The Alert

In the 1930’s and 40’s before most of us could afford electricity in my neighborhood, only three families had telephones. So, in addition to the usual channels for gossip, we also developed a community-wide system to alert the neighborhood when a family was in peril or pain. 

Regardless of the time of day, the first person to observe a house afire was urged to make noise – yelling, firing whatever weapon was available, shooting firecrackers, or most often, banging together anything metal – washtubs, pots, pans or skillets. Neighbors repeated the noise in a directional pattern from the burning house to the church. One neighborhood telephone was in the home of Mr. Charlie and Mrs. Mozena King, who lived directly across the street from the church. When she heard the commotion during the day she rushed to the church and steadily rang the church bell, summoning all available hands to rush to the noise in a direction from the church to the scene of disaster. While she acted, her daughter lifted the separate ear piece of the telephone, waited for the operator to ask, “Number please,” and in the separate cone shaped mouthpiece, she summoned the fire department. 

At night it was Mr. Charlie’s job to ring the bell, and the flame that illuminated the sky most often served as the beacon of the calamity. Those neighbors who didn’t rush to the scene remained at home, but not uninvolved. They immediately gathered clothes and made sleeping pallets for the dispossessed and new homeless. Everybody’s home became anybody’s home.

We had a different alert for death. Regardless of the time of day, when the church bell tolled it was customary to cease all activity and recite The Lords Prayer. Unless the death was sudden and unexpected, it is likely that a few neighbors had already assembled at the bedside to pray for a safe journey from this live to one’s new home in heaven, and to comfort the bereaving survivors. 

The person who tolled the bell would soon be joined at the church by persons from various corners of the community who came to confirm the name of the departed, and to hold a short prayer meeting.
One day the toll sounded as dusk approached. My grandfather looked at me but did not speak. His eyes issued a clear command that I “make haste” to the church. Even though I appreciated the tradition, on that day with nightfall fast approaching, I asked Papa a rational question: “Papa, can I go get the news first thing in the morning? After all, whoever it is will still be dead.”

When I arrived at the church, shortly thereafter, crying after that awful whipping Papa gave me, the small congregation thought that my crying expressed mutual grief. They comforted me.

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