belled trivia roundup

A roundup of obliquely bell-related trivia, featuring baseball, Civil War spies, giant bells that may or may not exist, fast-food franchises, and Wesley Snipes…

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1. Let’s talk about Belle Boyd. If there were a young adult book series about her, it would be called Belle Boyd: Girl Spy of the Confederacy. Boyd was born in Martinsburg, Virginia, at the extreme north end of the state. Her career in spycraft dates to July 4, 1861, when a group of “mad drunk” (her words) Union soldiers ransacked her home after claiming the city. They were cutting a swath through town, and when the group “commenced their depredations” on her home, they threatened to raise a Union flag, which her mother would not countenance. Says Boyd: “one of the soldiers, thrusting himself forward, addressed my mother and myself in language as offensive as it is possible to conceive. …my blood was literally boiling in my veins; I drew out my pistol and shot him.” Apparently we can date ironic misuse of the word “literally” to at least 1861.

Belle Boyd
Belle Boyd

That quote is from her memoirs, which are exaggerated to almost hilarious effect. In her account, the commanding officer took no action, saying that she had “done perfectly right.” I’m sure that’s exactly how it went down. Thus emboldened, she became a spy. Sometimes she used her wiles to extract information from lustful Union soldiers; she once hid in a closet listening to a strategy meeting, then used fake papers to cross enemy lines and deliver a report to Stonewall Jackson. Did I mention she was 17 while this was happening? And also that she was often able to convey messages only by giving them to her personal maid, a slave named Eliza Hopewell? I feel like there’s an allegory in there somewhere.

Northern papers made her a celebrity of sorts, calling her “La Belle Rebelle,” “the Siren of the Shenandoah,” “the Rebel Joan of Arc,” and “Amazon of Secessia” (that last one is amazing). They, too, exaggerated her exploits: one paper “…described her as having, sword in hand, led on the whole of the attacking line to the capture of Front Royal.” And, granted it was a different time and there was a war on and everything, but they did not treat her with kid gloves, suggesting that “…the only additional ornament she required to render herself perfectly beautiful was a Yankee halter [noose] encircling her neck.” Jesus christ!

When finally she was arrested in early 1862, she was escorted to jail by—according to her count—almost 500 soldiers. When she was arrested again a few months later, it was on the direct orders of Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. She was released, exiled to Richmond, fled to Canada and then to England in 1864, where she wrote her memoirs. She returned to the states and in 1869 married an ex-Union soldier (plot twist). She died at age 56, in 1900.

"spying activities"
“spying activities”

You can read her memoirs online (see also here and here for more). They are wildly exaggerated, unfiltered, provincial, pulpy, propaganda-ey, and weirdly fascinating, in part because they are chock-a-block with the stilted phrasing and obscure lexicon of the 19th century. For example, she describes Lincoln as having “…sowed the dragon’s teeth and reaped the only harvest that could spring from such seed.” Another good one: “I was twice brought to a standstill by the challenge of the Federal sentries, and who would inevitably have put a period to my adventurous career had they not been beguiled by my false passport.”

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"Cool Papa" Bell
“Cool Papa” Bell

2. Born James Thomas Bell in 1903, the son of sharecroppers, “Cool Papa” Bell forged a 25-year career in the Negro Leagues and other semi-pro baseball leagues. He’s a Hall of Famer, one of the best players ever, and also, perhaps, the fastest player ever.

Bunyanesque tall tales abound for every great baseballer from eras past. Bell’s are some of the most delightful mythologizing you can find: he once scored from first on a sacrifice bunt; one fielder said if the ball bounced twice before you picked it up, you shouldn’t bother trying to throw him out. He was said to have forced Jackie Robinson’s move from shortstop to second base by continually beating out Robinson’s throws to first, demonstrating a weak arm. Satchel Paige—a tale-spinner of the highest order—said that Bell could turn off the lights and be in bed before the room was dark, and, my personal favorite: “Once he [Bell] hit a line drive right past my ear. I turned around and the ball hit his ass sliding into second.” Old baseball yarns are the best.

Among the stranger interludes in Bell’s necessarily itinerant career include a 1937 stint on a traveling all-star team. In the Dominican Republic. Funded by the brutal dictator Rafael Trujillo. “People told us if we didn’t win the title we would be executed,” Bell said. “But we won.” Good thing. Besides liking him because he has an all-timer of a (nick)name, I’m also a fan of his telling it like it is. Exhibit A: “They say I was born too soon. I say the doors were opened too late.” Exhibit B: “They used to say, ‘If we find a good black player, we’ll sign him.’ They was lying.”

