September 2, 2012

Bells heard less these days


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.

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