Chapter 5. Hear Them Bells

June 25, 1930

The bell tower at the fire hall is the tallest building in town. It stands apart from all the stores, just off Main Street and across a small park from the railway station. Unless there is a strong wind in the opposite direction, the bell in that tower can be heard anywhere in town. I hear it ring at seven o’clock every weekday morning, again at noon and then at six o’clock. At seven in the morning I’m just getting up. At noon I’m still in school and at six I have to be home for supper. I have never seen the bell or anybody ringing it.

Now school is out for the summer. Tomorrow morning I’m going to bike uptown and watch the train come in. Then I’ll watch the town bell being rung.

June 26, 1930

I arrived at the station well before train time, so I went into the waiting room and looked around. Not much to see. A big potbellied stove with little mica windows in its door. Some pictures of ocean liners between the windows above the wooden seats. A clock ticked loudly high on the office wall. Other hit-and-miss clicking sounds came from the station agent’s office. Through the wicket I could see on a desk the thing that was making the clicks.

A horse-drawn delivery wagon loaded with packages and boxes clattered up outside. Mr. Dickey, the driver, is one of our neighbors. He told me how they use that clicker thing to send telegrams in Morse code. The letters of words are spelled out by “dahs” and “dits,” depending on how the agent times his moves with the clicker key.

People were gathering along the platform. From time to time they would glance down the track. Eventually somebody called out, “Here she comes!” and everybody looked. Down the track in the distance I could see something black and it was coming all right.

The station agent, in his navy blue uniform and stiff-peaked hat, came outside. Taking a heavy gold watch from his vest pocket, he announced proudly, “She’s right on time today, folks.”

The train’s whistle blew for the last crossing and the great steaming engine, bell ringing, brakes hissing and squealing, bore down on us and slowed to a stop at the street end of the platform. An empty platform wagon was hauled over alongside a car with an open door. Suitcases and boxes were handed out. Mr. Dickey’s wagon load went in. Mailbags were tossed down into a handcart with two big wheels.

Trainmen at the two passenger cars helped ladies down and off the steps. Friends crowded around, hugging, kissing and shaking hands. A few people climbed up into the coaches, heading for places on up the line.

When the platform wagons and mail cart had been pulled away and things were settling down, the conductor glanced at his big watch. It was time to go. He yelled, “Aall a-bo-oa-rd!” The man in the engine cab waved. The bell began ringing and black smoke belched up out of the stack. A couple of whistle toots for the Main Street crossing and the big drive wheels began to turn. With great whooshes and hisses, faster and faster, the train was on its way once more.

Everybody was leaving. I followed the mail cart over to the post office and watched them unload the mailbags. The postmaster had heard the train’s whistle toot, so he had closed the office for mail sorting.

I wandered down the street looking in shop windows. At the jewelry store shiny pocket watches were on display. The door was open so I stepped in. Mr. Swallow is a dignified gentleman with a pink face, frosty moustache and snow-white hair. In his right eye he had an eyeglass with a black ribbon. Without being told, he seemed to know what I wanted to hold in my hand. I could have bought that watch if I had had a dollar. Someday I want to get a watch of my own.

On shelves all around the shop, pendulum clocks were tick-talking to each other. I thought, “What a job, keeping them all wound and set to the right time.” I asked Mr. Swallow if they all started striking at once. He grinned and said, “Mostly – once I get their pendula adjusted to the right lengths and their hands set just right.” I wanted to stay and hear what would happen in a few minutes. But it was almost time for the town bell to ring. I quickly explained why I had to leave, and headed out for the bell tower.

Mr. Oliver was standing in its open doorway, a big watch in his hand. The bell rope was already dangling. Looking up past the fire hoses hanging limply from high in the tower, I could actually see the bell that I had heard so often from a distance.

I asked Mr. Oliver how he knew that the time shown on his watch was the really, really right time. He said that every Monday morning he checked his watch with the jeweler. I asked him who the jeweler checked his watch with and he said, “The train conductor.”

