You are standing, shakily, at the highest point in the city. It is the belfry at the top of Washington Cathedral's 301-foot tower on Mount St. Albans. The tenor bell, the largest, is right in front of you. It weighs a mere 3,588 pounds, and it, along with seven other of the 10 bells, is banging away at the decibel level of a heavy-metal rock band.
Between the height and the sound, you feel giddy. You think of Dorothy Sayers' murder mystery, "The Nine Tailors," in which the victim dies from the cacophonous din of the bells in a British church tower.
When you are back on the next level in the ringing room, again within hearing range of another person, you ask cathedral bellmaster Rick Dirksen if his bells could kill. He seeks to reassure: "It seems unlikely, but if someone were tied and bound up there for eight hours while they're ringing, it could happen. Probably faster. Among other things you could go crazy." Some reassurance.
Then he suggests stepping out on a ledge near the top of the tower, "because it is easier to talk." You step out, look down at the roof of the nave and find it is not easier for you to talk at all. Thank heaven you are back down on the ground before someone tells you the cathedral is designed to sway when the bells ring. Otherwise, it would crack.
The bell ringers are an intrepid bunch. The height and sound bother them not at all. Their field is called "change ringing," to distinguish them from people like hand-bell ringers, just plain bell ringers and carillon players (that's done from a keyboard and there's one of them in the cathedral tower, too).
And yesterday, if you went near the cathedral anytime between noon and 2:30, what you were hearing was a "full peal," Plain Bob Major by name. The full peal, which would have lasted until about 3:30, had to be aborted because of a mistake. Full peals are the summits of the change-ringing world, and Plain Bob is particularly complex, with its 5,088 "changes" involving eight bells. Changes are simply alterations in the sequences in which bells, each with a different pitch, are rung. The idea is to exhaust all the combinations in which the bells can be rung. There can be no break until the end or the peal is aborted, and no other bells or bell ringers may be substituted. The names of most peals have a peculiar ring to them -- there is also a Plain Bob Minor, a Plain Bob Royal and a Little Bob Major, plus such things as Erin Caters, Cambridge S. Minor, Xenomania S. Major and Double Norwich C. B. Major.
Yesterday's "method," as the sequences are called, was to have been Grandsire Triplex, but that was changed when Dirksen got the word on Sunday that one of his best ringers, Colleen Kollar, had torn a ligament while attending the annual convention of the North American Guild this weekend in Hendersonville, N.C.
Hendersonville must have been a sonorous place during the last few days. "We got there early and were ringing for six days," Kollar recalls excitedly. "They do a ground-floor ring there. We went straight to the tower when we got there and rang until after midnight. Nobody ever complains about us. Why, we get together with hand bells at my place and ring into the night."
It is not so much the musical mind as the mathematical mind that seems most commonly attracted to change ringing. Kollar, for instance, is a consulting engineer. She took up change ringing at M.I.T., while taking an elective course in the subject. Dirksen, though, is a musician; he is the baritone soloist of the cathedral choir and is the son of Wayne Dirksen, the cathedral's organist and choirmaster.
The floor plans of the belfry and the ringing room are synchronized. The bells are arranged in a circle on a massive wooden platform that looks like a cannon carriage. The bells are attached to wooden headstocks that are in turn connected to an enormous wheel. Each bell makes a 360-degree revolution every time it sounds.
Strung around the wheel are heavy ropes that go through the floor and into the ringing room below. The ringers stand on a circular platform facing each other, each assigned to a rope. In addition to ringing a bell, Dirksen acts as the "conductor" making "calls," trying to straighten things out if there is a mistake and controlling the changes.
Change ringing is primarily an East Coast and English phenomenon. Great Britain has more than 5,000 sets of bells that can handle it. The eastern United States has several dozen, but there is none west of Houston except in Canada. Outstanding examples include the Groton Chapel in Connecticut, Old North Church in Boston and, of course, Washington Cathedral, where the bells have been in place since 1964.
The more zealous of the cathedral's ringers, all of them unpaid, work three or four times a week. Some drive 200 miles to get there.
Such is the commitment, that Kollar says, "I would have to seriously consider it before moving to a place without bells."