The Christmas Bell

“Hello,” Matthew called out as he opened the door to his great-grandparents home.

“Matty, Is that you?” Grandpa Lou called out. “What are you doing in town?” Matthew wandered through the kitchen where Grandma Leah was already working on supper and towards the living room where Grandpa sat watching one of his shows. “Sit down and tell me how many you knocked down today,” Grandpa said.

“Let me call mom quick and I’ll be right there,” Matt replied. During football season the activity bus from Eureka would drop Matthew off in Goodfield. He’d then walk to one of his grandparents to phone home and let mom know where to pick him up. After a quick call home, Matthew sat down on the sofa with a plate of oatmeal cookies Grandma had handed him. “Sorry Grandpa, football is long over.” Matthew began. “I was at church practicing for the Christmas Eve play.”

“Oh yes, so what part do you have this year?” Grandpa asked.

“I guess I’m kind of type-cast, just a shepherd like last year and the year before. And like last year Keith is Joseph and Ben, Mike, and Brad play the kings.”

“Yep, some things never change,” Grandpa mused. “I think I was a shepherd four years in a row when I was your age.”

Matthew nodded and munched a cookie, “you’d think that they’d change the play up somehow. It’s always the same lines with the same costumes and the same traditions. We always march in during O Come all Ye Faithful, the same grades do the same songs, the church bell always rings when the angels announce the birth of Jesus, and we all march out singing Joy to the World, and then we line up for Hershey bars and oranges. Sometimes it would be nice for a change or two.” Grandpa Lou nodded but his mind had drifted back into some dusty memories. Matthew relished these moments. He knew that Grandpa was brushing back the cobwebs of something long forgotten and a story would soon emerge.

“You know, a lot has stayed the same,” Grandpa began. “Back when I was your age we didn’t ring the church bell, I don’t even think many remembered that the church had a bell. All that changed during the hopeless gloom of the depression. Let’s see, I was about your age then…”

Gower’s store is long gone now, but it stood catty-corner from where your Grandpa Joe’s auto repair is today. One day after practicing for the Christmas play I wandered over to Gower’s place to pick up a package for Ma. Baking powder and flour if I remember right. Old Gower must have been in a good mood that day. He limped from behind the counter on that wooden leg of his, grabbed a licorice rope, pulled off a piece for me while he gnawed on the rest. “You come into town just for your Ma’s things? Gower asked.

“Nope, here to practice the Christmas play at the church,” I replied. “Ma wanted me to pick up her stuff on the way home.”

“Ah, I see. And how is everyone in that rather large family?”

“Doing fine, Pec’s got a cold but he’ll get over it. Say, Mr. Gower, can I ask you something?”
“Sure, I suppose.”

“Well, um, what happened to your leg? Railroad accident?”

“Nope. Left it in France during the Great War.”

“You were over there? I didn’t know that.”

“Ugly, ugly war. I was never so glad to be home even if all of me couldn’t come back. And folks were glad to have us home too, once it was all over. Even this little town had a parade for all us returning veterans with floats, bands, and the whole shebang. Most of the guys marched but I got to ride in old-man Robinson’s town coach with its matched set of trotters. After the parade, we all met at the church for a memorial service. The names of the boys that didn’t make it back were read, the church bell ringing once for each one.”

“That sounds very moving Mr. Gower. But I didn’t know the church ever had a bell, what happened to it?”

“It’s still up there I think. That day was the last time anyone ever heard it. The rope broke when it was pulled for the last name, a Witzig I think it was. People took it as a kind of an omen, the bell’s silence became a kind of memorial to all those boys that didn’t come home.” Mr. Gower paused. “We used to ring it all the time, it was the noon bell instead of that infernal fire siren that sounds off now. That bell rang every Sunday morning, on many special occasions, and of course during the Christmas play when the angels announced Jesus’ birth. It kind of gave us hope and reminded us all about what was important.”

“People sure could use some hope today. One of my friends, Billy, said they weren’t having Christmas since his dad was out of work. And Red, he’s a year or two older than me, he’s hoping to bring down a deer for the Christmas meal but would settle for a raccoon, possum, or even a couple of squirrels.”

