About a month ago I heard a public service announcement that Salvation Army was looking for bellringers I knew it was a volunteer gig, but in my circumstance, blessed with a car and the need to “justify my flesh” in this world, I called the number. Knowing absolutely nothing about how they operate, work schedules, etc., I explained to “Dave” at the other end that I was not working anywhere full-time, I had the time, and I’d gladly go wherever I could help. He explained volunteers work two-hours per assignment, just show up, put on the blue identifyer and ring. He asked if I could ring at Schnuck’s on Montvale Drive on the next Thursday at 3, and I said “sure..”
I knew it would be a mad dash if I had to sub teach that day, but as long as a subbed at a school with 2:30 dismissal, I’d be fine, and if called, I would ask for an assignment that ended then. My concern was for naught. This last pay period of 2007 generated exactly ONE day of subbing, and there were no calls to sub that final, pre-vacation week. merry yadayada
The assignment was a plum: inside the sheltered and heated cart area at the front of the store. The kettle was to the left of the entrance into the store proper, warm, dry and out of the wind. The fellow bell ringer I encountered at 2:55 was a 20-year veteran of what I call “The Ring.” His winter coat sleeve displayed patches, sewn like sergeants’ stripes that testified to his commitment. He said he was originally from Milwaukee, but he had moved to Springfield a few years ago for the warmer weather. He was cheerful, and really into the season. One of the first questions he asked was “Do you have a car for getting to places?” I replied I did, and he seemed impressed. He also stated that some of the Salvation Army staff and bell ringers had met that morning and talked about me. He was the ONLY ONE who knew how to pronounce my first name! WOW! Cheerful AND hep! I was told the kettle action begins the day after Thanksgiving and ceases at 3 p on Christmas Eve. When the van came by at 3:00 to pick up his kettle and install a fresh one for my round, he explained he was going to Target, riding with the van driver, for the next two hours, but would return to Schnuck’s a little after 5:00.
I could not have asked for a better place for a first encounter with The Ring. I had dressed to suggest I was not a refugee from the soup kitchen, though I sometimes feel closer to that world than the world in which I strive to survive. It was important to me, going in, to let people know that people of good will, of many “stripes” are behind the bell ringing effort. The unspoken message I wanted to convey, that I convey ihere at H&Q, is that two hours of bell ringing, for a few days between Thanksgiving and Christmas is a good way to give back to our community. When I had Thanksgiving dinner with friends, we were visited by a mutual friend who had helped dish out a feast at Washington Street Mission before coming over to say “hi” and chat for awhile. That encounter planted the seed that led to my volunteering for Salvation Army.
Earlier concern that people I knew would recognize me and think I was living at Salvation Army disappeared the minute I picked up the bell. Without my long full beard (recently trimmed to a more status-quo-ish van Dyke), in decent clothes topped by my leather bomber jacket and freshly shampooed hair, I hoped I looked as GIVING in my mode as I hoped the passers by would be, and that’s how things worked out. I did encounter SEVERAL people I knew, including a member of the Sierra Club, a former employer and others. Pardon my vanity, but I sense some people gave because they recognized me, and if they did, that’s terrific. I was impressed wtih the smiling faces and frequent giving. The bell was in constant motion from 3 to about 5:05 and not in tinkle mode, in CLARION CALL mode. I wanted people entering the store to KNOW Salvation Army was there. The only time I stopped was the several occasions I saw young mothers with baby’s in car seats, snug in blankets and paybe sleeping. I didn’t want to wake them, and there wee consistent smiles from passing parents as they came and went. It was obvious, from 3 to 5, that people were in GO MODE at Schnuck’s. Most were passing by engaged in a necessary brief encounter with food shopping because they were concerned not so much with Schnuck’s or Sallvation Army kettle, as they were focused on what waited beyond . . . . . and as Donovan sang in his hit “Mellow Yellow,” . . . . “quite rightly!” Still there were smiles a plenty. I learned later that people who shop at Schnuck’s are some of the most generous givers in this city.
