Every day the College and the School begin with seven pulls on the rope of The Bell: Charlie Arms’ Bell. The Bell rang out joyously as we returned from lockdown, sounds the start of lunch or a party and marks day’s end. At solemn times we remember heroic souls. We rang it four times for the Birmingham Four. On 9/11, we pause and pray and ring the bell eleven times. That we recall brave souls is fitting for The Bell.
The story of The Bell is the story of Charlie Arms.
Passenger train 102 was heading down the line running late. A bridge had been raised to allow a ship to pass, the warning lights were lit, but the engineer missed the signal. He kept going and the train dropped down into the river. The engineer and the express manager drowned and even greater tragedy seemed certain.
That’s when Charlie Arms got off his sick bed and made history. He helped, when few others would, pulling people out of the water. His nation rewarded him with a medal and the legend of Charlie Arms began. Somehow, in the providence of the good God and the sharp eye of our Provost, our School and College ended up with the bell from passenger train 102. On the day of the accident, we recollect the heroism of a regular man, Charlie Arms, who did the right thing when almost everyone else stood and watched.
As far as we can tell, Mr Arms was well liked in his community before the accident. He worked hard down by the river and happened to be in the right place to answer virtue’s tocsin. Arms could not have known the accident was coming, but the events showed his quality. Many have excellent parents, a good community, and an enviable social position. Combined with natural inclinations, a decent person results. Others of us have a rougher start, but find mentors and work hard to achieve character. There are others about whom nobody is sure, including themselves, but a crisis comes. Some gentlemen are born, some are made, some become a gentleman in the moment.
Who knows what makes a person at the crisis, when the emergency bell rings, do the right thing?
I know that if we train ourselves in virtue, practice in the small things, that we might have a better chance of not fluffing our Charlie Arms moment. We should educate ourselves in virtue, repenting, God help us, of false starts and sins.
Yet there is a grace that allows some of us to go beyond our duty to heroism, when the bell rings a cry for help. Some have the grace for heroism. We should pray for that grace and recognize that work of God in those around us: the caregivers, the pastors, the good parents. I have seen my own parents go beyond the call of duty in ministry by helping people at great cost to themselves. Like so many other great deeds, these quiet acts are often not celebrated. The legend of Charlie Arms, every toll of that bell on a normal day, reminds our community of those less well known, those without publicity, those whose sacrifice is only recorded in the Book of Life. After all, while Charlie Arms got a medal in his time, there is hardly any record of his heroism remaining. Few recall his actions today. Other heroes in other situations are known only to God.
God knows and remembers. He remembers what Charlie Arms did in the crisis of train 102. He knows what the front line nurse does in the emergency room. He sees the faithful friend who pours out his life to help a brother in need. The Day will come when the bells of Heaven will ring and all God’s children will be welcomed to the City of God. That day will have feasting for all those in the image of the Heroic Christ: those who laid down their lives for others.
God bless Charlie Arms and God bless this Republic.