“Why with him?” I asked.

“The railway company has to have exactly the same time – the right time – on all its timekeepers. If passengers are to get to where they want to go, trains must carefully keep to schedules in order to make connections with other trains. People don’t like to be kept waiting or delayed. Besides if conductors always know where all the other trains are, the company won’t have any train wrecks.”

Mr. Oliver glanced again at his watch and grabbed the bell-rope. After a couple of tugs the bell rang out. It sounded much louder than I expected. As it swung from one side to the other I counted thirty strikings while the whole tower trembled and rumbled. Suddenly bending his knees, Mr. Oliver held on heavily. The ringing stopped and he wound the rope around cleats.

“Why do you ring the bell so often in the day?” I asked.

He said, “I’m the town constable and this is part of my responsibility. Sometimes people’s clocks stop during the night. In the morning if they have to be at work or open their store at a certain time, they need to know what time it is. If everyone in town doesn’t plan their day by the same time, some people might arrive late for work, for an appointment or an important meeting. I ring the bell at noon to remind everybody that it’s time to quit work and go home for dinner. Six o’clock is closing time, quitting time, time for supper. This bell, you see, keeps the people of this whole town in step with each other. When I ring the bell, it’s like everybody’s taking a look at the same clock.”

As he was closing the door he added, “If you hear the bell at any other time, that means somebody’s house or barn is on fire. The firemen hear it and come running. Four of them grab the handholds on the tongue of that hose reel in there and they haul it off to the fire as fast as they can run. Lots of excitement!”

People in my home town had bells rung to help them get together to do important things. The sound of a bell would tell them that it was time to stop doing whatever they had been doing and begin to do something else. Everybody seemed to know what they should be doing at a certain time of day so that the right people would be at the right places at the right times. I don’t think our town could have been a real community if ringing bells hadn’t kept the place operating on the same schedule.

The bell was always rung at eleven o’clock on the morning of November the eleventh – Armistice Day – so that everybody would remember that the Great War ended and peace had returned because so many young men from the district fought and died for their country.

At midnight on New Year’s Eve the town bell also “rang out the old year and rang in the new.” Dad used to say that when that bell rings, people who have gathered together for a party start whooping it up and singing “Auld Lang Syne.” Then they drink strong drink and hug and kiss each other and act silly. He never could understand why they make so much of taking down the old calendar and putting up a new one. After midnight the clock goes on ticking just the same as it did before midnight. He remarked wryly that any excuse will do if people want to party!

On Sunday mornings Mr. Oliver could sleep late. It was a day of rest, so he didn’t have to get up and ring the bell. The stores didn’t open. Hardly anybody went to work except ministers. At a quarter to eleven, the sexton over at the Anglican Church rang the church bell to make sure that people knew it was almost time for the service to begin.

At school during the week the principal rang a bell when it was time for the kids to line up and go to our classrooms. During the school day he would ring a buzzer when it was time for the upper grades to change rooms. The bell I liked to hear most of all was the one that rang at four o’clock in the afternoon. School was out for the day!

Events in a smallish town can be coordinated by the sound of a bell, but that sort of sound will not carry over hills and dales to coordinate the affairs of a much larger district. Centuries ago, keeping the people of a widespread area informed of the right time used to be a big problem. The only way they could tell the time of day was to look for the position of the sun. Cloudy skies in bad weather complicated that kind of time-keeping.

The invention of reliable, portable clocks and watches was a big move forward. But if people carried a pocket watch for a long distance east or west, the time it showed would eventually cease to correspond to the time that was indicated by the sun or the stars. Large countries like Canada and the United States of America, and eventually the whole world, were therefore divided into time zones by north-south lines which were one hour apart. As people traveled west or east, the designated time zones helped them to reset their timepieces to more or less match the time which was indicated by the positions of the sun and stars.

