September 2, 2012

Bells heard less these days


---- — What’s blue and goes ding-dong? Answer: An Avon lady at the North Pole. That’s the kind of joke you hear from your kids. What do you get when you cross a church bell with a bumblebee? Answer: A humdinger. So much for the juvenile humor. 

My friend Les Bradford and I got to talking recently about bells. When we were young, there were bells everywhere. Not so much these days.

We have the handheld bell my wife Kaye’s mother used to call her students in to her one-room school. I saw an old dinner bell on top of a house while I was doing a recent farm interview in Champlain.

When it was time for a fire drill at our schools, a loud bell rang and we reacted instantly. Nowadays, you might hear a totally different kind of alert sound. Les said he was shopping and suddenly a buzzing sound filled the air. He asked a clerk what it was. 

“Oh, that’s just a fire alarm,” she said, shrugging her shoulders. “We get them all the time. Just don’t pay any attention to it.”

He’s a safety nut and always makes sure the emergency exits are well-marked and accessible. He once asked the desk clerk at a hotel what the fire alarm sounded like in case it went off during the night. 

“I have no idea,” answered the man. “But you’ll know it when you hear it.”

We have heard fire alarms in hotels and motels. We have rushed outside, only to look back and see families gawking out of their windows to watch the fire trucks approach. That happened to Kaye and me at a multi-story motel in another state. Let’s say there were 300 guests that night. When the loud buzzer sounded, we rushed outside and waited. Only about 10 others joined us in the parking lot. We were aghast to see people hanging out of top floor windows hoping to see something exciting. Indeed. One young man in our group hollered up to the woman in the window: “OK, lady, you can jump now!”

Bells were once a kind of universal alert sound. Fire bells, school bells, door bells, church bells, nautical bells, railroad bells, telephone bells — they all have their place in our memories. But that has changed. Cell phones rarely ring any more. They play songs.

When we moved into our house, the heavy wooden front door had a built-in metal handle that you turned from the outside. It caused a large bell to ring on the inside of the door that could be heard anywhere in the building.

My 18th-century grandfather clock has a 5-inch bell, and when it sounds the hour, you know what time it is in any of our six bedrooms.

Kaye and I have enjoyed U.S. and foreign church bells in many places. I’ve never heard Big Ben in person, but I’d love to. It weighs 13 tons. The Mingun Bell in Burma is said to be the biggest ringing bell in the world, weighing 90.5 metric tons, or almost 200,000 pounds. The next largest is the Great Bell of Kyoto in Japan at 74 tons. Then, there’s the “Savoyard” in Paris, which is said to produce a gong nine minutes in duration that can be heard 30 miles away.

The most famous for me is the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia. Because of its cracks, it hasn’t been rung since 1846.

One of my most poignant childhood memories is my Protestant preacher father describing the famous 19th century painting “The Angelus.” He explained that the man and woman working in the field are pausing to say three “Hail Marys” when the evening Angelus bell sounds on the Catholic Church.

My friend Jack Glasgow recalls being on the Cornell Campus on Nov. 23, 1963, when the 21 bells in the famous McGraw Tower tolled for JFK on the day of his assassination.

How many songs about bells can you remember? “The Three Bells” by the Browns is one of my favorites. I’ve been called a ding-a-ling, a ding bat, a ding-dong and even a dingus; but if you ring a dinner bell, I’ll come running.

Be a bellwether like the sheep with a bell around its neck who leads the flock. Have a fine holiday and please, drive carefully.

Gordie Little was for many years a well-known radio personality in the North Country and now hosts the “Our Little Corner” television program for Home Town Cable. Anyone with comments for him may send them to the newspaper or email him at