Show me an Officer’s son or daughter who has no recollection of experiences with Kettles and I’ll show you someone who has unfortunately lost their memory. Every son or daughter of the regiment could sit down and share an interesting array of stories centering around either ringing a bell or playing a brass instrument on the Red Kettle. That certainly was my experience growing up in an Army home where, once we were done with Thanksgiving, we would find ourselves the very next day standing next to a Red Kettle. I guess you could say that it was just expected. I certainly have a long history of serving on the Red Kettle and take great pleasure in sharing a few favorite recollections with you.
The Very Early Years
I couldn’t have been more than eight when I received my “baptism” into bell ringing. My father was the DYPS (the P has since been dropped) in Pittsburgh and one afternoon he suggested that I come with him downtown where he was going to “man the Kettle.” He brought along his old, beat up cornet and was joined around the Red Kettle by two others. “Here, Johnnie, take this bell and when we are not playing, ring it.” So, not really knowing what was going on, I did. The trio played some pretty interesting renditions of what should have been fairly easy Christmas tunes from the same green book and I got to stand there and watch as people threw coins and stuffed dollar bills into the pot. Now THAT was pretty neat! After we had finished, Dad packed up his cornet and we carried the Red Kettle back to the car where he placed it on my lap for the drive home. It was really heavy!
The Corps Cadet Project
“Now next Saturday kids, we are going to do a special project. So be here at the corps by noon at which time we will travel to our special Corps Cadet Red Kettle location,” stated our leader, Mrs. Mildred Hostettler. “And be sure that you dress warm: it may be cold,” she added. I looked at Don and he looked at me with an expression that said “we are in big trouble.” The next Saturday, we met in the lobby of the old Cincinnati Citadel corps and piled into the corps wagon (back in those days, it actually could hold up to 30 children) and were off to our special spot. Four hours later, and after having endured temperatures which I swear were well below zero, we returned to the corps for hot chocolate and cookies, and with a bulging Red Kettle. “Great job, kids; you have done a wonderful service,” stated the corps officer, Major Allen Weyant. I can’t recall if I had any hot chocolate but I do remember that it wasn’t until two days later that the feeling in my hands returned.
Macy’s and the World’s Largest Red Kettle
Now, I don’t really know if it was the world’s largest kettle, but we said it was. It was very likely the heaviest one as it was a 2′ high and 3′ wide cast iron monument to Christmas fundraising. It was the property of the New York Metro Division where my father was the DC at the time. It had been in operation for a number of years and every year it would receive a fresh coat of bright red paint in anticipation of being positioned just across from the main entrance of the Macy’s Department store on 34th and Seventh Avenue. It was a terrific place to have such a huge kettle given the enormous volume of shoppers going in and out of Macy’s, especially on a Saturday. That Red Kettle brought in a ton of money (literally!) and became especially full when a brass band was playing.
I was barely fifteen and just starting to get the hang of playing the tuba and my brother Norm, four years older and a trombonist, was also a regular in what was at least a quartette at Macy’s, but usually an octet on Saturdays. What was so great was that the majority of our group was comprised of younger New York Staff Band members, each a “wailer” in his own right. I cannot begin to tell you how awed I was to be a part of this group. And the music! One of the guys had a series of terrific arrangements which we would whip out and entertain the crowd with. Great stuff, but hard to play! I must admit that it was challenging to keep up with the older fellas, but I somehow always seemed to finish when they did. We would be there for eight hours and had so much fun playing and bantering with shoppers that the time just flew by.
Norman and transporting the Red Kettle
I failed to mention that brother Norm was also at that time a seasonal employee for the Division and responsible for seeing that at the end of the day the World’s Largest Kettle was placed into a van and transported the 20 blocks back to 14th Street where it was to be emptied, the money bagged and the pot stored until the next day. Well, one Saturday night, as Macy’s was closing at about 9:30 p.m., Norm was in a particular hurry. “John, help me throw the kettle into the van; I need to get going!” he said. So, we somehow managed to get the kettle into the back of the front-seat-only van and took off for 14th Street, at a pretty rapid pace. Despite my suggestion that he slow down, Norm was not to be deterred. He was in a particular hurry on this Saturday night, for whatever reason I have never learned. So here we are, me riding shotgun and Mario Andretti behind the wheel. The words “Norm, slow down, man” were no sooner out of my mouth than he executed a far-too-fast left hand turn which resulted in the World’s Largest Kettle crashing through the rear doors of the van and bouncing onto the intersection of Seventh and 35th where all of its contents spilled onto the street. I’ll never forget the look of horror on Norm’s face as he was running all over frantically grabbing at flying bills, many of which were already on their way to the Bronx . We retrieved as much as we could and made our way to headquarters, this time at a far more deliberate speed! I never did find out what happened the following Monday when Norm had to explain why Saturday’s proceeds were lower than expected. I suspect that it couldn’t have been good!
