When I was child, this mile-long road that I still live on had only eleven houses and the road itself was unpaved. It was dusty in the heat of summer, muddy in winter. Vehicles passed so infrequently and so slowly that a glance out the window let us immediately identify the neighbor’s car or truck. Most times we could make a fairly accurate guess as to where they were going and why.
It was not Little House on the Prairie; but back then, before Ma Bell could be persuaded to string lines out this far, neighbors kept in touch with each other through shared farmwork, gossip at the crossroads store or at church-centered events. Each farm had a big iron bell and in serious emergencies — fire or sudden death or life-threatening accidents — the bell would be rung and all the neighbors within earshot would drop whatever they were doing and rush to help.
Until I inherited it, the only time I heard my grandparents’ bell ring was the day my grandfather died.
I still have that bell, but these days it doesn’t ring for calamities and death but to celebrate weddings, Fourth of July or New Year’s Eve.
The road is paved now and two new housing developments cover former cotton and tobacco fields. I can no longer number the houses in my head and cars speed back and forth carrying neighbors I’ll never meet to places and for reasons I don’t bother to speculate about. Instead of iron alarm bells, we now have a volunteer rescue squad with a shiny red fire engine and a fully equipped ambulance, staffed by men and women trained in emergency medical techniques.
I found myself thinking about those bells late last night when I was trying to rewrite a chapter in the book that will be published next year. Shortly after midnight, a rescue truck went screaming past too quicky for me to determine if it was a fire truck or an ambulance. I waited to see if other vehicles followed. If so, it would mean that volunteers were turning out to help with a fire.
Perhaps ten minutes later, with siren wailing and red lights flashing, it sped by in the opposite direction. Ambulance then. A life or death emergency and the nearest hospital more than twenty minutes away.
Today, I have called around to the neighbors I know. One of them was pretty sure that the siren stopped somewhere in the middle of a fifty-house development across from her. No one we knew. Selfishly, we are glad for that. Yet today, some house there is in turmoil. I hope they have made friends in their crowded neighborhood. That there will be someone to bring a casserole or stay with the children or offer hugs and a shoulder to lean on.