theatre that year Lib and I went probably 8 or 10 times. Once we stopped at the steak house restaurant on the strip mall and got ourselves rib eye steaks and baked potatoes before the show. $5 for the whole dinner, including a drink. Looking back on that it makes me giggle. I think we felt very mature and indulgent in that decision. We never ever bought drinks or popcorn at the movie house. We always felt just fortunate to be able to see the show. To this day I get all giddy thinking about being “allowed” to get popcorn if I want now at the movie show, and I’m always a little sad if we go to dinner before the show cuz I love that feeling of the holy trinity: Popcorn – pop – AND the movie…and I’m bummed if there’s just not enough room for it after having had dinner.
One summer afternoon, when Lib and I were walking over to Cinema World for the show, I asked Libby to teach me how to whistle with my fingers. I’m a fair to midland whistler of tunes with my lips, but I never could do the Boy Scout whistle thing, either with four fingers and two hands, or two fingers on one hand. Lib was a master. She could stop the whole gym full of people at Rec. Night if the teacher couldn’t find her metal whistle and needed to get peoples’ attention. At Girl’s Camp she took the place of the dinner bell. She’s really good. I guess I wanted that kind of power, to call people to attention in an instant without harming the energy in a space by yelling. So she showed me how to hold my fingers, thumb tip to fingertip, nail touching nail. Make a ring out of the fingers, then set the ring on the tip of your tongue like this…she showed me how. I imitated her, watching very carefully while we waited for the stop light to change.
“Now push the tip of your tongue back into your mouth and blow,” she produced the high pitched whistle on demand, just as the light changed. I tried it as we crossed, producing only air that sounded like it was being squeezed through a pile of cotton balls. Over at Southland we stopped in front of the candy store and inhaled as she explained in more detail, watching me as I made the attempt, analyzing the style and technique.
“Looks to me like you’re doing it right,” she said, shrugging her shoulders. I sighed, hung my head and complained, as I am wont to do. “I just don’t have the gift. You have the gift. Forget it!”
Lib takes words like that as a signal to intensify the encouragement: “Wait. Try using two hands.” She took the pinky fingers on both her hands and pushed on her tongue. People stopped walking and talking and turned to us. We smiled and ducked into the candy store; pretended we were looking for something to buy, then stepped out onto the sidewalk again, calling “Thank You” behind us the way our mom taught us to do. I blew and blew, using two fingers, then the finger and thumb, then the two pinkies. By the time we got to the Cinema World parking lot my lungs were saturated with Pittsburgh smog, my brain spinning in a descending vortex. I had to sit on the hot asphalt and put my head between my knees. We almost missed Maria throwing her arms out on that Austrian mountain top singing “The hills are alive with the sound of mu….sic.”
Every year at Girl’s Camp I give it a go till I get light headed and just yell instead. Last week, trying to get the kids attention to say an opening prayer in our joint Young Men’s – Young Women’s activity, I tried it once. I guess I think that by some divine intervention one of these days it will just come to me the way I’ve heard language comes to some missionaries. No such luck. Even now, as I’ve typed this little essay, I have attempted no less than three times to whistle like this. Now my head hurts.
I guess if I had to pick the kind of whistle I would prefer, in general, I’m glad I can do the one that can carry a melody. My dad used to lip whistle little ditties, at least I think he did. Songs like “There’s a Pawn Shop on the Corner of Pittsburgh Penn-syl-van-ee-uh” or “How Much is That Doggie in the Window”, the first note in the song rising up to the second note in the melody; cutting off sharply, much like the whistle of a boy when he’s calling his dog. Maybe I dreamed that. I do know for a fact my mom used to help me find the right pitch in the songs I whistled as a kid. There’s something peaceful and joyful in the sound of someone whistling at a workbench or the laundry counter, out on the coke batteries in the steel mill or in front of an open window at the kitchen sink.
I remember, not all that long ago I guess, catching myself whistling one day after I had been struggling emotionally for some time. I remember smiling, thinking to myself, “Well, hello there. Welcome back my whistling friend!”