My dad, Bob Haley, was a man who always went to bed early and woke up early. When he retired for the evening, so did the rest of the Haley family.
Whether it was summer or winter, the television and lights were turned off precisely at 8:30 p.m. and we slowly climbed the stairs to our bedrooms. It was difficult to sleep while it was still light in the summer, but our options were limited.
So, it came as a complete surprise when my dad shook me awake one Wednesday morning at 1:30 a.m.
“Come with me,” he said quietly.
My mind raced as I thought there must have been a death in the family or an equally tragic event.
My concern soon turned to fear when my dad brought a shotgun out to the old Plymouth sitting in the driveway. I didn’t even know my dad even owned a gun until that morning in Port William.
“Mom, what’s going on?” I asked my mother who was busily stuffing a can of flea powder into a bag for dad.
Still foggy from sleep, I tried to think back to earlier in the evening to recall if I had done something serious enough for my dad to be taking me to reform school.
My mom would often threaten to send me to the Boys Industrial School in Lancaster when I misbehaved. “We are going to send you to reform school, just as soon as your dad gets home from work,” she would say.
I remembered reading somewhere that comedian Bob Hope had spent some time at the Boys Industrial School as a youngster. I figured if Bob Hope could be sent to reform school, so could I.
Why my imagination had run haywire, I will never know. My fear soon lessened when my dad said, “Pat, get that box of crackers and put them in this bag. We are going to ‘bell’ Andy Dwyer.”
Andy Dwyer was our cousin who was a long-time bachelor. Until a few weeks earlier, he had lived alone in a big farmhouse outside of Bowersville.
To everyone’s amazement, Andy had met a woman by the name of Louise and married her in a grand wedding ceremony in London, Ohio. He had dressed in a white tuxedo and he and Louise held their reception at the Red Fox Inn between London and Columbus.
We had learned Louise had never married before now. Everyone figured since Andy and Louise had approached the”‘prime of their lives,” they both knew it was “now or never” and wanted to do it up right.
I had heard the term “belling” used before, and had gone with my parents to “bell” cousin Bill Gallagher on his farm when he had married a few years earlier.
It was a sight to behold and one hard to describe.
If a “belling” was held in this day and age, the destiny of “bellers” would be worse than reform school. Prison would be a logical destination for some of them.
My dad quietly pulled into Bowersville and drove around to the old feed mill. To my surprise, there was already a line of cars standing on alert.
I saw most of my cousins, and they were raring to go. Scott Downing was there. So were Frank Matson, Bill Gallagher, Bill George, Neil Pendry, brothers Jim and Jack Haley, Jim Dwyer, and the Daughterys from South Charleston.
The American Dictionary defines “belling” or shivaree, as a noisy mock serenade, made by banging pots and kettles, to a newly married couple. Reading about the practice later, I found belling was common within the Midwest into the first half of the 20th century.
Belling usually involved a noisy procession to the newlywed’s home, parading the couple about town, and breaking into their house to mischievously pour salt in their sheets or mix up labels on food in their pantry. Sometimes the crowds could be convinced to disperse if the couple bribed them well enough.
That is exactly what happened at Andy’s farm. The men hopped out of their cars and shot off their shotguns in unison. They sounded like cannons. I stood back by the car, but I saw the men open the front door, the upstairs lights came on, and the uninvited men entered the couple’s home banging on pans and shouting.
The rowdy brigade soon went up the stairs, yelling and laughing, and forced the surprised newlyweds from their marital bed.
“Let’s put some crackers in the bed!” someone shouted. Within seconds, the bed was engulfed in Zesta and Town House crackers.
It was a different time and a different era. Unfortunately and unexpectedly, someone tied a can to a cat’s tail. Then it was over. Over as quickly as it had started.
Uncle Scott then passed out cigars and candy bars. I got a Baby Ruth, which I thoughtfully ate in the back seat on the trip back home to Port.
It was a memorable way for a young boy to spend a night.
Much better than reform school, I guess.
Pat Haley is a Clinton County commissioner and former Clinton County sheriff.