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Whistling memories

By John Gould / December 26, 1980



Eddie Skillin and I were of an age, and shared many happy boyhood adventures. We had our own whistle. We thought we were using the lovelysong of the wood thrush, but years afterward we learned that we had appropriated the first four notes of "O Canada."m When we were boys the Canadian anthem was "The Maple Leaf Forever"m and we didn't know anything about "O Canada"m -- no more did the wood thrush. When Eddie whistled under my window I'd hurry out to find what he had in mind, and he'd d the same for me. I suppose we presume everybody else would think a wood thrush was about.

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One of the best things Eddie and I did was to hike off the last week or so of summer vacation and tent out. We'd plan to be home just in time to shine up and report. Hitchhiking was yet to be invented, so we walked out and we walked back.We had a World War pup tent, made of two pieces that buttoned at the ridge, and Eddie and one piece and I had the other. Come late afternoon we'd button our tent, hang it on a piece of potwarp between two trees, and make a fir or hemlock mattress. Our late summer excursions came after the black fly plague had subsided, but we did fight a lot of mosquitoes. Between our two packsacks we had everything we needed.

One year were walking up the Sebasticook Rier and made camp at an ideal spot. In the morning, as we made our breakfast over our little fire, Eddie poked in the sand and picked up an arrow point. We became archaeologists on the spot, and that forenoon gathered eight pounds of flint relics from the Stone Age. The weight was established by the postmaster at Harmony, because we mailed the artifacts home in a box. We were rather pleased with ourselves for choosing that campsite -- a spot that had been used thousands of years before us for the same reason we use it: it was the right place if you came along. Prehistoric people had paused there, as we had, and probably a worker in flint did business with them. Not all the points we found were good ones, but some were, and two-three of them are in museums. Eddie's father, something of a gem buff, made a few of tem into pendants on golden chains, and I think my sister still has one.

There was a crisp winter night, another time, when Eddie ripped off our whistle under my window, and I stuck my head up from under my pile of blankets to wonder what would bring him out in the chill. It took me a time to get into my high-cuts and my winter hefties, and I came out our back door to find Eddie on the steps. "Northern lights!" he said, and I looked up to see the firmament afire. We trudged in the hip-deep snow out behind our buildings, to blank out a streetlamp down the way, and for the next hour or so saw one of the finest displays of its kind in my time. We stood a short ladder against the henhouse and went up on the roof. There wasn't much pitch to one side, so we lay back in the snow and had a perfect view. There was the green glow in the north, with the waving streamers of various colors passing up and over. The waves did pass over, and lighted the sky to the south of us, which we had never seen before. The 45th parallel north latitude runs across Maine, so that meant our spectacle was reaching halfway to the equator. Quite a show.

We stayed backs down in the snow for some time after the show was over. As the lights simmered down, the sky became dark again, and the stars grew brighter. But the show finally ended, and we came down the ladder. Eddie went home and I went up to my room to find my snug blankets had cooled off while I was away and I had the job of warming them again. That took a little while, and before my teeth stopped chattering I had rerun the northern lights many times. Why do you suppose it is the whenever I hear somebody sing "O Canada"m before an ice hockey game I think of the northern lights?

When I came home from school the next day, my father said, "I give up -- maybe you can solve the big mystery."

"What do you know about some jokers who climbed onto my henhouse and bedded down in the snow?"

The evidence of our supine observations did seem hard to believe in the daylight. My father was greatly relieved at my simple explanation.