When I was a kid, there were two things in our farmhouse that annoyed me on a daily basis. One was the emergency scanner, which carried frequent squawks from the county’s radio dispatchers transmitting police and fire calls. It also sounded periodic screeching radio tones — a different one for each fire company — every time a fire crew was dispatched. The other annoyance was the beautiful cherry mantel clock which, since we didn’t have an actual fireplace in our house except in our unheated summer kitchen, sat atop the living room book- case.
The mantel clock kept perfect time — and reminded you of it every 15 minutes through the day and night. Bing bong, bing bong. Bing bong, bing bong. Bing bong, bing bong. Bing bong, bing bong. At a quarter past the hour, the clocked chimed out the first set of bing bongs and at the half hour it would ring out two sets of bing bongs, followed by three sets at quarter to the hour. When the next hour rolled around, the mantel clock would bing bong four full sets and then chime the hour, which made quite a racket, particularly at midnight when you were trying to sleep amid twelve long strikes of the clock.
It was a toss-up which I objected to more. The scanner was somewhat of a necessity, as my dad was a lifelong member of Cleona Fire Co. No. 1 and one of its firetruck’s authorized drivers. Although he could tell that his services were needed when the local fire siren blared, the scanner provided additional information — though it was the same information he would receive once he reached the fire station and got onto the radio there.
I learned to sleep through the clock’s loud chiming, but I never got accustomed to the knack it had of always bing-bonging at the most critical part of the television shows our family gathered to watch in the living room. It was maddening to have the criminal’s surprise confession or the judges’ verdict on a talent show drowned out by the pretty little clock on the bookcase.
The scanner had a series of red lights that would blink across the front of it while searching for the next radio transmission to pipe up on the airwaves. The volume was usually turned up to be heard anywhere throughout the first floor and, once again, this auditory annoyance always seemed to crackle to life at the worst possible moment, like when I was on the telephone with my friends or trying to study for a test.
Now that my parents are both gone, I suppose it’s safe to confess that I did my best to sabotage that dratted scanner. Once, I “accidentally” broke off the upper area of the scanner’s antenna. I was afraid I’d get into big trouble for that. Fortunately or unfortunately, it had no effect on the scanner’s reception, so all that was required of me was an apology. My more effective strategy as I grew older, was to turn the volume all the way down when no one was looking. That way, the red lights would continue to flash like always, but the scanner would be silent, giving me at least a few minutes of peace and quiet until someone noticed they hadn’t heard any fire calls lately.
As for the clanging clock, sometimes my mother would forget to wind it and blessed silence would reign, but it never took long for her to notice that something was missing from the sounds of the household. She’d rewind the clock and life would go on, measured by the quarter hour.
My dad retired from being a fire truck driver, but the scanner still cackled on until, one by one, the various crystals for the different channels became obsolete as the county emergency management agency’s equipment moved to newer technologies. Firefighters started carrying pagers and receiving their fire calls that way. Soon there wasn’t even a need to sound the fire siren to let everyone know there was a fire.
The mantel clock has remained atop the living room bookcase, but hasn’t been wound since I don’t know when. It wasn’t a priority, since I never cared for its intrusions anyway. It’s funny, though, how nostalgia can change your mind about things.
Recently, a few long-awaited replacement windows were installed in our farmhouse. One of these windows is right beside the mantel clock. While putting things back in order afterwards, I dusted and polished the room’s furniture, including the mantel clock. When I moved it to dust beneath it, I came upon the clock’s instructions. They were from many years ago, when my parents had received it as a Christmas present from my grandparents, who had also given the same gift to their other three children.
Among this paperwork, I found a notecard which read, “Mrs. Bowman, Here are the words to your Westminster chimes. ‘Lord through this hour, Be Thou our guide, So by thy power, No foot shall slide.’ Merry Xmas, Pete H., Jeweler.” The words sang to the bing-bongs in my head.
Of course, you know what I did next. I wound up that clock. Maybe silence isn’t so golden after all.