Steven Church: Bad Whistle

Whistling at a bullfight in Spain is rare. The Spanish whistle, like an American “boo,”  is considered mocking and bitter. You don’t whistle unless the matador really has it coming, unless the performance is weak or the bull dies slowly and painfully beneath his clumsy hand.

Whistling in an American coalmine or a gold mine is even worse. It’s a bad omen, a jinx, and a thumb of your nose to centuries of mining superstition. Part of this is because a mine is a dark and dangerous place where sound is not taken for granted, a place where it is important to listen and where one’s work and one’s mortality are intimately connected.

The infamous canary in a coal mine, the one exception to this rule, signaled the presence of dangerous gas by ceasing its song; the old miners knew that a quiet canary was a dead canary. I once worked as a tour guide at a tourist-trap gold mine in Colorado called the Country Boy. A hard-rock mine is much different than a coal mine, though each of them share some similar mythology and superstition.

For my job I wore Carhart coveralls and rubber boots and led tourists one-thousand feet into the side of a mountain. In the portal we kept a stuffed yellow canary in a cage. Hard-rock mines didn’t have poisonous gas like coal mines and didn’t keep canaries, but the bird was part of the show. So I told tourists that if the bird stopped singing we should all get out of the mine as fast as possible. Then we would all stare at the stuffed bird, waiting for it to sing. Then we would laugh.

The truth is, though, whistling in a mine is no laughing matter.

Disney’s Dwarves, all seven of them whistling so jolly and joyfully while they worked, would have been beaten to a pulp, or, at least, banished from the tunnels, ridiculed and ostracized for their insolence. The tunnels of a mine were not the happy jolly homes of charming little people and their fairy tales. The mines were noisy, dangerous places full of ghosts. There was no princess. Some of the old miners would just as soon kill you than work with someone who whistled in the face of luck.

It was important that you listened in a mine, that you could pay attention to the mountain and the men with whom you worked. If a miner became trapped in a cave-in he would hammer and pound on the rocks, not just to dig his way out but also to let the other miners know of his location so they could come for him. A pretty much universal mining legend tells of a man who died in the tunnel, and his spirit, a Tommyknocker, keeps on knocking and tapping to warn others of impending cave-ins. The old miners knew to pay attention to the ghosts. You had to keep your ears open in the mines if you wanted to live.

One’s survival in a mine was a matter of both luck and smarts. To whistle was to chase away the benevolent spirits of the mine, those mysterious entities that protected them from the evil spirits who wished them harm; to whistle was to mess with the whimsical violence of a cave-in, to mock the martyred ghosts and to invite death and destruction upon all those around you. Any man who dared to violate this superstition was quickly silenced and condemned as a fool, if not beaten or shunned by his fellow miners.

Pennsylvania coalmining legend (as well as a NY Times article) tells the story of a foolhardy Welshman named Jack Richards, a chatterbox and clown who mocked the old superstitions that ruled the mine and not only whistled in the tunnel but whistled a jig known as, “Devil Among the Tailors.” With his song, Richards invited the evil spirit to dance with him, a breech of mining etiquette so severe and brazen that it stopped work and silenced the mine completely. The other miners, so discomfited by Richards’ audacity, decided to quit for the day and leave the tunnel. They simply couldn’t tolerate such behavior. They were done.

As they gathered their tools to escape, they heard a sound like a clap of thunder, a rumble, and the mountain above them seemed to heave and groan. Then they heard another clap of thunder and the mountain collapsed; a massive cave-in trapped the eighteen miners and a horse.

The dust and noise settled, the horse calmed down, and the miners gathered themselves.  They turned to find the bastard who had brought this upon them. So intense was their belief that Richards’s whistling had caused the cave-in, the other miners set out after him, intending to brain him with a pickaxe, or at least give him a sound beating. They called out his name in the dark, their anger fueling their search, and eventually they found him. Buried. Dead. Killed by the falling rock, the only victim of a potentially catastrophic collapse. His noise had cursed him, killed him, and, if you believe the legends, Jack Richards’s ghost still haunts those coal-dark caverns beneath the surface, tap-tapping his warning to generations of new miners, telling them: You never ever whistle while you work.

My five year old daughter has recently learned to whistle. Sort of. She can make the whistling noise but she can’t use it to then produce anything resembling music. I’d rejoice if she could muster, “Devil Among the Tailors,” or anything more than a kind of airy chirping noise reminiscent of an asthmatic canary. She tries. And I love her for this. I love her sweet indomitable spirit, love her total lack of self-consciousness. Like all children, her reality is a beautifully and frustrating solipsistic one where every noise she makes sounds amazing and worthy of audience appreciation. But part of me wants to tell her about Jack Richards and explain that some whistling is bad whistling, that in some contexts her whistle could summon the fickle and apocalyptic power of our planet, not to mention the annoyed barking of her father. But I don’t tell her these stories. Instead I try to say that she is getting better, stronger, and that soon she’ll be whistling like a bird. I really want to tell her what I know, what I’ve always known, that someday she’ll bring the house down with her song.

 ***

Steven Church is the author of The Guinness Book of Me: A Memoir of Record and Theoretical Killings: Essays and Accidents. His essays have been published or are forthcoming in The Rumpus, Prairie Schooner, Creative Nonfiction, Fourth Genre, AGNI, and Passages North; and his piece, “Auscultation” was chosen by Edwidge Danticat for inclusion in the Best American Essays, 2011. He is a founding editor of the literary magazine The Normal School and he teaches in the MFA Program at Fresno State.  His latest book, The Day After The Day After: My Atomic Angst, blends essay, memoir, and fictional passages as it describes the effect the 1983 made-for-TV movie The Day After–a depiction of the effects of nuclear war with the Soviet Union–had on him, his hometown of Lawrence, Kansas (where the movie was filmed), and a whole generation of Americans who grew up scared.

S.Church headshot

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