KUDOS to SCHNUCK’S management for letting Sanvation Army set u p the kettle at that central, confortable location at the Montvale store.
When I arrived home, my first task was to e Illinois Times editor extraordinare Roland, and ask if he could use a story about Salvation Army bell ringers. If yes, I was confident I could interview Dave and others for a decent story. The answer was “no, thanks. Content for the last issue before Christmas was already scheduled.”
“No prob;” I responded. “Maybe I can ask earlier in 08 and contribute something then. Merry Christmas Roland and IT.”
I heard nothing from Savation Army in the week that followed. I wondered if I had been “fired” because of how I had engaged the people. Occasionally, I DID wish folks a “Merry Everything,” and Happy Holidays,” and “Happy Happy” and “Happy Birthday Celebration,” but nostly, “Merry Christmas.” When I heard the SA phone number during another PSA, I called them, explained I hadn’t heard from them since the first experience at Shnuck’s, and that with the week of no school, I was ready to help again.
The call came last Thursday. Would I help from 9 to 11 am at JC Penney? YES, it will be great to be a part of Christmas eve there. BTW, I had tried to generate an article for IT and would be describing my experience at my blog. Was that a problem for Salvation Army? “No,” he responded. “We appreciate every mention people care to share regarding what we do.”
Monday dawned clear and crisp, perfect weather for the day. I arrived on time, again dressed “in holiday style” ready to ring my “brass-colored bell.” It was Christmas time in the city.
I was wearing a sweater knitted by my dear sister Dorothy about 10 years ago and sent to me as the last Christmas present she would send my way. The year after, my Yule-tide phone encounter was NOT in the spirit of the season, but I was proud to wear the sweater in happy testament to her at her best. If there is a Shymansky or friend of same reading these words, please tell Dot she is still number one in my book of good people. I had brought my long leather coat, but after half an hour of ringing I stashed it in my nearby car.
It was a different two hours. Out in the open, but facing the sun, shading my eyes from the glare by partially dodging behind the Salvation Army kettle sign, I was fign — or fine if you prefer. Peopkle were NOT in a rush. Again, I was recognized gladly by many, including Orpheum Theater historian, a friend of my brother Bill and others. Joanne Paul, child bride of John Paul, Prairie Archives owner, came by and contributed to the kettle. An acquaintance I had met at a party last summer lit up like a Christmas tree when she recognized me; called me “The Vachel Lindsay Guy.” I was delighted. And so on. Again, my bell was in constant motion, and this day I found a natural rhythm to it. I was outside and comfortable, there was no holding back except for babes in car seats. There was a much greater ethnic diversity here, and everyone gave generously; as well or better than at Schnuck’s. The two hours passed faster too.
My replacement was a former UPS driver who remembered me, my writing and my aviation from when he delivered to my former west side home. I was amazed. That was more than 10 years ago. We had a terrific chat. He had arrived about 10:40, surprised and delighted to find someone ringing the bell. He said most days, no one had arrived until 11. He also said Salvation Army has a hard time getting volunteers for bell ringing.
I stop this saga so that I may invite you to go back one sentence, and read it again.
I told him I was happy to ring, as promised until 11 sharp if he was okay with that, and he was. At the stroke of high noon Eastern Standard Time, he girded himself in the Salvation Army garb I had surrendered to him, and following a nice visit with the kettle-changing fellow, arrived right on time in his van, I departed. . . . .
. . . . . .To the interior of JCP where I made a small payment on my charge account bill and bought myself a Christmas present; paid for with a check: a three-pack of their finest “Gold Toe” socks, $16.38. MERRY CHRISTMAS!
Now I’m back in the Honey & Quinine “saddle” and absolutely glad to be. I hope your Christmas was good for you. Thanks for reading this post.
Live long . . . . . . and volunteer to be a Salvation Army bell ringer in 2008. It made my season, and I bet it will make yours as well.