It's been raining furiously here the past few days, including buckets of hail...a perfect excuse for staying indoors and killing time with a good book. Or a good blog....
The current quotation in the Wayside Pulpit on the town green in front of the FRS Meetinghouse is a Danish Proverb: "A good example is like a bell that calls many to church." For five years now, first on Nantucket and now here in Carlisle, I've slept beneath a church bell that rings the hour all through the night. It never wakes me, nor keeps me awake...although it does sometimes remind me that I've stayed up reading well past my bedtime, or (more often) that even though I'm already awake I'm free to linger in bed for another hour before I need to get up and begin a new day.
On Nantucket, the clock was linked by GPS to the Royal Navel Observatory in Greenwich, England...which meant that it was accurate to within a thousandth of a second (or some absurdly small number). And beneath my bedroom window on Fair Street was the Meridian Line which Mariah Mitchell's father used to "true" the compasses of the Nantucket Whalers before they weighed anchor on their three-year voyages to the South Seas. So I always pretty much knew exactly where and when I was in the Universe. Or at least which way was "up."
Here in Carlisle, we do things the old fashioned way...with a mechanical clock, as well as a fire horn that sounds each day at noon -- sometimes (although not often) even as the bell is tolling. Of course, if we were truly "old school" we would simply wait until the sun was directly overhead and "make it noon." But the invention of Standard Time (in the 19th century) and Daylight Savings Time (in the 20th) pretty much put an end to that practice once and for all. Except, of course, at sea, where (at least until the widespread availability of GPS) the noon observation was the critical datapoint in determining one's latitude and longitude.
The Nantucket church bell was cast in Portugal and hidden from the British during the War of 1812 so that it wouldn't be stolen and melted down into...well, something martial. In addition to striking the hour, it also rings 52 times at 7 am, 12 noon, and 9 pm. These 52 rings (colloquially known On Island as "the fifty-twos") last precisely 3 minutes, and are also controlled by a computer chip, although originally 52 rings was simply a convenient way of measuring three minutes, and were intended to let Islanders know a) when it was time to get up, b) when it was time to break for lunch, and c) when it was time to go home to bed. Kids who grew up (or even "summered") on the island a generation ago often speak of how the tolling of the bell signaled their evening curfew...when they first heard it strike they basically had three minutes (or until the bell stopped tolling) to be home and under the watchful eyes of their parents again.
I don't really know that much about the history of the Carlisle bell, except that (as on Nantucket) the bell belongs to the church but the clock belongs to the town...a marriage of convenience between church and state, which in some ways mirrors our joint stewardship of the town common. When I first arrived here I initiated (or perhaps re-established) the practice of inviting children from the congregation to ring the bell before church on Sundays to signal the start of our 10:30 service. This was one of three small "innovations" I made to the service early in my tenure here (the other two being a 90 second "peace" greeting following the announcements, and eliminating the practice of announcing the titles or topics of my sermons in advance) and the only one which has survived the notoriously stiff-necked, hide-bound conservatism of long-established New England small town small church traditionalism (since the kids do love it so).
Another thing I've learned is that there are basically two ways to ring a bell: you can strike it, or you can swing it. When the town clock chimes the hour, it basically strikes the outside of the stationary bell with a mechanical hammer -- one strike for every sound. But when the kids ring the bell to summon people to church (or rather, to let them know that they are late) they pull on a bellrope which moves the bell and causes the suspended clapper to strike against the inside of the bell. One thing you NEVER want to do is both of these things at the same time, since allowing the mechanical hammer to attempt to strike a moving bell is definitely NOT a good idea. Just a little safety tip, in case you ever find yourself in that position.
When I first started writing this post (yesterday morning), I had intended to continue my little rumination regarding the respective qualities of the church and the military as institutions of social advancement and social control. But naturally, tempus fugit (or perhaps I should say, tempest fugit), and now I find I have more pressing demands on my time. So I guess if you really want to see what I have to say on that subject you may have to wait another day. Or two. Or maybe three.... Ask not for whom the bell tolls my friends. It tolls for us all....