Salvation Army Christmas Kettles

(An excerpt from On We March: A memoir of growing up in The Salvation Army) by Bette Dowdell

And what would Christmas be without the ubiquitous Salvation Army Christmas kettle? Its familiar tripod stand and shiny red kettle the size of a slightly deflated basketball are part of what December has to be. While most people see them simply as part of the season, we depended on them to bring in money for the big Christmas push.

Athens presented a major challenge. The Corps faced huge needs, but we had few to none potential bell ringers, at least of the volunteer variety–the only variety that fit the budget. Spending Saturdays, the biggest kettle day, standing outdoors in Ohio’s winter weather, ringing a bell and asking for money didn’t appeal to everybody.

Daddy went to the various service clubs–Lions, Kiwanis, etc.–to speak about the need. Each club volunteered a Saturday, with one club manning one kettle. Daddy told them he’d report back the total of each club’s take, so it became a sort of goodwill competition–as Daddy hoped it would. Competition helps. Nobody wants their team to lose because they dropped the ball by not showing up, so Daddy could be sure they’d all be there.

Flo and I worked a kettle, too. We knew, better than anybody else, the huge challenge facing Daddy and Mother, and we wanted to lend a hand. Thus, we informally entered the kettle competition.

During our kettle-tending time, we tried various fund-raising approaches. Sometimes I accosted people, walking with them down the busy street, smilingly suggesting I could tell by the look on their face they really wanted to help the less fortunate. It worked pretty well. More often than not they accepted my premise and dropped money into the kettle.

Every once in a while somebody got grumpy about my approach, but when I offered an ultra-goofy apology of sorts, they always left smiling, sometimes laughing. Their amusement rarely led them to change their minds about contributing, but at least they didn’t leave mad at the Army.

I also earned success, of a limited nature, by smiling and waving my eyebrows at little kids. Entranced by my dancing eyebrows–first one up and the other down, then reverse, then both going the same direction–and my singsong incantation about the joys of putting money in the pot, they all wanted to put something into the red kettle. They never failed to ask their parents for money, but invariably received only small change to donate, the reason for only limited success. We appreciated every nickel we received and heaped a profusion of thanks on the junior contributors, but those Christmas boxes cost a whole lot more than small change.

Some of my best results came from a pair of play glasses. The lenses had bloodshot eyes painted on cardboard glued to the end of ultra-flexible springs. A bulbous nose and mustache hung below the frame. With eyes bouncing maniacally at the slightest move of my head, I waved my eyebrows and did my best–but truly atrocious– Groucho Marx imitation, duck walk and all. But it made people laugh, and they gave.

If things slowed down, I topped the outfit by whipping out a small, plastic toy flute and offering to play an original tune for anybody putting ten dollars (as I halfway remember the amount) in the kettle. Now, as a matter of fact, I had no idea how to play any sort of a flute, so when somebody kicked in the requisite amount, I had to vault into overdrive. Wearing the glasses, eyes wildly flopping in every direction, and shuffling around in a sort of dance, my exaggerated finger motions randomly closed holes in the flute as I huffed my lungs out. Predictably, I produced one foul note after another, as loud and proud as I could blow them.

The flute routine always attracted a crowd. Sometimes it generated enough laughter to motivate additional donations large enough to require an encore or two. I would shake my head, creating an avalanche of bouncing-eye activity, stagger as if I couldn’t go on, then relaunch. Given the ad-lib nature of the flute playing, I could solemnly assure every contributor they had earned a debut performance of an original composition.

Meanwhile, Flo played a great straight man, smiling and chatting with onlookers. For all I know, she may have been agreeing with them that I might be certifiable, but our routine worked. I brought many in with my looniness; she brought in the rest with her charm and big smile.

How I got to be the buffoon and Flo the straight man remains a puzzlement. No matter. It’s always a wonderful day when a ham gets to chew the scenery and do good at the same time.

The Kiwanians et al did their duty on that cold December day. Flo and I had fun. Our results, of course, beat the tar out of theirs. The Bible says God loves a cheerful giver; human nature says people in a good mood become more cheerful–and better–givers.

