Happy Birthday, Joannie

June 6, 2018

Smiling is an occupational hazard for a whistler. They’re like oil and water. It’s one or the other, as a smiling face couldn’t form a pucker in a million years. One pulls the lips apart and the other draw them together.

But smiling, like yawning, is contagious. So, as more and more small group settings have required my puckered prowess, I’ve had to develop my game face, a mental state that allows me to block out distractions as I whistle a happy tune. It took years, but now when someone is smiling or giggling, even just a few feet away, or on the phone in my ear, I can maintain my pucker.

And then I was tested.

I met Debby Kelly at her son Jason’s book launch party. He had just published his first book, a primer on the private equity industry featuring my employer, The Carlyle Group. Debby and I hit if off right away. She’s friendly and sassy with a playful Atlanta-derived accent. As the party was winding down, I found myself hanging with Jason and his parents and a couple of other guests in the living room of his parents’ home in leafy Northwest DC.

In a “guess what freaky thing my friend Chris is good at” moment, the conversation turned to whistling, care of Jason, which led to some storytelling and a demonstration. I told how I whistle “Happy Birthday” for people, including Jason, and that’s when Debby asked how she could get on the list. Out came my iPhone calendar, and thus a new friendship was born.

Six months went by, and on March 24, I called Debby and serenaded her. Within a year, most of her family was on the list. They crept on person by person, via emails from Debby asking me to help celebrate the birth of this or that loved one.

The ultimate test was Debby’s sister Joannie. I called her cold on August 16.

“Hi, is this the birthday girl?”

“Why, yes, it is. Who’s this?” she drawled like her sweet sister Debby.

“This is Chris Ullman, and I’m the four-time international whistling champion, calling to serenade you on your special day on behalf of your sister Debby.”

“Oh, my.”

“Are you ready?”

“Yes, I am.”

Contemporaneous with the first note of the fanfare introduction, the laughing began.

It was hearty, full-throated, natural. The actual whistle, or the act of being serenaded, tickled her in some way and triggered a fusillade of uncontrollable joy. It was quite impressive.

I was startled at first, and came within a micrometer of joining in her hilarity. But my game face withstood the blast of laughter and I soldiered on, focused on my task.

Soon enough, we both stopped what we were doing and started talking. Joannie was grateful and a bit embarrassed. I was amazed I’d made it through the song. We hit it off, just as her sister and I had.

A year later, I serenaded her again. I braced fro the laugh, but none came. Like a crush that settles into love, the whistle no longer startled her, but is seemed to please her just the same.

(Find this and other stories in my book Find Your Whistle: Simple Gifts Touch Hearts & Change Lives.)