The Christmas Bell

    by Douglas Wells (Estonia 1992–96, UNV 96–98)

    IT WAS A SPRING DAY on Hiiumaa Island and the first tourists were just starting to arrive. I was at my usual post in the tourist info center and looking forward to my third tourist season since my arrival as a Peace Corps Volunteer, charged with facilitating economic development on this small, beautiful and somehow, mysterious island. Actually, it was really the third tourist season for Hiiumaa, as Estonia had just regained independence after 50 years of occupation and the islands were no longer closed border areas of the Soviet Union.
         I had run across my share of interesting characters during my time on the island. Hiiumaa’s closed conditions had, over the years, produced a unique and fascinating local culture. However, nothing could have prepared me for the next guest who burst through the door of the information center.

    A curious guest
    He looked to be about 70, bald on the top of his head with great shocks of white hair bursting up on both sides like smoke coming out of his ears. His piercing blue eyes quickly took in the room and then focused on me. He was a pretty big guy and when he approached the counter, he had to look down slightly to speak to me. Gripping the edge of the table, raising one bushy white eyebrow and speaking in an excited voice he said in Estonian “Are you Douglas Wells?”
         “Yes, how can I help you?” I replied in my halting Estonian.
         He glanced quickly from side to side, lowered his voice and bent down slightly. “Do you still have that metal detector?”

    Me and my metal detector
    Now this was a strange question for a tourist to ask and I didn’t answer right away. I did have a metal detector, which I had ordered from home so I could explore the sites of some of the World War II battles that had taken place on the island in 1941. The front of the war actually swept over Hiiumaa Island twice — once in 1941 when the Nazis took over on their way to Moscow, and again when the Soviets pushed them back in 1944.
         Most people reacted with quiet amusement or words of caution when they heard about my poking around old battlefields in the forest, but I had some real problems with the local national guard. They feared that I was going to pillage ancient religious sites or find some guns or something and not tell them. They actually went so far as to demand that I keep the metal detector in their armory. When I wanted to use it, I had to go to there, and tell the duty officer why I wanted it and exactly where I was going to go. Then they would open the weapons cabinet, push aside a few Kalashnikovs and, with great ceremony, hand over my fearsome metal detector. Needless to say, this mandated proceedure cut back on my forays to the forest and I just wanted the whole thing to blow over. After all, Hiiumaa was a small place and I didn’t want rumors going around that the local Peace Corps Volunteer was a pillager of ancient local culture.
          When I finally answered the old man’s question, I answered slowly and in a guarded tone, “Yes, I still have it. Why do you ask?”
         At this point his arm shot out and he grabbed my wrist. In a low, husky voice he said urgently, “You’ve got to help me. We must find the clock.”

    Find the clock?
    Here, I have to explain something. In Estonian, the word for clock and the word for bell are the same. Having heard the word used in the former context much more often, this is what I took the old man to mean.
         “What clock?” I said and pulled back little bit. But the man held on and pushed his face closer to mine.
         “The church clock.” he hissed. “The church clock that they buried fifty years ago. You have to help me, we’re running out of time.”
         Now I was getting a little nervous. This guy was really worked up about something and it couldn’t be about some old clock. Why would anybody want an old rusty clock that had been buried in the ground for 50 years? It wouldn’t work anyway and what was the rush?
         “Where is it and what is it made of? ” I asked skeptically.
         The old man looked at me strangely and let go of my wrist.
         “Bronze, of course,” he said. “Solid bronze, and it is somewhere in the forest near the village of Emmaste. Please come, my car is outside.”
         “Is this a trap?” I thought to myself. But the old man was so earnest — and he had those intense blue eyes that bore right through you. This was obviously a man with a mission. So, against my better judgement, I agreed to go with what appeared to be a relatively unstable old man, to an unknown location in the forest, where the National Guard cronies might be waiting to “protect” the local culture from unsavory characters like me.

    Am I in the middle of an adventure novel, or what?   
    After picking up the detector at the armory, we drove toward the south side of the island and the man seemed to relax a little. He pushed back in his seat, took a deep breath and began to talk. I sat spellbound as he told a story that could have come from a best-selling adventure novel.

       It all started in the summer of 1943. The tide of the war had turned and the Germans were being pushed back from Russia. Raw materials were becoming scarce and both sides had taken to scrounging for metal in the countryside. Countless antiques and other objects of value went into the melting pot and particularly sought-after objects were solid brass church “clocks.”
           To the people of Emmaste, their “clock” in the church tower was the pride of the village. It was made in Tartu, in eastern Estonia, of solid brass and weighed about 400 pounds. It had been in the tower since 1925.
           One warm summer night in June, 1943, five young men, who had somehow managed so far to escape the ravages of war, gathered secretly to work out a plan to save this important part of the church’s heritage. They decided that they had to take the “clock” and hide it somewhere until the Nazis and the Soviets where gone. Once things had quieted down, they would dig up the “clock” and put it back in the tower. Late the next night, they went to the church and took down the pride of Emmaste Church, took it to the forest and buried it.