When transcontinental railroads stretched out across these lands, their timekeepers were coordinated by means of telegraphed time signals. Today national observatories send out official time signals by radio to the farthest reaches of the country. “Beeps” are the contemporary electronic equivalent of a town bell or telegraphed clicks. Without standard time signals it would be impossible to coordinate national radio and television programs with the multitude of locally originated programs.

Electronic beeps also coordinate international communication, commercial transactions and airline schedules. In some ways global civilization can now function somewhat like a small town with a bell tower.

September 21, 1931

In our classroom today we had a new teacher. A Mrs. Henderson has taken over until Miss Martin is well enough to come back. Mrs. Henderson does things differently. She is very strict. We have to practice reading until we sound just like her. She is a singer and she wants to teach us all how to sing. She whacks a thing called a “tuning fork” on her desktop, then she holds it firmly there end-down. It makes a nice rich sound which we all have to mimic, singing “Dough.” With that as a start we have to sing what she calls a “scale.” “Dough – ray – me – faw – so – law – tea – dough” – or something. Mother says I can practice singing those sounds here at home using our pump organ as a tone starter instead of a tuning fork.

October 5, 1931

Music is not for me. It’s far too complicated. I can tell when I should play a key that is right or left on the organ keyboard because the little black ovals that stand for the keys climb higher or lower across those long-runged music ladders. But I don’t know what to do about those little stuck-on tails and wings. Why are some of the ovals hollow and others completely filled in with black? Some ovals have special dots near them or dotted half circles above them. Sometimes connecting lines swoop between notes like droopy telephone wires. Queer squiggles and short lines are sometimes put into the music where there are no ovals at all. Mother says all these have to do with timing – whatever that is.

I looked up “music” in The Book of Knowledge. Mother was right. The decorations attached to musical ovals, and many of those other markings, have something to do with “beats” and “timing.” But what is a beat? How do I know when the next beat is supposed to come? Mother said I should tap my foot at an even rate, but I can’t tap my foot and pump the organ at the same time.

Although Mrs. Henderson talks “Dough – ray – me …,” the book talks about breves, semibreves, minims, crotchets and quavers. Why don’t music people use plain talk like everyone else?

In North America musicians finally wised up and now use terms like “whole note,” “half note” and “quarter note” for semibreve, minim and crotchet. I eventually learned that those words simply tell a musician how relatively long one is to keep a tone sounding.

In music that expression “how long” does not refer directly to a length of time as measured by a clock – unless clock-time is specifically demanded, as in the case of The Minute Waltz. Clock-time is gauged by a fixed standard – the rotation time of Earth – but musical tempo is flexible and elastic. In orchestral music the notes are to be played according to the rate at which a conductor chooses to make regular hand-movements. If there is no conductor, the bobbing of a musician’s head, the tapping of a foot or the click of an adjustable-speed metronome can establish the rate at which the successive beats will occur. The speed of those movements may vary much more freely than the mechanically regular swings of the pendulum of a clock or the tongue of a bell. For expression’s sake in music, the sounding of notes may be speeded up or slowed down at the will of the musician who is in charge.

Between beats certain notes may be sounded for part-portions of the time intervals and at various intensities. If a timing pattern of note-lengths and accents is repeated regularly, “rhythm” is born from tempo. The rates at which entries, beats, notes, silences and rhythmic emphases are introduced are largely at the discretion of the musician. Timing in music has little to do with the movements of clocks, Earth or the stars.

The heavenly bodies routinely change their positions in solemn stillness. The powerful tides of the oceans sneak up on continental shores quite quietly. No ear can hear the grass growing or tree leaves spreading or flower buds opening . But among humans the sources of initiative are so many and their possible actions so various and unpredictable that if some orderly-minded authority does not regulate the timing of people’s interactions with each other, an orderly society is next to impossible.

