Some people called him “Old Man Christiansen”; others called him “Deaf Christiansen.” I usually called him the “Willow-Whistle Man.”
It’s true that Mr. Christiansen was old—he and his wife were both over eighty. And if he could hear anything at all, he never acknowledged it. To make matters worse, he could speak no English. However, enough people in our town understood his Danish so that he got along fine. If he needed anything special, his daughter would get it for him.
Most of us were emigrants from Denmark and hadn’t been in this country very long, so Danish was the language that we spoke at home. But when I tried to talk to Mr. Christiansen in my best Danish, he always said, “I can’t understand English.”
Every spring I’d see him come past our place, going toward the mountains. Later I would see him coming back, carrying a bundle of willow branches. I knew what was coming, and I could hardly control my anticipation. I knew that it would be but a short while before Mr. Christiansen would knock on our door and present me with a willow whistle that he had just made.
Usually I didn’t wait for him to bring it. As fast as I could, I’d run over to his workshop in back of his house. I’d watch him cut the willows to the size that he wanted, then cut a notch marking the place where the sound would come out. He made an angled cut for the mouthpiece. Next, after he’d cut through the bark all the way around, he’d tap the bark gently all over with the knife handle. Then, at the right moment—known only to him—he’d hold the willow branch firmly and twist off the bark. The insides of the whistle had to be shaved a little to allow for air movement. When he finished the whistle, he smiled and handed it to me. I blew hard, and a wonderful sound came out.
I loved watching him, and I loved the special smell of the bark and the slick feel of the wood as he took off the bark and shaved the inside wood. I was always amazed at how quickly he could finish one, and I was especially pleased that the first whistle that he made each spring was mine. I hoped that someday Mr. Christiansen would invite me to go with him to hunt for the willow branches.
He had five grandsons, and, of course, he made a whistle for each of them. You can be sure that the day that they came to get their whistles, there was a lot of whistle blowing and tooting. They would run all over the yard, blowing like fury.
From the sixteen-year-old to the four-year-old, each had powerful lungs, and they really gave it all they had. Then I’d get my whistle and join them, each of us trying to blow the loudest and shrillest blast. It’s a good thing that Mr. Christiansen was so hard of hearing.
And then, wonder of wonders, one spring day Mr. Christiansen asked me to go along with him to search for willow branches. I felt especially honored because, as far as I knew, no one had ever accompanied him on these treks—not even his grandsons.
We walked about a mile toward Cottonwood Canyon, to where several clumps of willows grew along a fork in Cottonwood Creek. Pointing to the left, Mr. Christiansen told me to go look for suitable willow branches. He started up the creek to the right. I began cutting willows and soon had an armful. But when he came back and looked over my pile, he said, “No good—throw them all away.”
I started to protest. In fact, I made quite a long speech in Danish.
“You know I can’t understand English,” he told me with a faint smile.
When we got back to his workshop, I watched him go over the willow branches that he’d gathered, carefully selecting the best ones. And as before, he handed me the first whistle that he made.
I resolved that one day I’d learn to select the proper willow branches and make whistles for myself, and, if I became good enough, I’d make some for my friends too.
The next spring Mr. Christiansen didn’t gather any willow branches. During the winter both he and his wife had become very ill, and their daughter had moved them to her place. Mr. Christiansen passed away in early February. Mrs. Christiansen was alive in the spring, but she was still very ill.
Their house stood vacant. The blinds had been pulled down, and the walks hadn’t been swept. Through the window of Mr. Christiansen’s workshop, I could see his tools all hanging neatly, just as he’d left them. The barn was empty. It was as if the buildings were silently dreaming of the past and wanted no one to interrupt their dreams.
Yes, I did go out to try to find some good willow branches, and I even brought two home and tried to make them into whistles—but it didn’t work. For one thing, my heart wasn’t in it. I kept thinking of Mr. Christiansen standing near the fork in Cottonwood Creek the year before and saying, “You know I can’t understand English.” I missed him a lot!
I was too young then to realize how fortunate I had been. There was a difference of about seventy-five years in our ages, yet we had been good friends. And though few words had ever been spoken between us, I had learned a valuable lesson from him: In anything worthwhile that you attempt to do in this life, you must first prepare yourself mentally. Then you must obtain the correct equipment and materials for the job. Whether you are running a business or finding the correct willow branches for whistles, it still makes good sense.