    The five guys from Hiiumaa
    Well, as you probably know, things didn’t quiet down. The war took its course and scattered the five young men . One was taken prisoner and sent to Siberia, where he died in a prison camp. Two escaped to Sweden ahead of the advancing Soviet army. The other two found their way to Canada after slipping away from Hiiumaa in a fishing boat.
         When the Soviets re-established their control over the island, it was immediately clear that this was not a religion-friendly regime, so the bell stayed put for over 40 years until Estonia began taking steps to re-establish its independence.
         By 1987, only two members of the group were still alive, one in Canada and one in Sweden. The man in Sweden decided it was time to take stock of the situation and see if something could be done about restoring the lost treasure of Emmaste Church to its proper place. Both men were quite old, so they sent my friend, the old man, from Sweden to find the “clock.”
         Well, on Hiiumaa, the people of the village had pretty much given up the “clock” for lost. The locals had looked around for it without success, and then decided that one of the group had sold it, taken the money and escaped. In fact they blamed the member of the group who was still alive in Sweden and had even “found out” the price that he had received. Well, for a loyal Estonian exile who was on his deathbed in Sweden, this was really too much. And this is what had brought the old man to Hiiumaa. His mission was to clear his friend’s name before this member of the group went to his grave.
          Well, clock or not, I am not a totally heartless person, and after I heard this, I agreed to go and look around in the forest. But there where complications: No one from the group had been back to Hiiumaa since the 40’s and time had fogged the memories of the two who were still alive. On top of that, a road had since been built in the area and a crop-drying facility had also been set up, further changing the landscape. It was in this questionable situation that we started our search.

    First try
    We arrived in Emmaste and the old man directed me to a spot near an old farm where he said we would find our sought-after treasure. So, there our search began. Back and forth, back and forth, I went with the metal detector. The old man followed close behind and with every electronic beep, he jumped ahead with his shovel and started to dig. But alas, our search was in vain. When it started to get dark, I decided to give up.
         “Look,” I said, trying to be diplomatic, “Maybe you’ve got the place wrong or somebody else dug it up and sold it. At any rate, its not here and I want to go home.”
         The old man had a strange look of puzzlement and resignation on his face. “I don’t understand it,” he said at last, “its got to be here somewhere.”
         We stood in silence for a while, and then the old man waved his hand toward the car. We drove back to my apartment in silence. When he dropped me off, he said goodbye and shook my hand but his mind was clearly elsewhere.
         I wanted to just write him off as a crazy old man, but as I lay in bed that night my mind kept picturing the old man going back to Sweden and telling his sick, unjustly accused friend that the search had been fruitless. I kept seeing the old man’s piercing blue eyes as he gripped my wrist and said, “You have to help me.”
         I finally dropped of to sleep and as the next few weeks passed, I forgot about the old man and our strange encounter. Maybe he was crazy, maybe the “clock” really had been sold, or maybe it was just plain lost. At any rate, I was glad to be through with the affair, and the rest of the summer and fall passed uneventfully. With the coming of bad weather, the metal detector sat undisturbed next to the machine guns in the armory. All was well with the world.

    Another visit
    Then came December. I was sitting in the info center, watching the rain and sleet fall outside. Not particularly Christmas-like weather, but the radio kept assuring us there would ba a white Christmas. The tourists had long since left so I was a little surprised to hear the outside door open and someone stamping their feet on the mat. A head poked around the corner and a hand pulled off a wool cap to reveal the unmistakable bushy eyebrows and shocks of white hair. The old man was back and with a vengeance. He fairly bounded into the room and squinted at me with the trademark blue eyes.
         “Still here, eh?” he said, “I’ve got new information. The other living member of the group visited Sweden and he told me we were looking in the wrong place.”
         I scratched the back of my head as a sinking feeling came over me. This guy wanted to go back into the forest in the cold rain and sleet. Maybe I could politely beg off without hurting his feelings.
         “Could you come back?” I asked hopefully, “The weather’s kind of bad and I don’t think the ‘clock’ is going anywhere. Besides, the local National Guard folks have been kind of uppity about me using the metal detector.” But the old man would have none of it.
         “You HAVE to help,” he said with those blue eyes boring into me, “a man’s on his deathbed with his honor at stake.”
         What could I say to that?
         With a sigh of resignation, I took my coat, which the old man had already retrieved from the coat rack, and headed out the door into the cold, December rain. As I locked the door to the info center I thought to myself — what a sucker and I was probably going to catch pneumonia over some stupid clock.
         We rode in silence as the windshield wipers beat out a steady rhythm. Though it was only about one o’clock, the light was already starting to go and I figured that, at the most, I would have to run around in the forest for maybe two or three hours and would then be back in my warm apartment, practicing Christmas songs on my guitar. Maybe then the old man would give up and go back to Sweden. Everyone would write the whole thing off to the confusion of war and live happily ever after. The old man interrupted my thoughts.

