Soft Whistle in the Night
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“Soft Whistle in the Night,” New Era, Dec. 1986, 12

Soft Whistle in the Night

In a war’s nightmare, a familiar melody rekindled hope and joy.

War on the European front had ended in May 1945. But months later, even though Christmas was approaching, the dreary nightmare of years of hate and destruction still stretched a shadowy hand over much of Europe. Austria’s city on the Danube, Vienna the beautiful, lay largely in ruin.

Prized public monuments like Saint Stephen’s Cathedral, the Opera, and the Burgtheater were virtually destroyed. In the city where the Strausses played their waltzes, where Mozart and Beethoven performed The Magic Flute and the Eroica Symphony, where the Fine Arts Museum housed the Hapsburg collection of paintings by the old masters, it was a time for starting over.

It was also a time of want. Food and clothing were scarce, water purity uncertain. Nearly 270,000 Viennese were homeless. Bombed out buildings hovered like specters over potholed streets. And Vienna was a city divided, with Allied forces each patrolling the areas under their jurisdiction. People didn’t venture out at night; there was still a lot of fear in the air.

A number of Latter-day Saints were stationed in the American sector. Local Church members made contact with us and invited us to attend services they were organizing, which we did with joy. We were happy to see them and glad for the fellowship. As Christmas approached, we Americans wrote home to our families and suggested they send us food and other presents we could share with our fellow members of the Church.

A plan was laid out so that all of the Austrian members would have servicemen visit them to celebrate Christ’s birth. Captain Gibson and I were assigned to spend an evening with the branch president’s family, over in the Russian sector.

Captain Gibson had been there before, but I had not. As we crossed the bridge over the Danube, I was impressed that the damage on the eastern side of the city, which included much of the port area, was particularly heavy. Vacant ruins gave no indication of street names or house numbers. There were no street lights to help us find directions.

After several minutes, however, Captain Gibson said, “Stop here. Pull over to the side,” and I did.

He leaned out of the jeep, cupped his hands around his mouth, and clearly, firmly whistled the Primary song, “Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam.”

We waited. The dark, empty street was terrifying. I had misgivings about being in the wrong location. I didn’t know what would happen. I didn’t know if we’d ever get back.

Then, across the street and three floors up, shutters on a window opened. In soft, clear notes that sweet little tune was whistled again, and when I heard it my fears evaporated. It was the response we’d arranged ahead of time. We were to whistle a Church song and the members were to whistle a response if everything was okay.

A minute later we heard footsteps, then saw the branch president’s daughter running across the cobblestones, accompanied by a trusted neighbor. They opened a gate to an inner courtyard, and we pulled the jeep in off the street. They closed the gate behind us and locked it.

The daughter’s excitement was apparent. She nearly danced up the three flights of stairs, where we met her parents and another daughter. We looked around the meagerly furnished apartment. Though the family was in dire circumstances, it was, after all, Christmas Eve, and the table was set for dinner.

It seems strange to say we feasted on salmon loaf and artificial orange drink, but feast we did. And more than food, we feasted on love and companionship. We feasted on the knowledge that God’s son was born into a weary world to bring it hope and light. We feasted on the firm belief that with war’s end the gospel would again be preached in Europe and that the Saints would again be free to gather and worship.

We sang the songs the Saints all sing, hymns and Christmas carols. The family gave us each a handmade Christmas card. We gave them some food and clothing. Together we knelt in a prayer of thanks, and then Captain Gibson and I returned to our quarters, enriched and strengthened.

That was 40 years ago, and the horrors of postwar Europe seem long past and far away. Vienna is once again the beautiful city on the Danube, where Saint Stephen’s, the Opera, and the Burgtheater, all rebuilt, stand as monuments to man’s commitment to overcome the bombs and flames of war.

Even now, though, whenever I hear “Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam”—especially when it’s almost Christmas—my mind floods with memories of a dark street where a gentle whistle reminded me that wherever the Saints gather, there is always faith, rejoicing, fellowship, and hope.

Illustrated by Richard D. Brown