But we figured the profound stuff out later. At the time we just knew Daddy and Mother needed our help, and we gave it our eye-ball-bouncing best.

§§§

The Army sent Joe Bosco, a Lieutenant new to the ranks, to Pomeroy, a town twenty miles southeast of Athens on the Ohio River. Pomeroy had, if possible, even less potential than Athens. And to Joe, a New York City boy who had quite possibly never previously ventured west of the Hudson, it might as well have been Uzbekistan. While the language sounded fairly familiar, attitudes and the pace of daily life were absolutely foreign. However, being a native New Yorker, he felt confident he could shape the locals up in short order, never for a moment considering they might think the shaping up should go in the opposite direction.

But Joe had a big heart and a lot of vinegar, so Daddy and Mother set out to help him. They even smiled when he showed up, day after day, right at dinnertime with urgent questions to ask Daddy–his timing coincidental, of course. After a few well-chosen words about not wanting to barge in, he always saw his way clear to accept Mother’s invitation to join us. We all liked Joe.

Joe need fund-raising help, too, so Flo and I volunteered to work a day on Pomeroy’s Christmas kettles. On the fated day, off we went. Straight to disaster.

Lt. Bosco had never worked a kettle. He had never managed a kettle crew before. He didn’t have a clue about kettles, and we, to whom kettles were second nature, had no idea he had no idea. We had never before met an Army person who didn’t know how it went.

He set us up with a kettle at the edge of a sort of warehouse business district directly across from the river, wished us well and went about his other business. Standing on a street-corner across from the mighty Ohio on a December’s day can freeze your tuchus in short order.

This freeze-the-volunteer fact is well known to kettle people, and they make arrangements for “warming” breaks. This understanding, however, eluded Joe–which we realized about the third time he drove by waving happily. We would serve our seven hours straight–no warming breaks, no potty breaks and no lunch.

The cast-iron kettles could usually be removed from the stand, so in a pinch, you could risk a hernia and lug the kettle along as you sought warmth and shelter. Not these kettles. Not that it mattered much. Our poorly-chosen location didn’t offer any close-by refuge. We had no money to buy lunch even if we lucked upon a place that sold food. We would not abandon the kettle and risk losing its contents, however unimpressive. And neither of us saw the area as a place to leave the other alone. We were stuck.

We tried to wave Joe over each time he cruised by, but he misunderstood the motions of our frozen appendages as friendly gestures, not pleas for help. And he didn’t hear us bellowing for him to stop. And so it went for the entire day.

Had he stopped, besides getting a chance to get warm, we could have told him the kettle was in a lousy location. Joe, Flo and I would all have ended up a whole lot happier; Joe for the likelihood of more money from a better location, Flo and I for an opportunity to thaw.

We had given our word and we knew the need, so all day long we rang the bell and tended the kettle. Few people went by. Fewer yet put anything in the pot. We paced about in an attempt at sufficient animation to generate a little internal heat, but with frozen bodies refusing to cooperate, we ended up stumping around like poorly-acted alien monsters from a Grade B movie. Joe kept driving by. We kept waving and hollering. To no avail.

It was a very bad day.

Finally, our kettle time came to an end and Joe came to collect the tripod, the pot and us. By then neither Flo nor I felt any inhibitions about informing him exactly what he had put us through and how we felt about it–and him. Poor guy. He hadn’t given a thought to what it must be like for us, and now he felt dreadful. And he had to explain to Daddy, his lifeline, how it came to be that his daughters arrived home frozen as solid as cod.

After feeding, thawing and properly commiserating with Flo and me, Daddy had a talk with Joe. While unhappy about the freezing of his kinder, he knew Joe had intended no harm, and after an unsmiling teachable moment, chalked it up to youthful inexperience. Since Daddy’s teachable moments tended to strike fear in the hearts of listeners–perhaps even greater than their fear of God, what with Daddy being visibly present and large–my guess is Joe’s kettle workers received excellent treatment ever after.

And Joe kept arriving in Athens just in time for dinner. Coincidentally, of course.

§§§

Excerpted from Bette Dowdell’s coming memoir, A Love Song for Daddy: A memoir of growing up in The Salvation Army

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