The ringing of a bell can issue an authoritative signal which warns people that some activity should now begin or cease. When the bell on our alarm clock goes off, we are being told that it is time to get up. The doorbell calls us to open the door. When a train is approaching a railway crossing and a warning bell starts dinging, people are thereby ordered to stop until the train has passed. The insistent ringing of our telephone compels us to stop doing whatever we were doing and listen to the caller. The whack of a magistrate’s gavel calls for order in the court. Likewise when the orchestral conductor’s baton raps the music stand, that substitute for a bell not only ends the musicians’ chatter and tuning-up sounds, but constitutes them as an orchestra subject to the directions of the conductor.

July 19, 1932

Mother has a little “hedge” of plants between our garden and the driveway. This morning when I was watering them with the hose, I noticed that the flowers on one kind of plant were all folded up. Were they dying because of the hot dry weather? When I asked Mother about this she just laughed. “Oh, those are my four-o’clocks. About four o’clock this afternoon they will all open up.” Sure enough! By four o’clock the little hedge was displaying open red flowers. So some flowers can tell the time!

August 16, 1932

After supper Mrs. Moore came over and told us that the MacAulays’ century plant was going to bloom tonight. After dark Mother and I walked over to MacAulays’ to see an event I might never have a chance to see again. Neighbors were standing around on the lawn and the porch. As we came up the walk, “It’s blooming all right,” they told us.

Inside the house we were shown into the dining room. High over people’s heads I could see a stalk that reached right to the ceiling and even bent over up there. Clumps of flowers were hanging from it like little white bells. The bay window was almost filled with the big plant. Its blue-green, spiny-edged swords pointed about three feet in all directions out of a wooden half-barrel.

Mrs. MacAulay told Mother that she had had the huge plant for twelve years. Mother said she wouldn’t have room for a plant of that size nor would she have the patience to wait that long for it to bloom. I asked Mrs. MacAulay why the century plant had decided to bloom tonight rather than some other night. She just shook her head and shrugged.

No bell gave a signal to the century plant that it was time to bloom. But bloom it did! The opening of Mother’s four o’clocks was likely triggered by the change to afternoon light conditions. Seasonal changes in the intensity of sunlight undoubtedly have something to do with the migration of geese and the flowing of maple sap. The revival of vegetation in the springtime, the hibernation of bears and other beasties in late autumn as well as many other remarkable changes in their behavior take place when some kind of “silent bell” has rung.

Yet lighting conditions in the spring are identical to those that exist in the autumn. If light levels in the fall tell the geese to go south, how come the same light conditions months later tell them it is time to go north? If it is the light level alone that sends sap down the tree to its roots and tells it to drop its leaves, how is it that the same light level in the spring sends the sap back up the tree and orders it to grow a new crop of leaves? Are all living things equipped with time-operated “on-off” toggle switches? What can explain the complexities of biological timing?

Biologists can now describe fairly well what happens in cell division. The double-spiral molecule of DNA seems to issue directives which prescribe the process by which cells are reproduced. Biologists can follow these and other biological processes once they are under way, but they still aren’t sure about how those processes get started or why they finally stop. If every cell kept multiplying and growing, like fingernails and hair … Tyrannosaurus Rex, here we come!

Biologists suggest that certain enzymes act as triggers to set off dormant processes. Others may act as inhibitors which slam on the brakes. But like the search for an ultimate cause of all causes, no end is in sight to the search for what causes triggering and inhibiting. What triggers the trigger, making it operative at a particular time instead of some other time? What nudges an inhibitor to do its job just when it does? Why does an essential ingredient enzyme that has always been present in the neighborhood decide to go active only when the need arises to set off a stalled process? What unseen hand turns the key that starts all the starters? What phantom music conductor gives the downbeat that activates the biological orchestra? What or who rings all those silent bells?

These and other questions revive my bedeviling Time Syndrome. Is Time itself capable of producing this remarkably timely timing? Behind the scenes in all of life, is Time the wizard who pushes the buttons which get things moving? Did Time wait for twelve years to ring the silent bell that ordered Mrs. MacAulay’s century plant to get busy and flower?

Time certainly compelled Mrs. MacAulay to wait for twelve years if she wished to see that century plant in bloom. No use fussing! She just had to wait, water, dust and protect her spiny houseguest, hoping that someday her care would be rewarded.