“Yep, these are dark days and people ‘round these parts could use a bit of cheer.” Mr. Gower agreed.

“What if the bell rang again?” I asked. “Wouldn’t that help? You said it sounded hopeful.”

I watched as Mr. Gower muttered his way through his feelings. “It is about time….I suppose…but all those boys over there…I guess they’d understand…let’s see…Bradle has the key….Sharp can fix….those steps won’t…but who?” I chewed on my licorice as Mr. Gower chewed on the problem. Suddenly he looked right at me, “We should do it, the boys would understand and maybe even cheer us on from heaven. But I need your help.”

“I’m in,” I quickly said. Even though I had no idea what Mr. Gower had in mind It sounded like a grand adventure along the lines of Little Orphan Annie or Terry and the Pirates. “What do you need me to do?”
Mr. Gower laid out his plan. My first task was to talk to a couple of the men around town and get their help.

First I ran over to Mr. Bradle at the post office, he was the church trustee and had the key to the bell tower. After I told him our plan Mr. Bradle said “I’ve been wanting to get the bell fixed for years but the church board would never agree to go along. Tell Mr. Gower that I’ll be right over to discuss this little conspiracy of his.”

I wasn’t quite sure why we needed a blacksmith but that was my next stop. I could watch Mr. Sharp for hours as he forged and crafted whatever was needed with glowing iron, clanging hammers, and flying sparks. “I’ll be right over,” he said after I told him about Mr. Gower’s plan. Within an hour the conspiracy was formed and meeting in Mr. Gower’s back room.

“I’ve got some rope that will work,” Mr. Gower started.

“Well, I need to know what kind of fitting to put on it,” Mr. Sharp added. “I’ll climb it tonight.”

“You can’t” Mr. Bradle added. Those old steps wouldn’t take your weight and I’m not sure you’ll fit through the trapdoor.”

“That’s why we have Louis here,” Mr. Gower interjected. “He can climb the tower and see what we need.”

“He’ll need a flashlight, it’s dark up there. And maybe a broom to swoosh away the cobwebs, no one’s been up there for years,” Mr. Bradle noted.

I was beginning to get a little scared by now. I’ve climbed into plenty of haylofts but that’s different than a tall, dark, spider web filled tower with steps that might crumble with nothing to break my fall.

“We have one week until the Christmas Eve play.” Mr. Bradle said. “That should be enough time. When should we climb the tower?

“At night would be best, we don’t need anyone seeing what we’re up to,” Sharp added.
Eventually, it was all arranged. I’d sneak into town later that night to spy out what we needed.

It was darker than dark with no moon and clouds heavy with snow. I held a flashlight and the broom while Mr. Bradle unlocked the bell tower door. After wiping away a few cobwebs we both looked up. On the side of the tower was a ladder, not unlike the one in our barn running up to the hayloft. The rungs went about twenty feet to the ceiling and a trap door. “See that hole in the middle of the ceiling?” Mr. Bradle asked pointing his flashlight upwards. “That’s where the bell rope should be. Well, are you ready to go?” I nodded and stepped towards the ladder. “Keep your feet near the outside, the rungs will be strongest there.” He advised.

While I know that Mr. Bradle had the best of the intentions by insisting that I take the broom it didn’t work too well. I soon gave up, threw the broom down and climbed through years of dust and spider webs without any protection. A few of the steps groaned on the way up but none gave up. I pushed against the trapdoor after reaching it and for a few moments it pushed back but I won the battle. It didn’t like that one bit and complained about my victory with a long loud rusty hinge squeal that I was sure could be heard all the way to Eureka. Above me was the bell. I was tempted to give the clapper a swing just to hear it ring. After looking around a bit I found where the rope needed to go. On one side of the bell was a large wheel kind of like a bicycle wheel without the tire but much thicker and heavier. A rusty chain was hooked somewhere on the other side and rested in the groove of the rim. What was left of the old rope was hooked to that chain.Try as I might I couldn’t free up the old fitting but since it was hooked to a chain it seemed that another one could hook into the link right above it. I stuck my finger in the link to get an idea of the size for Mr. Sharp and headed back down.

