A Salvation Army Man

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(Host) Commentator Willem Lange spent a few hours recently outside a department store ringing a bell. He says it was a lot more fun than it might seem.

(Lange) A longtime friend of a conservative persuasion e-mailed me a little story. I won’t retell it; but it had to do with the injustice of successful people being forced to share their hard-won gains with less successful and less deserving people: that we who have plenty deserve it, and those who haven’t don’t deserve a handout.

With Advent and Christmas upon us, the mean spirit of that story really bothered me. I read it to Mother, and guessed it reflected the opinion of a lot of people. “Surely,” I said, “those who won’t give to the needy at Christmas can’t really believe that everybody begins at the same starting line and with the same talents!”

“Oh, yes, they can,” she replied. “But don’t let them upset you. Why don’t you see if you can work on a Salvation Army kettle for a while today?”

The Salvation Army office, just as I was afraid it would, said sure. “Go to J.C. Penney’s, and look for Darron. You can spell him for a break, if he doesn’t mind. He’ll be glad to get out of the cold for a while.”

I dressed for the North Pole and headed for Penney’s. Darron was easy to spot. A burly, whiskery middle-aged guy ringing a little silver bell, he seemed pleased at the prospect of company. But there was no way he was going to relinquish custody of that precious kettle, even for a few seconds. I wouldn’t have, either, if our positions had been reversed. So we stood together and double-teamed people as they approached.

This is a great job for an extrovert. Shoppers wear insignia on their clothes and hats — Patriots, Red Sox, Dartmouth — that serve as hooks for conversations. Darron wished everybody happy holidays. “After this weekend,” he confided, “I switch to ‘Merry Christmas.'” I asked people where they were from, and held the door for old people, women with strollers, and folks with armloads of bundles. Darron showed me the aperture through which donors push their money into the padlocked kettle. Its purpose is twofold: to reduce temptation to bell ringers and increase the public’s confidence.

A cold north wind blew across the parking lot. Darron shivered, but he hung in there. An interesting sidelight: When he rang his bell, the number of donors increased — as if the ringing affirmed this really was the good old Salvation Army.

I was prepared to gather evidence that my fellow Americans are a penurious lot, who’d pass us by as if we weren’t there. And some did. But I was astonished at the general liberality. A lot of bills went into that slot. When I left, I thanked Darron for salvaging a Christmas soiled by a mean spirit, for feeding and clothing the less fortunate among us, and for restoring a shaky faith.

This is Willem Lange up in Etna, New Hampshire; now I gotta get back to work.

Willem Lange is a contractor, writer and storyteller who lives in Etna, New Hampshire. He spoke from our studio in Norwich.

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