It’s like parents raising children. Moms and dads have to wait through sleep-starved nights, miscellaneous messes and endless squalling, wait through health problems, feeding troubles and discipline difficulties, wait through complicated transportation arrangements, ill-advised choices and misplaced affections, always hoping that their offspring will grow up to be people of whom they can be proud.

Raising children, however, can produce much more encouragement than a dreary unrewarded waiting through years and years for an unresponsive plant to show signs of blooming. Golden moments of idyllically blissful relationship normally happen with satisfactory frequency between parents and their children. These hopeful signs in a child make bearable the occasional unpleasant times of mere waiting. They are dearly cherished, along with her or his accomplishments, developing skills and choices which reveal advancing wisdom and appreciation of important values.

Waiting for something delightful to happen can often enhance eventual enjoyment. Anticipation can be fun: a bride-to-be waiting for detailed wedding plans to unfold; a parent waiting for a child to open a long-desired but not-expected gift; the gang waiting in darkness at a surprise party for the birthday person to appear.

But some things take so very long to come to a conclusion. No one is more conscious of the reality of time than a person who is sleepless with suffering, waiting and waiting for morning to come bringing possible relief. People who want to lose weight find that their rolls of fat burn away terribly slowly. After seven or so months of pregnancy, a woman finds that those last weeks of waiting drag on and on.

Children sometimes wish that they could do right now things that are acceptable when people have grown up. Experimenting ahead of time, they may find themselves in a predicament similar to that of kids who swipe and eat unripened green apples: they get the equivalent of a sorry stomach ache. They may choose to do what they want to do when they want to do it, but they can’t always choose the consequences. Some young people resent having to drag through the long educational process which is supposed to qualify them eventually to get a good job. They want to start their life’s work at the top of the ladder already, getting a high-paying position immediately if not sooner. Wise people wait for “the right opportunity” to open up and, while they are waiting, they work away at available, relevant and useful tasks which lean in the right direction.

November 17, 1932

During recess at school this morning I heard the bell ringing over at the Roman Catholic Church. The strokes were regular enough but they sounded very far apart and solemn. I asked Mr. Edwards why they were ringing the bell so slowly. He said that a man from that congregation had died and they were tolling the bell for his funeral. They were telling the town that they were sad because the life of a good man had come to an end.

As a social signal, the sound of a bell can mark either the beginning or the end of proceedings. In fact, the beginning of something always means that a previous state of affairs has come to an end. The sound of your alarm clock not only marks the beginning of your waking, working day – it also marks the end of your night’s slumber.

In a hockey rink when the end of the game is drawing near, the team with the lower score becomes acutely aware that they have only a few minutes left to better their standing. Time is fast running out. Pressure mounts. The other team will try to slow down the play and “run out the clock.” But eventually that fateful horn will sound and it’s “Game over!” The losers sadly shake their heads. “If only we had had a little more time.”

As people grow older, their nerves, muscles and brains usually slow down. They can’t accomplish as much in a given time as they used to. It gets harder and harder to meet deadlines. In mid-life, people have to face the fact that if they haven’t “made it” by now, they probably never will. The prospect of compulsory retirement looms ahead. Not many active years are left for them to attain their goals. They find themselves caught in a deadly countdown process. “Ask not for whom the bell tolls…”

Children welcome their birthdays with excitement. Each extra year which time brings along gives greater freedom to the young, along with fresh opportunities for achievement and success. But when each birthday starts reminding people that life’s end has come another year closer, time seems to have turned against them. Time which was once their friend becomes a turncoat guilty of unmitigated treachery, now an implacable foe, an enemy to be feared and hated. Yet for those whose bodies are wracked by chronic pain, terminal disease, helplessness or severe mental deterioration, the passing of time brings them closer to a blessed release. Even when life’s worst comes to the worst, the sound of a ringing church bell may convey a message of hope to a person of faith.