Liberty Bell

During my patriotic boyhood, there was a salient difference in doctrinal philosophy between the Baptists and Congregationalists, and it probably has never been recognized by students of schisms. On the night before the Glorious Fourth, the Baptists locked their edifice securely and posted Mr. Herman Damon on guard, denying us boys the pursuit of happiness as well as the ceremonial exercise of ringing the big bell in the steeple. This led to some improvisation by certain patriotic infidels that was never necessary with those embracing the Congregational credenda.

The Congregational deacons left their church-open, and kept a light burning by the wooden ladder steep and tall, so we could go in there and ring all we wanted. The two churches were at opposite ends of the village, so the Night Before the Fourth was usually announced more vigorously in that with the open door, policy, but not always.

Some older chaps (two-three were respectable businessmen) recognized something to reject in the Baptist attitude, and tricked Mr. Damon into the pastor's study one time. They pounded on the outside wall with a board, and when Mr. Damon came to investigate they shot a bolt and trapped him. Then they rang the bell for an hour or so. Another time, somebody sneaked the bell rope out a steeple window so the ringing could be done from the churches lawn. Mr. Damon went up into the loft and was heard to deplore this deceit, but the rope was coming and going with such vigor, being in time with the rocking of the great bell, that he didn't touch the thing.

The Congregationalists had the better bell. It was hung on a wheel, so it could be rolled over. For patriotic observances on the Night Before, the rope was disengaged from the wheel, and then a half dozen good mucklers would get the thing turning like a dervish and the clapper would make a mighty contact with each revolution. Momentum took over, and after that one or two hands could keep the bell clanging all night. The Baptist bell wouldn't roll over but had to come again after each bong. But such is the particularity of patriotic communicants that it was always more fun to clang the Baptists' if it could be arranged, and the two or three up in the Congo belfry were outnumbered by fervent legions of scheming celebrators who were trying to think up some way to excommunicate Mr. Damon.

We had two other bells in town, one in the high school tower and one on the hose house. The high school bell was smaller and didn't draw much trade, and the fire bell was a no-no. It was protected, anyway, by a half dozen volunteers who sat out the Night Before playing hearts in anticipation that somebody's poorly aimed skyrocket would start a shingle or two. Once in a while such would happen, at which the bell would ring and the engines would roll. If that happened, we kept the bell going until the fire was out. One year Poogy Bowman, the fire chief, tanked me personally for doing so. Somebody else said, "Whazzamatter with kids who 'druther ring a bell 'n go to a fire?"

It was a fair question, but on the Night Before the Fourth the bells had to be rung.

When the new high school was built, the old one became a warehouse for one of the factories. The new proprietor tried to apply the Baptist dogma, but that only made his bell more important and somebody usually found some way to get in and ring. After a couple of Fourths, he disengaged the clapper, and you might suppose this would end patriotic invasions of his entrepotm . Not at all. About midnight the bell began to ring.

It was not a good ring. It was flat and weak, but it was recognized throughout the land as a proclamation of Liberty. The boys had tied a cast-iron window weight to the clapper clevis, and while it struck with desultory effect, it nevertheless struck. The proprietor gave up at that, and reinstalled the clapper. The next year he came up and pulled the rope with us a time, and served cookies and cocoa in the former physics lab.

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