Unfortunately, the weather messed with our plans with one dilly of a blizzard. I wasn’t able to get in touch with Mr. Gower or the conspiracy until the afternoon of Christmas Eve. We’d made it into town early to make the rounds as they say. It was a kind of tradition that the local stores would put out a little something for their customers to enjoy. Ham sandwiches at the bank, Gower’s always had hot cider, and the hardware store usually had doughnuts. We also dropped in on family and friends that always offered a variety of homemade goodies. So, while we moved from store to store and house to house it was pretty easy to slip away and catch up with the plans for that night.

“We’ll have to fix it during the pageant, there’s just no other way.” Mr. Bradle said.

“Agreed”, chimed in Mr. Gower. “Louis will have to skip being in the play.”

“But how am I supposed to do that? I asked.

“You’ll just have to sneak out!” Mr. Gower said.

“It will be easy, there are what, six or seven shepherds? You’ll never be missed.” Mr. Bradle added.

“Just before they begin to march in make an excuse like you need to use the restroom or something, that will be the best time to sneak out.” Mr. Sharp advised.

So, to the sounds of O Come All Ye Faithful and still dressed in my shepherd’s garb I snuck out and met Mr. Bradle in the bell tower. He handed me a flashlight and a coil of heavy rope and again stood guard while I climbed the ladder to the top. It was slow going, the rope kept getting in the way and twice I almost dropped the flashlight.

“Hurry up, the Primary students should be almost done.” he hissed. For years the first, second, and third-grade children had sung Away in the Manger complete with hand motions. If there was something unexpected in the evening it was sure to be then. I finally made it through the trapdoor. Connected the hook that Mr. Sharp had made and threaded the rope through the hole in the floor.

“Darn it” Mr. Bradle exclaimed.

“What wrong” I whispered loudly

“The rope’s too short, I can’t reach it.”

I scampered part way down the ladder and saw that the rope was indeed short by about two feet.

“There’s the signal” Mr. Bradle anxiously shouted. What I didn’t know is that Mr. Gower was sitting in the church by a window and when the shepherds entered he flashed a light outside. Mr. Sharp was watching and in turn signaled Mr. Bradle. One flash to get ready, two to go. “Now! we need to ring it now!” he exclaimed while jumping up and down trying to snag the rope.

Without thinking I flung myself from the ladder and onto the rope. I never was good at climbing or hanging on to ropes. But somehow I managed to snag it and hold on. As the bell swung, its sweet hope-filled notes rang throughout the town. All I could do was hold on tight until it stopped moving. “Let go!” Mr. Sharp called. “I’ll catch you.” I slid down to the very end of the rope, closed my eyes and let go. True to his word Mr. Sharp caught me in his strong arms.

Mr. Bradle, Mr Sharp, and I emerged from the bell tower to an unexpected gathering. It seems that everyone had evacuated the church to see what was going on. Some smiled, some were not very pleased, and I got the dreaded finger wave from Dad. Pastor Smith finally regained control of the crowd, “Well, it seems that we’ve had a bit of a Christmas miracle tonight. Even if it was colored with a little rebellion, subterfuge, and deception. But I think we can easily say that all is forgiven. Perhaps this is the year for new traditions. I’m looking forward to hearing this bell ring again as a reminder of the hope we all share in Jesus Christ. Perhaps it is also fitting that we add another new event to this evening. Mr. Gower and the Church Board have arranged for each and every child to receive a gift this Christmas. If the children would line up over there at the back of Mr, King’s truck. Each one of you will receive a Hershey bar and a naval orange straight from California.” Pastor Smith turned my way and said, “Louis, could you give us one more pull on that bell rope. I think that it would be a very fitting way to end our evening.”

So, a smudged and dirty shepherd once again climbed the bell tower and jumped on the rope, not once, not twice, but until each and every kid got their present.

“Wow Grandpa Lou, you did all of that? Wait till I tell the other kids.” Matthew exclaimed.

“Yep, bet you didn’t think this old man was ever like you,” Grandpa said with a chuckle. “But that’s why the bell still rings during the Christmas play and why the church still gives out chocolate bars and oranges. They were both symbols of hope during some very dark days.”

“Your mom’s here,” Grandma Leah called out from the kitchen. “I have some cookies for you to take home.”

Dale Heinold
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