The Bells of St. Monrovia


I am at my wit’s end. Am I going nuts or having auditory hallucinations? Nope, they are real…I’m hearing bells. And I hear them EVERY MORNING…EVERY HOUR! The church around the corner has gone back to a time when ringing bells on the hour was a public service and it has become the bane of my existence.

I frequently work late into the early morning hours and wake up on my own at about 10:00 am. If I’m working on music I do so with headphones in deference to my neighbors sleep/work schedules. Up to now I have had no problems getting my 5-7 hours of sleep with only an occasional leafblower rattling me into premature consciousness. But about two weeks ago someone must have donated a new speaker system to that damned church and by god they are using it. I mean, it’s not as if the villagers are huddled around the tower wondering what time it is. Even the neighborhood dogs have mobile phones for chrissakes.

And so, every hour on the hour I’m treated to that obnoxious Big Ben “Ding Dong Ding Dong…Ding Dong Ding Dong. Then, after a slight pause during which I almost slip back into dreamland, the infernal tower peals the hours…Doong…Doong…Doong and whatever I might have been dreaming is lost forever. Why can’t they be good neighbors like me and go the headphone route? They could put a listening kiosk on their property and any of the congregation desirous of bells for breakfast could go there and listen to those odious out of tune bastards on a voluntary basis.

Well, I was considering taking action but decided to do some research into the history of the offending party. I found little at the public library and was stonewalled by the church’s own archivist but one evening, while commiserating over a beer at the local bar I was approached by an old-timer named Nils Percheron who noticed that I was muttering “goddamned bells” repeatedly into my beer glass. He tapped me on the shoulder, looked both directions as if we were being watched and said, “Are you the guy digging into the old bell story?” I wondered what there was to be so secretive about and nodded. He led me to a booth at the back of the bar and told me the full story. As it turns out, the story of the bells is full of small town intrigue, civic shame and resulted in a cover-up second only to Watergate. This is the story as Nils Percheron told it to me.

The scene of the crime

The scene of the crime

“One day, years ago back in the days of real bells, the bell ringing rope had been inexplicably removed under suspicious circumstances. The town bell ringer was thus unemployed and his position quietly passed unnoticed from the public eye (and ear). When the old minister passed to his just reward a young new minister came to the post hell bent on reform. One of his first actions was to restore the hourly bells to his clock-less congregation. An ad was placed and candidates for the bell-ringing job were interviewed, hired and, one by one, fired for various reasons. The first for mere tardiness, another for drinking on the job and a third for using the bell tower as a midnight trysting place…which would have gone undetected had the shrubbery at the base of the tower not been upholstered with the choir director’s wife’s undergarments one Christmas morning. And so the bells were silent once again.

At this time, Monrovia was becoming known for its yearly crop of excellent walnuts and no walnuts were as good as those coming from Joe Sr.’s Walnut Grove just outside the eastern city limit. Joe Sr’s secret was that he left the walnuts on the trees about a week longer than most growers and his harvesting method was unique. Joe Sr. had twin sons who were born with the defect of having no arms. Joe Sr., not being one to dwell on misfortune, raised Joe Jr. and JoJo to work on the farm despite their shortage of upper limbs and they became locally celebrated as the “Nut-Knocker Twins.” Every season from the time they were old enough to stand on a ladder, Joe Jr. and JoJo would go up the ladder at precisely 7:00 am and knock the nuts out of the trees with their foreheads which, after years of nut knocking, had acquired an inch thick layer of muscle and callous.

The third silence of the bells occurred just at nut-knocking season and, as there was no clock at Joe Sr.’s farm to call the twins to their post, the crop was almost lost. Joe Sr. was not a religious man and the loss of good timing caused him to curse the clock tower in a way that led the armless Joe Jr. to take matters into his own hands. Joe Jr. went to the church and applied for the job of bell-ringer. The new minister, happy to have an applicant but new to the town and unaware of the locally famous “Nut-Knocker Twins,” did not let Joe’s apparent lack of tools with which to ring the bells go unnoticed. “But my son,” he asked, “How do you intend to ring the bells?” “Aw jesus Reverend…no disrespect intended,” Joe Jr. answered. “just let me at those babies and I’ll show you!”

And so the young minister led Joe Jr. up the rickety staircase to the landing at the top of the bell tower. Joe Jr. took a stance on the window ledge and, balanced on his right leg, gave the enormous bell a push with his left and braced himself. As the bell rebounded, he struck it with his muscular forehead and the bell responded, pealing over the valley for the first time in some months. The young minister looked on amazed as Joe Jr. repeated the exercise. Unfortunately, on the fourth rebound, Joe Jr. who was a natural showoff, pushed a bit harder than he should have and the rebounding bell followed through. Joe Jr. shot through the arched window, cleared the shrubs, and landed on the street below.

By the time the young minister reached the bloody stain formerly known as Joe Jr., rescue workers had arrived at the scene. Seeing the minister praying over the unrecognizable Nut-Knocker, the emergency doctor asked him, “Reverend, do you know this man?” To which the young minister answered, “No, not really, but his face rings a bell.”

“Okay, okay, wait…there’s more.” Nils sputtered under a lager shower. So I helped him wipe what was left of my beer from his greasy hair and he went on… “When Joe Jr. failed to come home that day, the family put two and two together and correctly surmised that the carcass hauled away from the vicinity of the bell tower was in fact one of their own. Now The remaining 50% of the Nut-Knocker Twins was not a member of the faith but burdened with a fierce sense of family honor led JoJo straight to the church to redeem the family name.

The young minister, guilt-ridden by his part in the previous day’s occurrence was visibly shaken at the sight of what he took to be the dead Nut-Knocker standing in the entry of the churchyard. Finding that this was indeed Joe Jr.’s twin brought only temporary relief as now he was certain to be found out and punished “on earth as in heaven” so to speak. Mincing no words and citing family honor as his motive, JoJo demanded that he be allowed to resume his brother’s post. Once again the young minister found himself leading an armless man up the treacherous stairs to the belfry. JoJo took his post and, after saying a few words about vindicating his failed brother’s name, spat into his palms, rubbed them together and set to work.” I shot a glance at Nils and he admitted that the last part was strictly figurative…but that’s what he would have done if he had hands to spit into.

“Well,” he continued, “old JoJo took his perch on the window ledge as his brother had done the previous day, cocked back his well developed forehead and set those bells to ringing. The minister thought his troubles were over and JoJo celebrated by taking a triumphant stance just as the bell came back around from it’s last swing. As if in slow motion, JoJo was catapulted through the open window, landing with a melon-like crunch inches away from the spot last occupied by his own brother. The young minister found himself praying over his second unrecognizable lump of former Nut-Knocker as the ambulance arrived. “Reverend” the doctor asked, “do you know THIS man?” And, choosing his words carefully to elide suspicion, the minister replied, “No, but he is a dead ringer for his brother.”

Well, alright, I admit it. It’s a horrible joke! But hell, with these goddamned bells dragging me out of bed before I’m ready this is just the kind of crap that has to be let out to dry. And the worst thing is that, even if I lay down for a nap, I know that just as I start catching that really good deep sleep, fifty-nine minutes will have elapsed and the nightmarish din will start up again. My nerves are shot.

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