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I was once a red kettle bell ringer for The Salvation Army—for about 20 minutes.

The story begins several years ago when Sarah and I decided to go to Chicago for our annual Christmas get-away, shopping, see-the-lights-n-sights day.

We started this practice when the kids were young. It gave us one sometimes two days without munchkin distractions. It provided a break in our schedules, and still does, for us to amble through retail America looking at whatever tweaks our fancy, enjoying a long lunch in a nice restaurant, and in general having a good time. It may not sound like much, but I look forward to it every year. We both put on bright green or red holiday sweaters, think festively, and take off for a day of hot coffee (me) or tea (her) and wondrous displays of Christmas decorations.

We drove south to Chicago early in the morning, gained an hour crossing into Central Time, and were walking Michigan Avenue by 9:00 am.

Now here’s the thing: we love doing this together, but we shop differently. She’s a slower, few specific stores, mine deep for the gold kind of shopper. We may be at a mall all day and she’ll have visited five or six stores in one wing. I, on the other hand, am a case-the-place, traverse the entire mall or length of Michigan Avenue, surface kind of shopper. In fact, it’s not fair to shoppers everywhere to call me a shopper at all. I buy things once in awhile, but it’s because I was looking for it, went to that store to get it, found what I wanted, and put down the dough. My “shopping” might more appropriately be called “exploring.”

So, what do we do? We get to the mall or in this case the Magnificent Mile, pick a time to meet, synch our watches, and split up. We actually did this when we were dating. It’s a method that still works. In the days before cell phones, if she wanted to find me before the appointed time, she’d check the nearest Barnes and Noble where I’d be ensconced in the Starbucks café reading and sipping a cup of joe. It’s a given. Like a natural law. But this day that bookshop coffee was yet to be.

This is how I came be standing by myself in The Windy City in front of the John Hancock Center. That’s the tall building that looks like a smaller, squeezed version of what was then called the Sears Tower, now the Willis Tower: who thinks up these kinds of nonsensical changes? People despise the new name and it’s disrupted the social fabric of an entire city. Anyway, there I was.

I was just beginning my reconnoiter when I heard to my left the famous tinkling bell of a red kettle bell ringer with The Salvation Army. The older (I’d say elderly, which frankly is how she appeared, but she was pretty sprightly) lady working the kettle was dressed, forgive me for saying, like she needed the funds more than anyone else who might receive them. She was, to put it as politely as I can, raggedy. I don’t know if this was her state in life or if this was a shrewd marketing ploy, but it worked for her. She made eye contact with me and we nodded our heads. We, of course, had never met before and were thus total strangers.

Then, for reasons I cannot fathom to this day, she said to me, “Would you mind manning this kettle for a few minutes? I have to go to the bathroom so badly I can’t stay here, but The Army doesn’t allow us to leave the kettle.”

Now I ask you, how could I turn down a damsel in distress? So I said, “Sure, I guess so. What should I do?” This is when she looked at me like maybe she’d made a mistake, like maybe she’d picked a dunderhead who didn’t know how to ring a bell standing by a red kettle. But she said, “You don’t have to do anything but just stand here and watch the kettle. Make sure no one bothers it. There’s a restroom right down there near the Cheesecake Factory. I’ll be back in a few minutes.” So improbable as it seemed, there I was. I assumed the position and she tore off running down steps like a grade schooler, disappearing behind pillars and me wondering if she’d ever come back.

What makes this more amusing is that I’d chosen that day to wear a sport outfit. I enjoy professional football and had been a fan of the Miami Dolphins since their perfect season during my college years. As a Christmas present one year Sarah bought me the full deal: winter Miami Dolphins coat, gloves, and knit toboggan cap. And did I mention that it was bitterly cold that December day? So here I am standing along Michigan Avenue in a bright light green and orange coat, dark green gloves, and light green hat with a Dolphins logo on the front. I was ready for a football game but not public display in a chic neighborhood. The irony is, every other year we made this trip I’d worn a black fedora with feather and a black dress coat, but this year I went as a rabid fan.

So I rang the little bell. Four or five people passed by. Four or five more put change in the kettle—“Yes! I can do this job.” The lady will be proud of me.

I stand there, I ring the bell, I ring the bell some more. Then I noticed to my right an elegantly dressed couple from Grand Rapids, business owners I knew from my work at the university. Apparently this was their shopping/exploring day too, because they checked their watches, gave the loving nod, and parted company, she across the street toward Bloomingdales and he to points unknown. At any moment I thought he was going to see me, but he didn’t. I don’t know if he didn’t recognize me and kept going or if he didn’t “see” The Salvation Army bell ringer in his haste to move on to warmer locations. I considered yelling a greeting, but stopped and to this day I’m not sure why. Was I ashamed of what I was doing? Why would I be? Or did I not want to tout my good deed in an inappropriate manner? I don’t know. What bothers me now is that ego was probably involved in either motivation.

Finally, after at least 20 minutes, the kind lady returned with a smile on her face, thanking me effusively for this wonderful thing I had done. I didn’t think I’d done all that much, and I didn’t have the heart to tell her I’d had second thoughts and hadn’t identified myself to a person I knew. So I didn’t think my record was a good one. She, however, seemed to think I was a knight who’d rescued her from ignominy.

And maybe I was, a Knight in Miami Dolphins green and orange. One thing for sure, my respect went through the roof for people who stand by red kettles in the cold elements and ring bells for The Salvation Army.

I said, “Goodbye,” and she said, “God bless you,” and I went exploring for that bookstore and java.

Someday I’m going to call that business couple and tell them this story.


© Rex M. Rogers – All Rights Reserved, 2010

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