Usually, I can tell when a story is going to be great - it has an appeal to me, and I can see that it will appeal to readers as well. Every so often, though, a story surprises me: a good story turns out to be a flop, or a bland story ends up being a lot of fun.
Last week, I was assigned to cover the re-starting of a clock in a renovated church steeple. I wasn't jumping at the story, especially when I learned that the clock would start at 7 a.m. However, the assignment ended up being one of the most unique I have covered, as I spent the morning climbing the steeple, winding a 100-year-old clock and helping to toil with the bell until it sounded just right.
Here's an except from the story I wrote about the steeple project:
On the morning that the bell was restarted, I scrambled up stories of rickety wooden ladders along with The Readings photography director Amy Sweeney. We reached the bell level and crawled through a hatch onto the open-air balcony, where the bell enjoys sweeping views of Reading.
“How high up are we?” I asked Levesque, the steeple construction guru. He replied that he doesn't keep track.
“If you go 20 feet you might as well go 120,” he said. “If you fall you're going to get hurt just the same.”
Levesque, along with his son and cousin, are clearly not afraid of heights. Part of the project included scrambling up the coppola to the highest point of the steeple to replace the weather vane at the very top, at least 150 feet above the town green.
Levesque is used to extreme working conditions and said that working on the Old South Church was a pleasure because of the people involved with the project.
“It helps to work with people that are enjoyable,” he said. “These guys were hands on and common sense prevailed.”
With a last-minute adjustment to the bell finished, we climb back into the hatch and down to the clock level. In the center of the small room levers in the clock's heart twirls and clicks. Long hands reach out to clock faces on four sides of the steeple.
“Want to wind it?” asks David Roberts. I take the long handle, and am surprised at how heavy the crank is to turn. After a few revolutions I hand the crank back to David, who completes the rest of the turns needed to keep the clock ticking each week.
Along with his brother James, David has been winding the clock at Old South Church since the 1970's. Every Friday afternoon, one of the brothers climbs up into the steeple and winds the clock 350 revolutions. As the clock is wound, weighted levers raise up through the steeple and drop as time passes during the week. The clock, which was built in 1912 is incredibly accurate, and it's intricacy is beautiful.
“It's a museum piece,” Weston said.
In the center of the steeple, levers turn, swinging a giant pendulum that reaches down to the floor of the level below. A zinc temperature compensating rod adjusts the length of the pendulum to make up for extreme temperatures in the uninsulated steeple. All of this happens without any electrical power.
“There's a lot of engineering in this thing,” Roberts said. “It's beautifully done.”
If anything can get in the way of the clock, it is nature. On stormy winter morning snow can build up on the north face, stopping the hands from turning. Occasionally, a fly or a lady bug will get caught in a gear and grin the whole clock to a halt, Roberts tells me as he pauses to catch his breath.
David and James Roberts tinker with the clock, and hands on all of the faces scramble into the correct position. The bell rings out, shaking the entire steeple, and the Old South Church's clock is back up and running.
“I'm very happy it's completed,” Weston said.
For Chloodian, who can hear the bell from her home and uses it to pace her day, the ringing has a deeper meaning. She is so passionate about the steeple project that when her grandparents died, she asked mourners to donate to the Reading Steeple and Bell Tower Fund in lieu of flowers.
“Now every time I hear it I think of them,” she said.
What about you? What hidden gems have you encountered lately?
Meanwhile, here's some of the other pieces I have been working on: During WWII, this father found a way to join his sons in the service, saying "If they've got my boys, they'll get me." On a much lighter note, this show at the North Shore Music Theatre was a great night out (and was my first theater review!). I got behind the screams at the biggest Haunted House in New England, and also took the photos that go with the story.
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