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My day as a bell ringer

Forum reporter Dave Roepke spent six hours last Wednesday ringing bells and collecting donations for the Salvation Army. The experience gave him a view of human nature from the other side of the red kettle.

Forum reporter Dave Roepke spent six hours last Wednesday ringing bells and collecting donations for the Salvation Army. The experience gave him a view of human nature from the other side of the red kettle.

Bell ringing for the Salvation Army makes you feel like more of a prop than a person.

Most people either ignore you or give a half-smile and a nod before casting their eyes downward. You're just part of the backdrop of life in December, like houses strung with lights and carols on the radio.

But there are exceptions:

That woman with a walker that doubles as a chair and has three Band-Aids on her face who stopped to give $1 before reconsidering and giving $2.


The man with a young daughter in one arm and a 20-pound bag of kitty litter in the other who managed to dig the change out of his jeans pockets.

Still, after six hours of collecting money for the Salvation Army, I was tired. I felt like I'd run a barefoot marathon. I had a shooting pain in the shoulder of my bell arm.

It was 4:55 p.m. My shift ended at 5. I had checked my watch three times since 4:42.

Then I met Janet Edlund.

Edlund had dropped change in my kettle on her way out of the Fargo Wal-Mart. Then she went to her car and came back with a $1 bill.

She thought I would wonder why she was back, so she told a story she's told many times.

Her grandmother had sailed from Germany to New York City with her four sisters and mother after World War I.

When they arrived at Ellis Island, they had nothing. It was the Salvation Army that fed them and gave them a place to stay.


Grandma Becker died about six years ago, but Edlund and the dozen other grandchildren still make it a point to give at least $1 each time they pass a bell ringer. They're teaching their children to do the same.

"When I see a Salvation Army bell ringer, I think of my grandma," said Edlund, principal at Dakota Prairie High School in Petersburg, N.D. "I have a great respect for people who stand out there and do this."

The people who do this - at least the ones who get paid to do it - meet every morning at 8 a.m. at the Salvation Army. Many seem to know each other and exchange hellos heartier than one expects at this hour. Several sport sizable beards.

After the crowd collects - there are 16 paid ringers today - kettle coordinator Tom Fetch begins handing out assignments one at a time.

Few volunteers work shifts longer than two hours, Fetch said. The paid ringers, many former and current Salvation Army clients, make $7 an hour and fill more than half of the spots on most weekdays.

As Fetch calls out their names, the paid ringers pick up a kettle and get two brown-bag lunches for their 10-hour shifts. The lunches include a bottle of carbonated water, which has a lower freezing point than regular water.

A third of the Salvation Army's 27 kettle sites are outdoors. Just as Fetch is explaining how ringers lobby him for indoor spots, a man walks up. He was scheduled to work last week but skipped because it was too cold.

He'd like to work today, but, "A guy my age ought to work inside," he said.


Fetch asks him his name.

"Inside," the man replies.

"No, your name," Fetch says.

His name is Tom.

Ringers prefer the heated corridors of malls and store foyers, but they collect more money when they're outside, Fetch says. People are more likely to give when they can hear the bells as soon as they get out of the car. Plus, there's the sympathy factor.

Before I leave, I ask Fetch if I should say "Merry Christmas" or "Happy holidays." He says he tells ringers to say what they're comfortable saying. Then, he adds, "We try to keep it away from secularism."

I think I'll stick with "Merry Christmas."

The first person who speaks to me, before I get a single penny, is an older woman in an intensely teal coat.


"We write a check every year," she tells me.

This same kind of thing is said to me a dozen times over the next six hours, and I get it only from women at least old enough to be my mother. They say they'll give on the way out, their husband has the money or that they have contributed elsewhere.

Not a single man all day explains why he doesn't give.

A woman wearing dark sunglasses, a Zoog DisneyT-shirt with a custom-ripped V-neck and a denim jacket tells me she'd give me money if she had any.

"If I had any money, I'd keep it," says the man walking with her before poking me in the belly with his fist.

About one in 10 people who passed gave something. About half gave bills, the other half change. Women gave more often than men. The old gave more often than the young.

I try to lock eyes with all-comers, but it's not easy. Eye contact is the only tactic that can turn passers-by into givers, but you have to catch their gaze while they are still in front of you. Most people who look me in the eye wait until the very last second, when they are only a step or two from entering the store.

When I do establish eye contact, I say "Merry Christmas." The most frequent response to my holiday cheer is "Hi," though two people said "No, thanks," to a merry yuletide.


Even some people who do give don't like to talk. Countless people roll up a $1 bill, squish it through the slot in my kettle and leave in silence with their heads down.

A man wearing an American Legion jacket from some town in South Dakota sidles up to me midafternoon and tries to sell me a toy wood sleigh. Store managers have already told him he can't hawk his wares in Wal-Mart, but "There's always a way around that," he said.

He returns 15 minutes later without the toy. He found a buyer inside.

The clandestine toy vendor provided the day's longest conversation until Edlund tells me about her grandmother.

She walks away after relaying the story.

I abandon my post and run after her.

We talk a bit more, and she tells me she always has wanted to be a bell-ringer.

I want to tell her it's hard work she's unlikely to enjoy, a steady flow of disillusionment interrupted by fleeting but moving glimpses of human decency.


But she's starting to cry, talking to a stranger in the dark while putting purchases in her trunk.

"I hope I have the courage to do it some day," she said through tears.

We talk the next day on the phone. She asks me if I can hear the bells. I think she's being rather overdramatic, but she's a high school principal. It's between periods.

I want to know if she's ever going to be a ringer. She says she's thought about it a lot. She doesn't know why she hasn't done it before. Perhaps it's vanity, or maybe something else. She's going to ask her cousins about it at a reunion next month.

"Sometimes if you say it out loud, you need to act on it," she says. "When you verbalize things to someone, sometimes you're obligated to take the initiative."

My interview by Edlund's car was cut short when the Salvation Army van pulled up with my replacement.

I tried to tell the van driver about Edlund. He was more interested in getting my red apron passed off to the next ringer. He was on a schedule.

"Did you learn anything?" he asked me.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Dave Roepke at (701) 241-5535

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