When I decided to respond to an advertisement I saw in the newspaper, soliciting musicians to double as bell ringers for The Salvation Army, my Mother panicked. “People will think you are a recovering alcoholic.” she said. Puzzled by her comments, I ignored her warning, and showed up for the interview, anyway. And as part of the interviewing process, I sang “The Little Drummer Boy” which I had practiced the night before. The interviewer was stunned. “Why do you want to be a bell ringer?” he asked me. And I told him “Well, my Mother told me not to, because people will think I’m a recovering alcoholic.” And before I could proceed further, the interviewer interrupted with “Yes, they will.” Again, I was puzzled. As other than gleefully rushing to place a dollar bill in the kettle with my brother when I was little, I had no experience with The Salvation Army. Therefore, I was quite taken aback that I was receiving such dire responses from all sides. However, I assured the interviewer that I had sung Christmas Carols for several years with a professional Christmas Caroling group, and as a result, I thought it would be fun to combine the Christmas caroling with the bell ringing. He sighed out of disbelief and decided to sign me up, in spite of myself.
Immediately, upon my first assignment, in the middle of a busy mall, it became clear that any Christmas caroling on my part, would take a back seat to the actual bell ringing. For the mall was filled with noises and sounds from every direction; from the piped music coming through the speakers in the corridors, to the rock band playing in the Macy’s wing, to the light-hearted folk tunes that made one want to skip and hop as the children’s carousel circled around, and lastly, to the din of the crowds themselves as they ate their dinner from some of the fast food restaurants in the dining area. Plodding along, I continued my bell ringing and hoped that it would somehow carry over all of these various sounds throughout the mall and encourage everyone to stop by The Salvation Army Kettle. And, I admit, I also mastered the art of counting down the hours as the days went on; quickly trading in my heretofore comfortable high heels, for a pair of truly relaxing and comfortable tennis shoes.
I soon learned that my brother and I weren’t the only little kids who eagerly rushed to donate a dollar into the red kettle. As time and time again, I would see parents beam with pride, when their little children figured out how to fold the dollar bill in just the right way, so that it would easily slide down the groove of the metal or plastic kettle. I also learned that WWII vets, especially, were very moved by and thought very highly of The Salvation Army. As they frequently stopped by and shared with me their various stories of how The Salvation Army had helped them so much while they were stationed in Europe during the great war. And, I even received stories from accomplished looking ladies, who told me The Salvation Army had helped them get back home-after they ran away to Chicago as rebellious young teenagers.
Then, there was the fellow who wore a reflector vest over his winter clothing. He, unfailingly, would come into the mall on a daily basis to walk around. And while he was obviously somewhat mentally challenged, his dedication to his exercise routine was unhampered. Soon, in spite of his previously established pattern, he included a stop by my stand to his daily walk and drop either a penny or a nickel into the kettle with much earnestness. He explained to me that he felt it would bring him good luck, if he did so. I didn’t know what to say, but I really did hope it would turn out as he wished.
Since I was a regular at the mall during the bell ringing season, I soon became acquainted with some of the other seasonal employees at the mall, including, the mall Santa Claus, who was the bearded and rotund son of a preacher who had lost his way, but was now straightening his life back again. He had been on food stamps and this was quite an opportunity for him to get a foothold on his life and earn some much needed extra income. He worked very hard and kept long hours. And, with his outgoing personality, he was an enormous success. A fact, which was attested to by the lines to get a picture with Santa Claus being so very long, that I would often have to move my kettle stand slightly. In order to ensure that I was not overrun by hosts of families with their young children standing in line, all laughing and dressed in their holiday finery. As we began talking, during the few times our breaks coincided, the fellow portraying Santa Claus asked me about the fellow in the reflector vest who walked around daily. I told him that I didn’t know anything about him, except that he would always donate a penny to my kettle. The Santa Claus then informed me that the fellow would also stop by and give him his Christmas wish list on a daily basis, as well. A list which included a new reflector vest, a stopwatch, and a whole host of other items. All of which would come to a fair sum, if purchased new.
The closer it got to Christmas Eve, the colder the weather turned. And the winds brought snow with them, as well. Since Santa would leave before Christmas Eve, as the final days approached before his departure, he asked me to make sure and stop by his stand, before my shift was up. When I did so, I saw Santa pull out a bag full of presents and hand them to the fellow in the reflector vest. The fellow in the reflector vest was visibly taken aback and speechless, but he began opening his presents, as Santa instructed. The first thing he opened was a bright and brand new reflector vest, which he immediately put on. And then Santa helped him set up his new stopwatch, as well. After opening up all of the other presents on his list, Santa asked him if he had done good. To which the fellow nodded in affirmation. Then, as Santa attended to other children standing in line, all most eager to present to him their wish lists, as well. The fellow in his new reflector vest turned to me and said he was worried people would think he had stolen all of these brand new things. I assured him as best as I could, that it would be okay, Santa had just come early for him.
The next day, the fellow stopped by Santa’s once again. This time, proudly sporting his brand new reflector vest and carrying in his hands, a letter from his sister. As she explained to Santa in her letter, she had severe breast cancer for which she was undergoing strenuous treatment and she had cried many a time as she worried about her brother and what would happen to him. But, thankfully, Santa had helped assuage her concerns with the knowledge that he had remembered her brother so very generously. And, of course, being a manly man, Santa was humble and made light of what he had done. But, I could tell, that he was bravely fighting back the tears. And as the following day arrived, when the fellow proudly sporting his new reflector vest stopped by my kettle, he dropped a penny into my kettle, as was his custom. But, this time, he didn’t say it would bring him good luck . . . he told me, that it already had.
Luisa Kay Reyes has had poems featured in the Set Sail For Poetry, I Spy Poetry, A Kaleidoscope of Poetry, and the How Sweet It Is anthologies published by the Stark County District Library. She has also had poems published in The Sleuth zine for Nancy Drew sleuths and The Silkworm poetry anthology published by the Florence Poet’s Society. Recently, her poem “A Christmas Poem” was declared a first place winner by the Sixteenth Annual Stark County District Library Poetry Contest. In 2007, she received Honorable Mention in the Alabama Meter Readers International Limerick Contest and First Place in the Florence Poet’s Society Limerick Contest. And just this month, her poem entitled “Nancy Drew . . . ” was published in the Nancy Drew Anthology published by the Silver Birch Press. She has just recently started writing nonfiction and was pleased to learn that her piece entitled “Dinner On The Grounds” was accepted by the Fire In Machines literary anthology for publication.
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