The year was 1964, and the day had begun like most other days at my Catholic school. But the next thing I knew, we were all standing and filing out the door, row by row. I’m sure I had no idea where we were going, but it was the fourth grade and I had learned by then that if I just kept quiet and followed the person in front of me, I’d end up where I was supposed to be. Whispering “Hey, what’s going on?” in those kinds of situations was a good way to get yourself whacked across the back of the calves. When a nun rang that big hand bell, it meant you had to get in line and start moving if you knew what was good for you. Even now, nearly fifty years later, the slightest clanking sound causes my entire skeletal system to lock up like an umbrella in a windstorm.
We walked in silence down the stairs, across the driveway, and into the building we called the Church Hall. Sometimes Mass was held in the basement, with the congregation seated on metal folding chairs. Basketball backboards hung from the ceiling, a sight I never quite figured out and couldn’t resist staring at when I should have been paying attention to the service. Still more incongruous, as I eventually realized, was the fact that we had assembled on this particular day to watch a movie. I no longer recall the reason for the unexpected entertainment, but I remember buying Milk Duds for ten cents and eating them right there in the Church Hall. To hold a box of candy out in the open in a religious setting, during a school day and without fear of confiscation or physical pain, was almost impossible to believe; it was like going to a funeral, starting a water balloon fight, and having the grieving widow thank you for coming.
The film was The Bells of St. Mary’s, starring Bing Crosby as the crooning priest with a voice like Butter Rum Lifesavers, and Ingrid Bergman as a nun who smiles and speaks softly, even when she discovers she has tuberculosis. Both characters were like science fiction to me. The priest at our church was two hundred years old, and sang as though his throat were encased in concrete. And most of the nuns would have preferred to immerse themselves in vats of acid rather than be seen as cheerful; a few, we suspected, were involved in organized crime.
For a movie made in 1945, The Bells of St. Mary’s wasn’t completely unbearable, and I could probably get through it today. That’s unusual, because most films released prior to the 1970s make me wish I were trapped in a mine shaft. But parts of it did find me squirming in my metal folding chair. I didn’t have a problem with the storyline, or the way the characters kept breaking out into a Latin hymn.
It was those bells.
As a child, I was ambivalent about bells in general. Our next-door neighbors used to ring one when they wanted their kids to come home for dinner. It could be heard ten blocks away, and reminded me of a whistle the prison warden might blow when it was time for the inmates to go back to their cells.
Santa Claus had a bell, too, and my first encounter with him didn’t go well. Deprived of any kind of preparation, I was nudged onto the lap of this huge bearded man dressed entirely in red. I cried through the whole experience, and briefly considered converting to Judaism when I was five.
Fire drills were another source of anxiety. The bell would ring without warning, and we were to leap into action, lining up in single file. In fact, everything we did at that school involved lining up in single file. And silence. Talking during a fire drill, even outside, was punishable by death. So, too, was any conversation when the air raid alarm sounded. Unlike the fires that never happened, the nuclear attacks that took place only in our nightmares required us to huddle under the desks with our eyes and mouths shut. If we were going to be vaporized by an atomic blast, we were going to do it quietly.
When the doorbell rang at home, it was often someone trying to sell us a set of encyclopedias, or makeup, or loaves of bread. Sometimes my mother would peek through the curtains and say, under her breath, “It’s the Fuller Brush man!” This was a signal that I should not open the door, so we could avoid buying unwanted mops or pot holders or hairbrushes made with only the finest natural boar’s bristles.
Later in life, bells would take on roles of increasing torment: alarm clocks, telephones, that shrill tone that told us it was time for Chemistry class. And then there was the bell at the carnival, the one we were supposed to somehow hit using nothing more than a big wooden mallet. All have added to the aversion, so that now whenever I see a sign that says, “Ring bell for service,” I never do. I shuffle around, jingle my keys, or pretend to drop something. But I don’t touch the bell.
The only welcome ringing came from the ice cream truck that cruised the neighborhood on summer days. It was a sound that penetrated solid walls, and we could detect it even with vacuum cleaners, blenders, and power tools blaring in our ears. Those bells were, to children, what a high-pitched whistle was to dogs. We were drawn to them, helpless to resist. On scorching afternoons, when the tar was melting in the street, that truck, with its six-inch-thick freezer doors, delivered happiness in exchange for a handful of nickels.
I haven’t seen an ice cream man in years. Santa doesn’t scare me anymore. The phone rarely rings. Bing and Ingrid are long gone, and the Fuller Brush man is no doubt taking orders online. The only bell I still worry about is the one right outside the front door, especially on a day like this, when hordes of strange-looking kids will appear with bloody faces and outstretched bags. And I’ll comply, because I understand the excitement, the novelty – the sheer exhilaration — of getting candy by simply asking for it. Nothing could be better. Nothing, except maybe eating Milk Duds and watching a movie with my friends in the basement of the Church Hall.