The old man slowed the rocker when he heard the steps come onto the wooden-floored porch. His eyesight was failing, but hearing was still sharp as ever. Those boards—their sounds when trod on—told him it was his great-grandchildren. “Alice… and Jimmy, you came to see grandpa!” He opened his arms knowing they’d fill them with a hug. “What are you rascals up to today?” The hugging done, he shifted and leaned forward to see their faces.
“Mom’s taking grandma and big-granny to their doctor’s appointments.” Alice had pulled one of the other chairs closer, and he could see her better: now a 13-year-old, sharp-chinned with jawline more distinct from losing her childhood fat, blonde hair haloed by the morning sunlight slanting in behind her. A scraping, sliding sound told him that Jimmy was moving his favorite perch—a still sturdy old trunk with stout hinged top, now used as a porch coffee table—next to his chair. He always liked to sit eye-to-eye with his big-grandpa. Four years younger than Alice, he was still round-faced under a mop of brown hair that never stayed combed for more than a minute. “Mom said we could stay with you.”
The boy’s smile stretched and tightened taking away some roundness from his features. That his great-grandkids enjoyed his company was a gift he never took for granted. Each minute with them was a blessing. “So, afterward… when your mom brings your big-granny back… what are you going to do?”
Alice leaned back in her chair. “We’re going to a fair this afternoon.”
He felt a tug at his shoulder and turned to Jimmy.
“Mom says it’s a carnival and they have clowns and rides!” He could hear the excitement and anticipation in the boy’s voice. “Have you ever been to one, grandpa?”
“Yes, but a long time ago.”
“Tell us a story about one!” Jimmy bounced on the trunk—getting too big to do that without risk of breaking it—making its top creak.
He looked over at Alice. “You’re not too grown up are you… to listen to one of my stories?”
“Never grandpa,” she smiled at him.
“Okay then. I know a story you might like, and it meant a lot… even still today.” He drank the last of his coffee and with a twinge in his back, bent over and set the empty cup between his feet and began. “Once there was a boy in his early teens who lived in a small town and one year a carnival came to it. Excited at the new experience, he went. He’d never been to a carnival before. Exploring all the sights and sounds, he followed the flow of the crowd and came across one of the fair’s pitchmen.” He broke from the story to explain to them.
“That’s a man who tried to get you to do things that took money from your pocket and put in his.” He continued, “The boy stood there listening and watching the pitchman work the crowd. ‘Heya, heya… who’s a strong man? Who can ring the bell and win a prize?!’ The pitchman wearing a red-banded straw boater tilted back on his head called out to passersby and then gestured at the contraption behind him. ‘All you gotta do is take this here hammer…’ he held up a giant wooden mallet, a 15-pound rubber head at the end of a four-foot wooden handle. ‘And smack this…’ he pointed at a circular pad at one end of a see-saw board. At the other end was a square metal puck that would be catapulted along a cable that ran in a channel inset in a wooden frame that rose vertically 10 feet to a bell at the top. ‘If yer a strong man, ya ring the bell!’ Along the channel were markers titled ‘Weakling’ about a foot from the bottom to ‘Strongman’ just underneath the bell. And at that highest level was also the words ‘You Win a Prize!’
“The boy stopped and watched two teens older than him, and an older man try it without success. He reached into his pocket for one of the two coins he had left from his earnings for the week. The boy paid his 25 cents and took a swing. The mallet was unwieldy and his handling awkward. He only half-hit the pad, and the puck barely moved. ‘Better luck next time kid,’ said the pitchman already looking for the next 25 cents. The boy stood there and watched several more, young and old, try. A few did as poorly as he had, a couple whacked it hard enough to send the metal puck halfway, and one stout man slammed it to a foot short of the bell. Needing to save his one remaining coin, the boy moved on to other things to see and do that did not come with a cost.
