In some ways, the Night Before the Fourth was the big event. The holiday itself was more quietly observed with sedate patriotic exercises, the short and hurried parade to the site of the annual merchants' picnic, and a baseball game enlivened by two "ringer" pitchers from the Red Sox and the Braves. They were having a big-league day off and would be paid $100 and train fare, each, to be Jones and Smith for our town and our rivals. One year, our rivals employed a left-handed incognito, and when Levi Patterson said to Elmer Porter, who was full of clambake, too, "That's Ruth!" Elmer replied, "Ruth who?"
Curiously, the glorious Night Before the Fourth in our town became something of a religious conviviality that detracted from the purely patriotic purposes intended by the free-thinking founders. This was because the Congregationalists were liberal but the Baptists frowned on bell ringing. In short, the "Congo" folks allowed us boys to ring their steeple bell all we wished, and left the church open so we could get up to the belfry. The Baptists locked the church and provided a watchman (janitor Rideout), who was instructed to keep those mischievous boys from banging that bell all night, as it kept folks awake and was hard on the bell. Mr. Rideout was, you may surmise, our major concern on the night of every July Third.
The Night Before the Fourth was even more so than Halloween, when we did goblin duty with doorbells and urns foolishly left on front stoops and sometimes dismantled hayracks that went up on the parsonage roof, silently. Lacking funds, we did little with store-bought firecrackers that would lift an adjacent citizen out of a sound sleep at 2 a.m. But 10 cents' worth of carbide (for bicycle lamps) from the hardware store could simulate a World War II blockbuster before its time. What we did best, though, was ring the church bells.
(We did not ring the town fire bell, which was available. We understood it was to be used only for fires, and nothing was on fire, yet.)
Our two churches were about a mile apart, on opposite sides of town. So we'd ring the Congo bell awhile and then go to see if we could figure out how to get in and ring the Baptist one. We always did.
One year, we hove the Baptist bell rope off the belfry, outside, so it dangled on the church lawn, and while Mr. Rideout was wondering, inside locked doors, we had the bell "rolling over." Those bells were hung on wheels and would revolve all the way around.
The happy consequence of this effort was that Baptist boys and Congregational boys met on subdued but equal spiritual footing and rang together in accord. We did not pass the Night Before the Fourth in hefty argument about doctrine. You go to your church and I'll go to mine, but tonight let's ring together. Side by side, Baptist and Congregationalist, we labored and wrought together without discord or dissent, for the moment entwined in brotherly love and affection.
I used to wonder if poet Longfellow ever rang church bells the Night Before the Fourth, as we did. In "Paul Revere's Ride," he wrote of "the highest window in the wall." Our steeples had a belfry and then a spire, but no windows. The ladder, "steep and tall," is all right, and then Longfellow loses me. Our Congo ladder went right up from the front of the church into a trap, or scuttle, that was pushed upward and open by the head of anybody coming up.
The church bellman, who rang for church functions, went up and in and closed the trap, so the ungainly postures assumed as he toiled would not cause undignified hilarity among the pious parishioners who might gaze through the scuttle as they passed to devotions. The belfry was open on all four sides so the full-throated bell would sound in all directions. Some church bells were rung from below, the bell rope through a hole, but at our Congo minaret the bellman had to be up there with the bell. (The Baptists had a longer rope and a shorter ladder.)
Poetically, however, I must admit that Longfellow was dealing with Boston's Old North Church, far bigger than our wee, small-town church up in unsophisticated Maine. Did errant boys ring the bell of the Old North Church on the Night Before the Fourth? Was it a Paul Revere bell? Schools do seem to teach unimportant things.
ONE year, we boys were manfully stroking the Congo bell, two at the wheel and the others lolling back until our turns, and the trapdoor was pushed up and Lillian-May scrambled up to join us. It was the first intrusion into our chauvinist privileges. No girl would ever come up that ladder, steep and tall! A girl wouldn't even be out at that hour, even to celebrate the birth of freedom, liberty, and equal rights. Lillian-May was a tomboy, and she said, "Hi, men, you need a hand?" Of course we didn't need any hand. But I think Lilly-May rang with us after that, right up to the time I didn't turn out anymore, and probably until she married Hokey-bloke Winslow.
The clapper of the Congo bell was hung inside the bell, and fell to make each bong as the bell turned. But off to one side was another kind of clapper that was used for tolling, the muted, less jubilant sound of mourning. Tolling was also used on Sunday mornings after the lively pealing that meant Sunday services. It was done sedately and at somewhat lengthy intervals as worshipers arrived. When tolling ceased, it was time for worship. And we boys, naturally, tolled 10 times when we were finished with ringing for the Night Before. It came to be the custom for Lilly-May to toll.