I was sad to hear the news about the passing of historian David McCullough at the age of 89 yesterday. He was a legendary figure in his field and had a profound influence on me. Mr. McCullough absolutely played a role in me falling in love with history and becoming a high school social studies teacher. He will be missed. Back in July 2018 I wrote a piece about my father- his distinct whistle, as well as the power of David McCullough’s voice in providing vital context for helping me recall my relationship with my father who died of dementia in 2014. So here is that post again. . .
Well before the days of cellphones and text messaging my father had a very effective and seemingly foolproof way of getting our attention. My dad could whistle! And like fingerprints his whistle was very distinct, so it played great in public settings – at festivals, sporting events, etc. If I close my eyes and block everything out I can still hear it perfectly- tough to describe though. It starts out long and slow and then crescendos at the very end having a “1-2” feel to it. My description doesn’t do it much justice. Describing my dad’s whistle is an exercise in language limitation. Add my dad’s whistle to that distinct smell of a young baby or that of rotten fish. . . I certainly know it but I can’t totally put it into words.
The whistle became his conch call for all his four children. I can remember countless times being alongside my parents and there was a need to round up one, two or all three of my siblings- my mom would nudge my dad and say “give a whistle.” Like well-trained hunting dogs they would soon be on the move towards where we were located. Instantaneously upon hearing its sound we all would snap our heads around in parks, down the street at a friend’s house, in a pool, on a lake, in the ocean, on a beach as well as countless number of athletic fields. I miss hearing the whistle!
The whistle was a part of my father and very much a part of my childhood. And although I can no longer hear its sound in real time, I have found other auditory examples that help keep the wonderful memories of my father fresh in my mind. Two of the best examples are David McCullough and Keith David.
McCullough and David provide the narration for several Ken Burns’ documentary series, including The Civil War, Jazz and The War. Each of those documentaries are extraordinary and both gentlemen’s voices have as much to do with each film’s appeal as the content itself. My father, like me, loved all things history. We both spent many hours in front of the television together enthralled with Ken Burns. He is a living national treasure and his documentaries have had a profound personal impact on me. Aside from the subject matter Burns in selecting David McCullough and Keith David as narrators provided two additional “whistles” in my life.
Today, I cannot listen to both those men speak and not think of my father, not think of our shared love for all things history, and to not think of all the wonderful memories and conversations I can recall having with my dad. Their voices provide an increasingly important context in assisting me in remembering all things related to my dad. Truly remarkable and extraordinarily powerful.