Living near a tower

When I was a boy, we lived across from the Roman Catholic Church in Joure, Friesland. There was little contact between Catholics and Protestants in our town. We were two solitudes. Except my dad did not observe the practice of solitary confinement when it came to Catholics. He was friendly with the priest who lived next to the church. He would enter the parsonage to cut the priest’s hair and play a game of checkers with him when the occasion arose. He even took me to a midnight mass one time. It may have been around Christmas.

Behind the Catholic Church was a convent for nuns. They ran a school for domestic studies, and my older sister attended the school for a while. Whenever the Catholic drama society would put on a play, Dad would provide rental costumes when needed and do the make-up of the actors without charging them. The convent sisters would send him home with a delicious cake.

Attached to the church stood a high tower, with three giant bells hanging in the belfry. I clearly remember how at Christmas time three men down below would start disturbing the bells by pulling on thick ropes. The time was 12 o’clock midnight, which meant that we children would be in bed. Now you must know that the four older children slept in the attic upstairs, which meant that our space was unheated, and that, on a cold Christmas eve, we crept under the blankets up to our noses to stay warm. It also meant that the only separation between us and the tolling of the bells were the clay roof tiles hugging a layer of wooden boards. Since the belfry was directly across the street from our house, about 50 feet higher than our attic, the ringing of the three bells was inescapably loud and pervasive. Yet we loved the sound of this mysterious Christmas joy.

In my lively imagination I thought each cast-iron bell was a giant, running a race. And, of course, the lighter bells would run faster than the heavier ones. If at one time the three giants were equally spaced, I would wait for the smaller ones to catch up and pass the larger ones. It was a musical and magical event that lasted for at least five minutes. And then, suddenly, after the last sounds had died away, a deep silence would fall over the roofs of our houses, and my eyelids would grow heavy and my mind would sink into the oblivion of a silent and holy night, undisturbed by the Christmas mass being administered to my Catholic fellow villagers – “Christ’s blood shed for you.”

The church tower had a different aura during the day. In fact, it provided a bit of entertainment for me at times, when the sun was slightly above or beside the spire. I would take a small mirror and reflect the sunlight against the brick surface
 of the church and tower. I would allow the reflected light to climb up the tower until it shone into the dark belfry. Suddenly the interior would light up, and I could see the outline and surface of the bells. For a ten-year-old boy that was magic. I could actually influence the interior of the open belfry!

Fear and flight
Once, the magic turned into a somewhat dangerous adventure. I was reflecting the bright sunbeam against the building across the street when I saw a German officer walking past the parsonage of the church. I lowered my mirror and caught the officer in my mirror’s beam. His face lit up only for a moment, but it was long enough for his blood to start boiling. He was not pleased. In fact, he yelled something at me in German and ran towards me with the full intent of doing me harm. I did not wait for him but took off for a neighbouring alley. Unfortunately, the officer followed suit. Even more unfortunate for me, it was a blind alley. He had me cornered. In that alley, however, stood a grocer’s handcart, which belonged to a member of our church. Not that it made a difference, but somehow I felt I was in familiar territory. And so I took up position behind it. Whenever the officer made a move to the right, I would move to the left. When he took a step to the left, I would take a step to the right. It looked like a stalemate, until he committed himself by going after me to the right. That’s when I made my move to the left and escaped. I ran back onto the street, towards our house, and disappeared behind it.

I waited for a while, but I soon realized that the enemy had apparently given up the chase. Maybe he came to realize how silly he had been. I was relieved but it took quite a while for my heartbeat to slow down and my fear to subside. At any rate, from that time until the end of the war, I limited my game of influencing the environment to the tower across the street. That was safer than insulting Hitler’s minions walking past our house every day for all of five years. Still, to this day it gives me satisfaction to know that I had managed to strike a symbolic blow against the evil Nazi occupation of my hometown.

Breaking down walls
That was 70 years ago. Today, Germany is our ally and the Catholic Church is led by a Pope who is quietly breaking down walls that separate people. And I don’t play with mirrors anymore. But I would love to lie in a bed in an attic one more time and listen to three giants chasing each other on a cold wintry night that heralds the coming of our Saviour.  

  • Bert Witvoet is a former educator and editor of various magazines, including the Christian Courier, who lives with his wife, Alice, in St. Catharines, Ontario.

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