I was looking at the online photo gallery from the 2019 Marine Corps Historic Half that takes place in my town of Fredericksburg to see if I was in any of the pics. I was not a runner but had been all through the thousands of runners taking photos and looking for people I knew who participated in the event. I was never in any of the shots, but I recognized something special in the last few photos. It was “The Bell.” I once was the owner and it has a long history, only some of which is known.
The bell was found by my father-in-law, Commander Robert Kieffer, when he and his wife moved from San Diego to Washington DC just after the Korean War. Bob had come here to become an electronics engineer and participated in the Navy’s first computer system development. One day, while living in a rented home near the base, he found a thick brass bell in a dark corner of the basement. Engraved upon it in big letters was “USN.” It was devoid of any other markings, however, and left him clueless to its origins. Given the amount of oxidation that had built up, it was thought to have been there for a long time.
Bob brought the bell back to San Diego when he finished schooling and it sat upon a shelf for many years in his garage. I had always admired it and one day he just gave it to me. I spent hours removing the heavy oxidation with the idea I would hang it outside on the patio. I never did and it sat in a box for another 12 or 13 years in storage.
After my divorce, I sorted through all the stuff I had put into storage in preparation for the move back to Virginia. I thought about giving the bell away as the extra weight would just add to the cost of shipping. But I decided to keep it because Bob had given it to me and that made it special. Commander Kieffer had been a fighter pilot in two wars and a recipient of the Purple Heart. To my knowledge, he was the only F6F Hellcat pilot to single-handedly sink an enemy ship with one 500 pound bomb which was delivered broadside at 50 feet off the deck.
For six more years, the bell sat out in my summer room – out of the box and dismantled. Many times I thought of completing the job I had started back in San Diego but I always found more important projects to do. So, I decided to sell it. One day, I was talking with acquaintances on the train I rode to and from work, and Mark, a former Marine who works at the MCM Organization, was interested in buying the bell. We talked about it for weeks and one day we finally got together and made the deal. The MCMO would use the bell at events for runners to ring anytime they beat their personal best. He had a friend make a handsome stand for it and the restored heavy melody maker was once again pressed into service.
Perhaps we’ll never know just how old she is or her beginnings prior to being found by my Father-In-Law. Nonetheless, I came to realize that I had been the custodian of a special item which, after a long journey, is once again serving our Armed Services personnel with distinction. Accordingly, I’ve refunded the sale price and consider myself lucky to be a part of it all. -Sonny Poteat
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