Jill’s assignment as a new reporter was to interview an old bell ringer standing next to a red kettle outside a Walmart. Her editor had told her the man has been ringing the bell every Christmas for 40 years, the last ten or so outside a Walmart.
He didn’t look like a do-gooder, Jill thought when she pulled up in her car and parked on the lot. In fact, quite the opposite. He looked like someone the money in the kettle might be able to help. But her assignment was to get the interview and write the story so she walked up and asked him if they could talk.
The man agreed as long as he could keep ringing his bell. He had no objection to her doing a story but he didn’t think there was much he had to say. His name was Clarence and said his last name was unimportant.
Since it was 10 degrees above zero that day, Jill had hoped he’d take a break and she could buy him lunch at the sandwich shop a few doors away while they talked but he wasn’t hungry. So she wrapped her scarf a little tighter around her neck and asked Clarence how he got started ringing the bell.
Was he religious? He wasn’t wearing a uniform. Clarence laughed at that idea and said religion had nothing to do with it.
He said that as a child he was always cold and hungry even though he had parents who tried very hard to make life good for him and his sisters despite their poverty.
Their house was poorly insulated and little heat came from a grate that burned coal. They lived in a rural area just outside of town. Clarence said he knew things were tough but for many years he thought everyone lived the way his family did. He didn’t feel sorry for himself as much as he did for his parents.
His father was a veteran of World War II who worked odd jobs. He had post-traumatic stress disorder before PTSD had a name. People just thought he was odd. Whenever he would be hired for full-time work, his disorder never let him hold the job for more than a month.
His mother took in laundry as much as she could but that was kind of unreliable. So the family had to make do with very little. They weren’t unhappy but joy was in short supply. Oddly enough, Clarence thought all families lived that way until he reached high school and noticed other kids didn’t have holes in their shoes.
He said that one of his tasks as a child was to fetch water from the faucet outside the house. It’s a wonder, he said, the pipe didn’t freeze because he remembers filling his bucket one day and stopping to talk to another kid and by the time he got back in the house the water was almost frozen.
He said his family rarely had meat to eat but his mother knew many different ways to cook beans. She made good biscuits as well. They didn’t starve but he was always hungry.
By Christmas, Clarence said, the family had eaten all that his mother had canned from their little garden the previous summer. There were would be only a few potatoes left in the crawl space underneath the porch and they would be turning moldy.
Christmas dinner was no different than any other dinner. Beans with hot sauce and some biscuits. A glass of cold water from outside. A pot of coffee for Mom and Dad. Milk for the kids if Dad had a part-time job at the time.
But then one year two women from a local charity brought a basket of food and small gifts to the house for Christmas. The basket was welcome and Clarence. then a boy of about 10, vowed then that when he grew up he would do everything he could to repay that kind gesture. He told himself he would help people who were as poor as his family was.
So, as Clarence told the reporter, that’s why he’s been ringing a bell every Christmas for forty-some years. Standing outside for hours, he’s been cold, wet and miserable many days but he would never stop. There are too many people today, he says, who are a lot hungrier than he was as a child.
Just before the reporter went back to her car, Clarence said poverty marks a person for life. Sometimes for the better but too often for much worse. Just watch the news or read the paper every day. Clarence does both, he said, no matter how tired he is after a long day ringing his bell.