Tommy’s Bell by Jamie Kirkpatrick

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Late one night—so the story goes—Tommy’s grandfather (at the time, a teenager living on a farm near Rock Hall) mysteriously acquired a bell. Tommy thinks the bell might have been attached to one of the excursion boats that plied the waters of the Bay before that modern marvel of engineering known as the Bay Bridge opened in 1952 and forever changed the rhythm of life over here on the Eastern Shore. Back then, there were two highly popular ports-of-call for summertime fun on the Bay: Tolchester Beach had a large hotel and a lively amusement park that attracted families from Baltimore and beyond while Betterton had its own hotel, lots of boarding houses, and a famous (or infamous, as the case may be) pier that drew a somewhat rowdier crowd.

In addition to the cross-Bay ferry services, there was also considerable commercial shipping traffic that transported goods up, down, and across the Bay. Before the blight wiped out the Delmarva peach and pear crops in the early years of the 20th Century, spur rail lines moved tons of fruit that were loaded onto ships bound for Baltimore, Wilmington, Philadelphia, or New York so the story of a purloined ship’s bell has a plausible ring, so to speak. But this also raises another intriguing theory: maybe the bell isn’t from a ship at all; maybe it “fell off” a train. It certainly looks a bell that might have adorned a steam locomotive, particularly one operated by the Pennsylvania Railroad Company. Keep reading…

By the way, this is no small bell I’m talking about. It’s solid brass and weighs at least 40 pounds. And it’s loud. The only marking on it is a large keystone, trademark of Pennsylvania and logo of the aforementioned Pennsylvania Railroad Company, which leads me to believe that it was either cast by a foundry in that fair commonwealth or, at one time, the property of the PRR. Either way, it has all the markings of that other famous Pennsylvania bell.

But back to Tommy’s grandfather and the bell’s questionable provenance. Here’s the problem: what does one do with a large, loud, and nefariously acquired bell? One hides it, of course. In the garage, in a shed, or in the back of the family barn, anywhere it’s out of sight, lest inquiring eyes get suspicious and begin asking embarrassing questions like, “Where did you get that bell, boy?” And how long does one keep it out of sight? For years, until it’s buried under the detritus of farm life and eventually forgotten. Forgotten, that is, until it is haphazardly rediscovered forty or fifty years later, tarnished but no worse for wear, and becomes the stuff of a bedtime story handed down from grandfather to grandson who, upon grandpa’s peaceful passing, removes the storied bell from the soon-to-be-sold Rock Hall farm and takes it to the suburbs of Washington where it’s stashed away in another garage for a couple more twilight decades until one day last month when Tommy came over to our house in Bethesda and said, “So; do you want a bell?”

“Why me?” I asked.

And he began to tell me the story of his young grandfather, and his memories of a long-ago family farm near Rock Hall, and the snitched bell which in Tommy’s now slightly guilty opinion really belongs back across the Bay on the Eastern Shore. “So if you want it, it’s yours. If you don’t want it, give it to the Maritime Museum.”

I wanted it. Wouldn’t you?

My wife and I got some Brasso and some lemon juice and proceeded to polish up Tommy’s bell. We gave it a test ring or two (It’s still loud), lugged it around to a few potential sites, and eventually decided to install it next to our famous (or infamous, as the case may be) front porch where it could ring in the cocktail hour. We called our handy neighbor T.A. who sunk a 6×6 post and bolted the bell to the next best thing to a ship’s bulkhead or a locomotive’s chassis.

So Tommy’s bell is now back home—in plain sight—on the right side of the Bay. The days of excursion steamers, commercial shipping, and rail lines are long gone, but a loud echo of those pre-bridge days resides here right next to the porch. So if you should happen to encounter the friendly ghost of a steamship captain or PRR engineer searching for his lost bell, send him over to our house.

Jamie Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer with homes in Chestertown and Bethesda. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Washington College Alumni Magazine, and American Cowboy magazine. “A Place to Stand,” a book of photographs and essays about Landon School, was published by the Chester River Press in 2015.  A new collection of essays titled “Musing Right Along” will be released in June. Jamie’s website is www.musingjamie.com.

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