My very first fundraising job was with the Development Department within the Metro New York’s Divisional Headquarters. I was 28 at the time and literally started on the bottom rung of the fundraising ladder. Just prior to my first Christmas there, I was assigned the task of traveling to Wilmore, KY in an effort to recruit Asbury College students as bell ringers for the Division. I was fortunate to have Lt. Col. David Moulton at Asbury (he was the ASF coordinator at the time) as my liaison and he was terrific in helping me to meet my recruitment goal of 50 students. While recruiting, I created a special “Kettle Op’s” team, one which I would personally supervise and which would be placed within the borough of Queens. This was to be an elite group, to consist of eight young men who were willing to work very long hours but with the promise of earning a correspondingly handsome level of pay. I interviewed several students, assigned most to corps and recruited what I thought was a terrific group of ambitious and competitive young men. I was able to get them situated in one of the Queens corps and they started the day after Thanksgiving. Two of them actually worked almost until the last possible moment on December 24th. That experience was among the most rewarding of my fundraising career. These young men were tireless and for the most part kept a cheerful and positive experience, despite the fact that Monday – Friday, they began in the subway stations at 6:30 a.m. and concluded at 9:00 p.m.. Like these students, I was exhausted when the experience was over, but felt a tremendous sense of accomplishment and appreciation for a team of truly special young men.
Chicago Staff Band
I had the privilege to play with the CSB 1967 – 1974. It was a wonderful experience and one I shall always cherish. Well, maybe except for one particular experience. You see, every December, the band would choose a Saturday to go caroling within neighborhoods located along Chicago’s Lake Shore Drive, an incredibly wealthy area. Now, this did not involve a Red Kettle, but we did play as we moved outside from one very tall apartment building to another. As you might imagine, the temperature across the street from Lake Michigan in December is anything but temperate. So, here we are a group of about 30-40 uniformed icicles going from one high rise to another. The idea was for people to put cash or a check in an envelope and throw it down to where we were playing and where “gatherers” were awaiting to retrieve the donations. Only one problem: those towards the top of the high rises, some of which were 20 floors high, had to weigh down their envelopes by enclosing a few coins. I was so glad to be playing a tuba when a heavily weighted envelope was descending. At least I had head cover. Those poor cornet players! The other problem was the temperature itself. We would be right in the middle of “O Little Town of Bethlehem” when half the bands valves would freeze up. We actually had one person running around providing valve oil wherever and whenever needed. Honestly, I don’t know if the Band still engages in this activity. If they do, hopefully they have special winter issue steel helmets!
With My Wife and Children
In 1984 I was recruited to the Michigan Tech Fund in Houghton, MI located in the beautiful Upper Peninsula. When I arrived, I was quite surprised to find out that there was an Army Corps in the little town of Hancock located across the Portage Lake from Houghton. I was introduced to Major Mary Postma who wondered if I would be willing to become a member of the advisory board, which I was only too happy to do. As a board member, we were expected to do our part as bell ringers during the Christmas season. I signed up for four hours on a Saturday afternoon and thought I would see if I could entice my wife Gwen and our three children to share in the experience. Gwen was happy to join in, but my kids were initially a bit skeptical. They had placed coins in the Red Kettle before but had never been on the receiving end of the experience. With a bit of prompting, all five of us arrived en masse at the Red Kettle located smack dab in the middle of the small shopping mall in Houghton. Our kids started off a bit timidly, but once they saw how sharing people were, they quickly got into the spirit of things. Our three-year old became our most demonstrative “thank-you-er” and relished the role. It was a wonderful experience, so much so, that for each of the four years we were in the UP, we made it a family tradition to spend at least half a day each Christmas Season ringing bells.
JB+A Senior Vice President John Marshall has more than 40 years of experience in the nonprofit sector — almost as much experience as he does serving on the Red Kettle. You can reach John at email@example.com or at 816.914.3780.