“Jerome Mooney!” his mom scolded from the back porch. “Stop spitting at your sister!”
“It’s OK, Mom,” said Mary Beth as she put the last spoon on the picnic table. “Jerome is showing me how he’s going to win a blue ribbon at the 4-H fair.”
“No,” Mary Beth explained with a grin, “by whistling. Jerome is entering the whistling competition. Talented, isn’t he? Last place is in the bag.”
“Oh, yeah, smartie?” Jerome retorted. “Just listen to this.”
But for all of Jerome’s effort, his whistle was no louder than a whisper.
“Jerome,” said Dad, handing him a hamburger, it takes a lot of practice to be able to win a blue ribbon, and the fair is only two weeks away.”
“That’s right,” said Mary Beth. “Practice in your room or when I’m not around,” she teased, “and I’ll call you when the two weeks are up.”
Jerome practiced and practiced. Every morning he played records and whistled along with them. Every afternoon he watched TV and whistled along with his favorite commercial jingles. And every time Grandpa called, Jerome whistled his best tunes into the telephone. Even while he got ready for bed, he whistled the songs he heard on his radio.
The more Jerome practiced, the better he became. By the end of the first week he was sure he could win first prize at the fair. Even Grandpa said he’d never heard anything like Jerome’s whistling. Just to be sure, though, Jerome chose “Yankee Doodle” as the tune he would whistle at the fair. He was positive that everyone loved it.
“A blue-ribbon tune if ever I heard one,” agreed Grandpa.
Mom made Jerome a red, white, and blue Uncle Sam costume out of a pair of Grandpa’s old pajamas. Dad gave Jerome a haircut and shined his Sunday shoes. “I don’t see how you can lose,” he said proudly.
“Jerome will find a way,” said Mary Beth.
But Jerome was determined to win. He had one more week to polish up his act. So, for six days straight, he whistled nothing but “Yankee Doodle.” Around and around through the house he marched, whistling the tune in time to the beat.
Mary Beth went around with cotton in her ears. Mom and Dad went to the store a lot, and everyone wished fair day would hurry and arrive.
On the night before the fair, Dad insisted that Jerome would do better if he didn’t whistle again until just before the competition. So Jerome put on his pajamas, kissed Mom and Dad goodnight, and went to bed early.
At breakfast Mary Beth rolled a penny across the table. “It’s for luck,” she said, “because you’re really going to need it. Just don’t forget to give it back to me after the contest.”
“I won’t need it,” said Jerome, but he took the penny and slipped it into his pocket—just in case.
Mom carefully packed Jerome’s costume into a bag. Then they all got into the van and headed for the fair.
At the fair they went to see all the exhibits of homegrown fruits and vegetables, handmade clothes and quilts, baked goods, and livestock. Jerome and Mary Beth pretended to drive some brand-new tractors while Mom and Dad set out their lunch of sausage-and-pepper sandwiches, ice-cold lemonade, and chocolate cake. After lunch they watched race cars roar around the track, and they munched on hot roasted peanuts.
At two o’clock the whistling competition was announced over the main loudspeaker. Jerome ran to the van to put on his costume. When he got to the grandstand, it was already filled with spectators. The contestants were divided into age groups, and each competitor was given a badge with his name and number on it. Jerome was number thirteen. Mom pinned the badge onto his costume and wished him luck.
After a short speech the emcee announced, “Number one, Abigail Potter, will whistle ‘You Are My Sunshine.’”
Jerome listened as the whistlers performed. Some were very good, but Jerome knew that he had the winning tune and a wonderful costume and that he wouldn’t make a single mistake because he had practiced so hard.
When the emcee called, “Number twelve,” from a far corner of the tent a boy appeared in a red, white, and blue Uncle Sam costume! Jerome could not believe his eyes.
The emcee announced, “Theodore Buzby will now whistle ‘Yankee Doodle.’”
“Hey, you can’t do that!” yelled Mary Beth.
“Shhh,” chided someone in the audience.
Jerome felt his palms get clammy. Perspiration ran down his face. He couldn’t do “Yankee Doodle” now, and he didn’t have a second-best tune.
“You’re up next,” the emcee said to Jerome when Theodore Buzby finished his performance. “What’s the name of your song?”
“I want to go home,” whispered Jerome.
As Theodore Buzby bowed, the audience clapped and cheered. There goes my blue ribbon, thought Jerome.
“Number thirteen, Jerome Mooney,” the emcee informed the crowd, “will whistle ‘I Want to Go Home.’”
Jerome found himself at the podium staring at the faces staring back at him. His costume felt like it was glued to his skin. His throat ached, and he searched frantically in his pocket for Mary Beth’s lucky penny and rubbed it. But he needed more than luck.
The audience was still waiting for him to begin. He stared desperately at his family in the stands. Mom looked worried, but she managed a comforting smile. Dad looked nervous, but he held up his fingers in a victory sign. Mary Beth was making ugly faces at Theodore Buzby.
The tent grew hotter by the minute. Jerome’s throat was parched—too dry, maybe, to whistle anything. He spotted a grape Popsicle in the front row and watched as it dripped down the arm of the small girl holding it. One by one the cool drops plopped onto the dusty ground.
Suddenly, from somewhere, came a familiar little tune. Jerome couldn’t remember its name or where he had heard it, but it was sort of catchy. He took a deep breath and whistled softly into the microphone. He’d give it his best even if it wasn’t a blue-ribbon tune.
Soon Jerome noticed smiles throughout the audience. Everyone loved his tune! And more and more fairgoers were coming into the grandstand to listen. He whistled louder and faster. Children clapped their hands in time to the music. He whistled the mystery song better than he had ever whistled before, and when he had finished, the audience stood and applauded. Even Theodore Buzby.
The judges’ decision was unanimous. Jerome Mooney was the best seven-to-twelve-year-old whistler at the fair. The blue ribbon was his. Jerome gazed at it happily.
“I knew you could do it,” said Mary Beth, closing the van door. “Now can I have my penny back?”
“I’m proud of you, Jerome,” said Mom. “I didn’t know what you were going to do. What was that little song? I know I’ve heard it somewhere.”
“It certainly was popular with the crowd,” said Dad.
“Listen,” said Mary Beth, and in the distance Jerome’s blue-ribbon tune was playing softly. It got louder and louder as it came closer and closer. The catchy tune brought dozens of kids running to the curb as an ice-cream vendor turned the corner.
“Oh, no,” said Jerome. “I didn’t win at all. The ice-cream truck did.”
“You silly,” said Mary Beth. “The ice-cream truck wasn’t even at the fair. Besides, it was a blue-ribbon tune only because you were a blue-ribbon whistler. Now please hand over my penny.”
And Jerome did. Whistling happily, he could hardly wait to get home to call Grandpa.