Useless Skills and Dumb Ideas
Island Voices

Useless Skills and Dumb Ideas

By Seán Malone and John Sweetman

Seán and I were sitting out on his deck a few years back, looking out at our crab traps set in our secret spot, the Trench, just offshore. We noticed a boat approaching and suspected it was a “crab pot poacher.” Waving the boat off seemed to get no answer, so Seán, after a false start or so, gave a long, piercing whistle and got their attention. I followed with a weaker thumb and forefinger effort, and the boat veered off. Perhaps it was the sound that got their attention, or maybe the shotgun Seán was waving. I don’t know, but our crab was saved.

Loud whistles did not come naturally to most of us. I had to learn all by myself, since all I could do was the standard non-annoying semi-musical whistle. So, I set out to learn. Two-finger whistles failed … two fingers with two hands also was a failure. I walked around the house making pathetic noises until my sister closed her door, demanding that I stop, and my mother was checking to see if I had some kind of congenital asthma.

It was not long until I was sent out to the barn to annoy the cows, who had been accustomed only to news and music on the old radio, always tuned to KOMO. It was at that point I discovered, totally on my own, the “thumb and forefinger” technique, which resulted in loud, annoying sounds that improved with practice (as I found I could vary the frequency to make even more annoying sounds). My dad claimed that the cows were down in milk production for a week, so I was banned from the barn.

Now what to do with my new-found skill? At that time, I had a secret girlfriend. I didn’t know much about “girlfriends” at that time, except that girls were different and we didn’t want them around except when we could annoy or pester them. Especially important was that rule that no one should know you had a girlfriend, especially blabbermouth sisters who would tell everyone, thus subjecting one to sniggering ridicule from clutches of girls who gathered at lunch.  

My secret girlfriend was a sweet, cute one with freckles and a button nose, and she was quiet and smart.  Her name was Marylyn McKeever, and she had a bike with balloon tires that she let me ride. Well, I just had to show her my new talented skill, so I went up to her and asked if she wanted to hear. She agreed, and I gave her my best performance, hoping for some sort of admiring acknowledgement. She smiled and said, “Oh, is this how you do it?” She turned and stuck two fingers in her mouth and gave a long and loud whistle, rising in pitch and then lowering an octave. It was so loud, I think the lids jumped off freshly canned peaches for a quarter mile around. “Yea … that’s it”, I said, as I slunk off in shame.  

May 8, 2023

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