“A year later the carnival came to town again, and he went that opening evening. He had thought little about that strongman test, but when he came upon it, he recalled his first experience. Now, the boy was a year older and through the manual labor of his chores and earning money working for others… he’d grown stronger. Times were hard for him and his family, but he handed the coin to the same pitchman from a year ago and stepped up. This time his grip was surer—more certain, his swing smoother and his strike landed squarely on the pad. The puck only jumped about four feet. ‘Better luck next time kid.’ The pitchman took the mallet and handed to a man—not much bigger than the boy—in blue, worn but well-patched overalls, who with no hesitation struck the pad and made it about two-thirds up. Shaking his head the man gave the mallet back and stood off to the side next to the boy and watched.
“Several other men tried, and all failed. As he watched, the boy had the first inkling it—this strongman test—was rigged so no one could win. He couldn’t see how to get that prize, whatever it might be. Next, to him, the man in the overalls shifted feet in scuffed boots then dug into his pocket. ‘I’ll give ‘er another try.’ He flipped the coin to the pitchman. Picking up the mallet, he stepped back to be clear of anyone around him then swung it back and forth like a baseball player warming up, stretching before standing over home plate to face a pitch. After a minute of that, mallet in one large hand hanging rubber head down at his side, he approached the pad. Bringing it up and over his shoulder in one motion without hesitation, he brought the mallet crashing down squarely. The metal puck shot like a rocket all the way to top. The bell rang—a deep tone—that made the wooden frame vibrate and the boy who had moved closer, felt it. ‘We got a strong man!’ the pitchman crowed, knowing it would bring others to give it a go. Most would fail.
“The boy thought about what he’d seen and then moved on.
“Another year went by, and the carnival returned to town. The boy was there the minute they opened. Everything was set up as before, and he went straight to it. Along with his work over the past year, he’d added training. He’d chopped more wood than Carter’s got liver pills.” The old man paused to blink, he knew it not likely Alice and Jimmy would understand that reference, but then kept going.
“Older and stronger, the boy paid his money to get his shot. The man in the patched blue overalls wasn’t there that day but was on the boy’s mind as he stepped up. He’d seen that man try and fail. Then try again and succeed. That’s all he needed… the belief it could be done. He looked around at the people stopping by to watch. He knew many of them. Ten seconds later that bell rang. A far deeper more melodic tone than what he’d heard the year before. That’s because he’d made it happen. Everything’s different when you see something difficult done—maybe that seems impossible—that you want to do too… and then you do it. The boy kept the mallet, dug out another coin and handed it to the pitchman. Soon that bell not only rang it jumped as the speeding metal puck struck it. ‘Never had someone do that twice in a row,’ the pitchman shook his head as he handed two prizes to the boy. ‘You’re a real bell ringer kid.’ Several in the crowd clapped and congratulated him. And from that day forward the people in the little town—who watched him try and fail, try again and then succeed in many things—called him, ‘The Bell Ringer.’”
The old man stopped talking and sat back.
“What happened to the boy?” Jimmy wanted to know.
Worried his old man’s tale had bored her, he looked at Alice. She was still smiling and nodded. “Yeah, grandpa… what happened to the boy afterward?”
“Jimmy, hop down off that,” he tapped the trunk. “Help me lift this,” he got age-gnarled stiff fingers under the edge of the lid and lifted. The boy helped with the other end. It opened with a protest, a rusty unused-hinge squeak. “Let me see…” he dug around shifting the contents. “There.” He reached deeper and brought them out. He handed the stuffed horse to Alice and the bear to Jimmy.
Alice held it up and turned it around. On the horse’s side was crudely stitched ‘The Bell Ringer.’
“Hey, mine has that, too!” Jimmy’s showed the same rough-sewn lettering.
The old man grinned—carefully, his damn dentures wanted to come loose—then reached to trace the stitching on Jimmy’s bear. “Your great-great-grandma added that to them.”
“Grandpa, you were the bell ringer!” Alice clapped her hands and slid from her chair to hug his neck. He heard Jimmy’s laugh and joined him.
“That I was… that I was. You know…” he straightened and put a hand on each of his great-grandchildren’s shoulder, “I’ve learned in life you can do a lot… if you can see your way and believe in yourself.” He drew them to him wrapping them with a memory of once strong arms. “And I want you to know, I believe in you, too.”
They hugged back, and it filled his heart.