WHISTLING FOR THE CZAR
In the town of K------, in the Ukraine, when I was growing up, there lived an old man we called Uncle Vassily. (The peasants called him Little Father -- he was short and had nine sons.) Uncle Vassily had been a concert whistler, and in his heyday had whistled before the Czar, the Grand Duke Nicholas and Count Basie. In his ability to reach high C and stay there, he was compared to the great Ivan Peepchick.
Everyone in Uncle Vassily's family whistled or had something to do with this remarkable art. His mother was a Whistler. His father gave instructions in whistling -- he told the landlord to whistle for his rent. His sister was whistled at. But while they only whistled now and then, Uncle Vassily whistled all the time.
His cheerful piping woke the neighbours long before the dawn chorus, and at dusk when the sun sank and the balloon went up, Uncle Vassily's pure notes took wing, and like blithe spirits soared to heaven.
He whistled until he died. On that sad day when the doctor drove up in his Zim to the modest little dacha and, parking on the family dog, went in and after examining Uncle Vassily told him that he was checking out, poor Uncle Vassily's whistle was the most poignant ever heard by a millionaire. (It is quite possible for doctors in the Ukraine to make a great deal of money.)
Uncle Vassily was the last of the great whistlers, and like practitioners of other lost musical arts -- drumming on the table with one's fingers while waiting for the waiter, humming through a comb and kazoo-playing -- he was gone. But,
Still are thy pleasant voices, thy nightingales awake;
For Death, he taketh all away, but them he cannot take.
* Note from Ed.: Everything after the asterisk in the first sentence is true. The letter may be found in Shocked and Appalled: A Century of Letters to The Globe and Mail, edited by Jack Kapica (Lester & Orpen Dennys, 1985).