    New information
    “First we get the metal detector out of the armory and then we go to another old farmstead about one kilometer south of where we first were. According to the new information that’s where it should be. The group member from Canada was absolutely sure.”
         Sure, I thought to myself as I hunched down in the seat for the ride, after fifty years this guy remembers just where to go, without even coming here.
         When we finally pulled onto a gravel road and stopped, the rain had let up a bit. I could see a grove of trees just 20 feet away, an old, abandoned car wash, and what looked to be a grain-drying facility. Hardly in the middle of the forest and it seemed pretty unlikely that anyone would try and hide something valuable in this particular spot. Apparently, my partner didn't share my skepticism. The old man jumped out of the car, grabbed a shovel from the trunk and motioned for me to follow him. I stuck my head out of the car door and squinted up at the sky, hoping to see a break in the clouds. Nothing doing — gray and rain. I sighed and grudgingly got out of the car, shouldered the metal detector and followed the old man towards the car wash.
         With the old man accompanying me, and no sound but that of the tone of the detector and the rain dripping off the leaves, I walked back and forth through the brush. I tried to walk in an organized search pattern, sweeping the detector around trees and through the ditch by the roadside, but the old man kept saying, “Try over here. Try over there.”
         After two hours of this I had reached the limits of my patience.
         This is ridiculous, I thought. as the light slowly faded and the wetness seeped through my clothes. The old man watched me silently, and I think he read my thoughts. He pointed at a small cluster of trees barely 15 feet from where the car wash had been built.
         “Please, just try that one last place,” he said.
         I crawled out of the ditch and mumbled out loud, “If this is really some sort of church icon and if God wants us to find it, we will. It is in His hands, not mine. I’m going to go home and forget about the whole thing.”
         Not thirty seconds later the metal detector gave a loud chirp. There was something really large buried between the small trees.
         The old man saw me stop and he came running over.
         “What is it?” he asked.
         “I don’t know but it’s big and pretty shallow and . . . damn, it’s some kind of brass or other light metal.”

    The object revealed
    The old man swept the leaves and ground clutter away and dug his shovel into the ground. Thunk. The shovel hit something solid before it had gone six inches down. With this, the old man dropped to his knees in the muddy soil, and began digging with his bare hands and throwing dirt from between his legs like a crazed, gray-haired fox terrier. As I stood watching in amazement, what first appeared out of the ground was a ring about three feet across — certainly nothing that looked like a clock.
         “Ah, that ain’t it,” I said in disgust and started to turn away.
         Like lightning, the old man reached up and grabbed my collar. “We’ve found it. We found it. Get back here and help me dig.”
         Mostly out of fear, I joined in the digging. As we dug down in the center of the exposed ring and hit metal again, it finally dawned on me what we had found. What clock? This was a huge church bell, resting upside down only a few inches under the soil, just a matter of feet from where major construction had taken place. How had it been missed? It was as if someone had been protecting it
         After we uncovered about half of the bell, the old man sat back. He looked up at me and said with quiet determination, “We need help. And we need to tell the old pastor of the church. He was here when the bell was buried and he has to be told.”

