Monday, December 1, 2008

Bell Tower

The Bell Tower


This strange and heretofore unknown event happened in the Midwestern town of Waynesburg in the mid 60s. The town had five churches, but only one of them had a bell tower. St. Cecilia’s was located at the end of a tree lined street, with carefully kept lawns, a car in every driveway, children skipping back and forth to school and the occasional dog out for a walk. It was a quiet neighborhood.

Every hour on the hour the big bell in St. Cecilia’s tower would chime: once for one o’clock, twice for two o’clock, five times for five o’clock and so on. Folks in town could set their clocks and watches by those chimes.

The granite cornerstone for the church was set in place by the pastor, Rev. Mark Lester, and other members of the congregation, in 1921. A year later the church was finished and the town celebrated its consecration.

In 1935, after a vigorous fund raising drive, the chimes were installed. A smaller version of the carillon, the chimes are a set of tuned bells (thanks to an enterprising foundry in 19th Century England that devised a way of casting them to ring a true tone). The chimes are rung by means of a keyboard of wooden handles so that melodies can be played on them.

Every Sunday morning at about 9:30 Schylar Genn, the bell ringer, would ascend the stairs up to the tower, turn on the light, sit at the keyboard, wait for the big bell to ring 10, and then begin to play hymns on the chimes. Schylar was a music teacher at the local high school. The hymns helped to signal people that the service at St. Cecilia’s was going to start soon. And Schylar was very careful to be finished with that last hymn just before the big bell chimed 11.

Brian Sims was home from college for the summer and took a job cleaning St. Cecelia’s. It was an easy job and Brian enjoyed it. He could work by himself and be done by mid afternoon every day. He was a robust youngster with a head of red hair and a twinkle in his eye. When he went to apply for the job Reverend Lester liked him right away. The Reverend was a slender, black skinned man with grayish-white hair and a genial affection for all he met. Sometimes, if the Reverend was in his office when Brian came to work, they would sit and chat for a while. Reverend Lester trusted Brian and let him have the freedom to do the work when he pleased as long as it was done by Sunday, or whenever there was a special occasion.

Well, one Wednesday afternoon Brian went up to the tower to vacuum the carpet where Schylar sat when he played the chimes. It was 4:00. The chimes started to ring the hour and Brian watched, fascinated, as the big handle was pulled down by some invisible force and snapped back up. When it did, the big bell would chime. Brian saw this with amusement and awe. Somehow a clock was connected to the mechanism that pulled the handle down. The next day he went up as soon as he could to watch this action again. This time it was 10:00. He waited with great anticipation. Until, again, the big handle mysteriously went down and snapped back up 10 times.

St. Cecilia’s bell tower had now become Brian’s obsession. On the way out that day he told Rev. Lester that he couldn’t be in on Friday but that he would come in Saturday to finish the cleaning. The Reverend agreed and Brian went home.

All next day Brian thought about it. In his imagination he could see the bell tower, the big bell, the room where Schylar sat to play the hymns, the row of wooden handles and the big one on the end creeping down and snapping back up again. He ran these images over and over again in his mind with a strange nervousness in his stomach.

He didn’t get much sleep that night. But he was up early and off to the church to finish his work. He made sure the rest rooms were clean, straightened the hymnals in their racks and vacuumed the carpet in the aisle. He was finished by 11. He heard the big bell chime. He sat down in one of the pews to rest and thought about time: 24 hours in a day, twelve and twelve, no more no less. Somehow the clock knew when to pull the handle and ring the bell, always at the right time. 11 chimes at 11:o’clock, no more no less. There was a knot in Brian’s stomach but there was a smile on his face.

Finally, he stood up, walked to the door that led to the tower and climbed the stairs. He turned on the light and checked his watch, 11:40. He sat down in Schylar’s chair and stared at the wooden handles in front of him. They were arranged in the form of a key board, the higher pitched bells had handles on the right and lower pitched bells on the left, with the big bell’s handle at the end. Above them was a music stand where Schylar would place the hymn book when he played.

11:53. Brian began to sweat. He took out a handkerchief and wiped his hands. He stood up and walked away from the handles. He thought of leaving the bell tower and almost did. But he turned back and stood away from the handles.

11:58. Brian’s nervousness was almost too much too take, but he took a deep breathe and waited.

Noon. The wooded handle crept down, snapped up and the bell tower chimed its message.

“One. Two.” Brian was counting out the chimes.

“Five. Six.” He listened carefully and watched the action of the handle as it went down and up.

“Eight. Nine.” He felt the rhythm of the chimes.

“Ten. “Eleven.” He stepped forward and stood in front of the handle.


Brian took a deep breath, reached out and took hold of the handle. He carefully pushed it down and let it snap back up. The great bell chimed once more.

He turned off the light and quickly left the bell tower. There was no one in the church as he made his way up the aisle and out the front door.

He walked casually down the street. Cars were in their driveways, children were playing on the front lawns and now and then a neighbor would wave at him. He waved back with a smile.

Monday morning Reverend Lester greeted him as usual. For a week Brian scoured the newspaper to see if there was any mention of the strange event in the bell tower. Nothing was said. The police were never called. The church received no inquisitive phone calls or letters. No one noticed.

Brian graduated from college, got married and move away from Waynesburg. He never told this story to anyone, but all his life he cherished the memory of the day the church bell rang “Thirteen.”

The End

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