    The pastor
    The pastor lived a couple of miles up the road in an old farmhouse. He had come to Hiiumaa after serving early in the war as a German officer. He had seen so much death and destruction (he himself was injured in the leg), that he joined the seminary after his discharge and retreated to this little island to do God's work.
         A little dog barked excitedly as we pulled up to his home and an enormous yellow cat gazed at us through the window. The pastor’s wife already had the door open by the time we reached the porch and we went straight inside without more than a few words of greeting.
         “Where’s Guido?” the old man said excitedly “I have great news, wonderful news.” The pastor’s wife gave us a puzzled look.
         “He’s in watching TV but what —.”
         She didn’t get a chance to finish as the old man shot by her with me close behind. The pastor was sitting in the living room holding a cane upright between his knees and resting his chin on his hands as he watched TV. He was a very small man, bald and with thick glasses. He looked to be at least 80 years old.
         When we burst into the room, he gave a start and squinted up at us. Without a word of explanation, the old man ran over and grabbed the pastor by the shoulder and started shaking him so hard that the poor man’s glasses almost fell off.
         “Guido. We found the bell.” he shouted into the pastor’s ear. The pastor shrank back in his chair with a look of confusion on his face.
         “Why are you yelling? What do you want?” he said in a quavering voice.
        The old man sat on the floor in front of the pastor, looked him straight in the eyes and repeated slowly,
    “Guido, we found the church bell.. The lost Emmaste Church bell.”
         A few more short seconds was all it took. A look of comprehension swept over the pastor’s face and with its progress, the years seem to melt away from his body. Almost magically, the pastor slowly transformed. He straightened up, squared his shoulders and a fire came to his eyes.
         “The Bell.” He leapt from his chair.
         Dropping his cane, he headed straight for the front door and would have made it outside, had his wife not grabbed him by the shirt collar and pulled him back. She was larger than he was and it was quite humorous to see the pastor trying to pull open the door while his wife held him back.
         “Not without your coat and boots,” she said firmly “You'll catch your death of cold.”
         The pastor looked like a child trying to get out into the season’s first snow as his wife pulled on his boots and placed a cap on his head.
         “Let me go,” he said and finally broke free.
         His wife followed us out, holding the pastor’s cane, but the pastor never slowed down. He jumped into the car and bounced up and down with anticipation in the back seat. I looked back to see the pastor’s wife framed in the light of the open doorway, tears in her eyes and her hands folded in a silent prayer of thanks.
         As we drove back, I think the pastor noticed me for the first time. I explained who I was and why I was helping to look for the bell. He didn’t really seem to understand what an American was doing out in the forest in such bad weather. He just nodded thoughtfully and we rode the rest of the way in silence. When we slid to a halt on the muddy road near the bell, the pastor was the first one out of the car. He held on to the old man’s arm as they made their way to where the bell lay half-uncovered. At the edge of the hole, the pastor stopped and peered down. He looked for while, then slid his glasses down on his nose and peered over the top of them. Several silent seconds ticked by and then the pastor fell to his knees. Tears rolled down his cheeks as he said a prayer of thanks.

    The word spreads
    A couple of old ladies rode by on their bicycles and stopped to see what we where doing and what was the former village pastor doing kneeling next to a hole in the ground. They walked up, took one look at the bell, and were off like a shot towards the village. I have never seen anybody, much less a couple of old ladies, pedal a bicycle so fast.
         Soon others from the village came. Even the director of the island’s museum showed up. There was quite a crowd standing around and four of five of us tried to pull the bell out of the hole. It wouldn’t budge and finally somebody brought a front-end loader and the bell was lifted up and carried about a quarter mile to the church There it was placed on the floor inside and the pastor held a short service to bless it and welcome it back to its home. When the day finally became dark and I asked the old man to give me a ride home, there were still people standing around talking and pointing at the bell and at the old man and me.

    Home for the holidays
    A few days later I went home on Christmas leave and the flight out of Tallinn, Estonia’s capital, took me right over Hiiumaa. I looked down at the cross-shaped island, and said “Merry Christmas” softly to myself as I thought about the beautiful sound the bell would make, ringing in its first Christmas service in 50 years. With the cold crisp nights, the sound of the bell would reach to neighboring villages, beckoning people to come and see the Christmas miracle in Emmaste. I felt a surge of Christmas spirit like I hadn’t felt since I was a kid.

    Back on Hiiumaa
    The holidays in the U.S. passed quickly and soon I was on a plane back to Estonia and then, by bus and ferry, I made my way to Hiiumaa Island. The first Sunday I was back, I went to the church to talk to the current pastor. He greeted me warmly, and asked me if I had heard about all the fuss.
         I nodded. “But was the bell in the tower for Christmas?”
         The young pastor gave me a strange look.
         “Of course it was in the tower for Christmas. Five men from the village put it back up.”
         How perfect, I thought — five guys had taken the bell down, five friends who had never been able to return and complete their plan, and now five others had done it for them.
         We went inside the church and walked to where a thick rope was hanging down through a hole in the ceiling. I reached out to touch it and then turned to look at the pastor. He read my thoughts and, with a smile, nodded his head. I turned back, grabbed the rope with both hands and pulled as hard as I could.

      From the Office of the President of Estonia, Lennart Meri
      December 24, 1994

      On Christmas Eve morning the President decreed that his salary for this month should be given to Emmaste Church on Hiiumaa so that their church bell, which was found in a miraculous fashion, could be restored to the bell tower.
           The President has turned to the United States Peace Corps and asked that his personal thanks be given to Volunteer Douglas Wells from Omaha, Nebraska, who found the bell with a metal detector.
           The President added: “As a result of the occupation of Estonia, the Emmaste congregation took down their bell and hid it in the bosom of the earth, that it would survive until the restoration of the Estonian Republic. Months and years turned into decades. The hidden one's exact location faded from memory, but the memory of the bell waiting for its time to come burned bright. The national memory of the Estonians was only made stronger by the iron grip of the occupiers.”
           “Let the wondrous return of the Emmaste Bell to its tower be a present-day Christmas present to all Estonian people. Let the peals of the bell bring peace, loyalty, and love throughout Estonia, bringing news of the Christmas miracle that has been born among us.”

    Merry Christmas Everyone.