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3. The Great Bell of Dhammazedi is the largest bell ever cast, and it’s not even close. It checked in at 327 tons, and the next heaviest on the list (there’s a “heaviest bells” wiki page, just FYI) is just 127 tons. Also, there’s this: the Great Bell is from 1484, constructed on the orders of King Dhammazedi of Burma. He’s widely regarded as one of the wisest and most peaceable kings in Burmese history; once a Buddhist monk, the queen Shin Shawbu so trusted him as an adviser that she named him as her heir.

Supposedly the bell was the result of a census. The census takers returned with several hundred tons of coinage, which Dhammazedi ordered cast into a bell and placed in front of the Shwedagon Pagoda as a gift. I don’t want to criticize anyone’s judgment, but I’m not sure the Shwedagon really needed the world’s largest bell in addition to looking like this:

Shwedagon Pagoda
Shwedagon Pagoda

Of course colonialism had to fuck it up. Filipe de Brite e Nicote—charmingly described on Wikipedia as a “Portuguese warlord”—absconded with the bell in 1608. No easy feat: it was first rolled down a hill (I would pay a good deal of money to see video of this event), then dragged by a team of elephants to specially-made boat, which cracked up a short ways downriver. The bell sunk; de Brite was executed via impalement five years later.

Attempts to recover the bell are ongoing. A recent news report from Myanmar claims the bell was found, but hasn’t been verified. One skeptic suggests that because the rivers have changed course in the last four centuries, no one is looking in the right place, and—here’s a right turn—also suggests there’s no actual evidence that the Great Bell ever existed. Cryptobellologists are hard at work to uncover the truth.

Semi-geographically related is the Tamil bell, notable not for being large, but because in 1836 a Cornish missionary in New Zealand found Māori women boiling potatoes in it. The inscription on the bell is archaic Tamil, suggesting it was cast sometime in the mid-15th century. It’s not clear how it ended up in New Zealand, since Tamil seafarers aren’t generally thought to have reached that far.

The closest thing ever attempted to the Great Bell was Russia’s Tsar Bell, a 200-ton, 20 foot behemoth cast in 1735. Unfortunately, a nearby fire caused the bell to be doused with cold water, and it cracked before being completed. It sat in the pit being used for its construction for over a century before it was extracted (Napoleon tried twice, and failed both times). The whole thing, including the broken-off piece—which itself weighs 13 tons—is on display near the Kremlin.

Tsar Bell
Tsar Bell

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4. “In April of 1999 Taco Bell received The Grande EFFIE, one of the most prestigious awards in the advertising industry.” Yeah, but how did it get there? The first Taco Bell opened in 1962 in southern California. It was the brainchild of Glen Bell, a transitory restaurateur who had sold off at least six hamburger, hot dog, and taco stands before opening the Bell. One of his early hot dog stands was across the street from a taco place, and he befriended the owner enough to extract the secret of making crispy taco shells (apparently many places at the time would make the taco in a soft shell, then deep fry the entire thing, which sounds…amazing). He started selling tacos out a side window of his hot-dog drive-in, and by 1978 sold Taco Bell to Pepsi for $125 million.

omgfacts dot com, which sounds legitimate, claims Glen Bell is a descendant of Joseph Bell. Joseph Bell was a prominent late-19th century Scottish physician, with a reputation for deducing the occupation of people he just met. In 1877, a young Arthur Conan Doyle served as his clerk, and legend holds that Bell was the model for Sherlock Holmes. That’s true, but I’m pretty sure the whole “his bloodline founded Taco Bell” thing is unfounded.

Long-lost Taco Bell items of yore: Spicy Chicken Cool Ranch DLT (don’t know and don’t want to know what the D stands for), the Bell Beefer (loose taco meat on a hamburger bun), Bacon Cheeseburger Burrito, Shrimp Tacos, Chicken Caesar Grilled Stuffed Burrito, and the Big Taste Taco. Does anyone else not order things with stupid names, because you’re unwilling to debase yourself by saying it out loud, or is that just me?

A rare glimpse inside the enchirito factory
A rare glimpse inside the enchirito factory

The unicorn of Taco Bell items, though, is the Enchirito. Delicately adorned with three black olive slices, as befits the finery of a king, the Bell’s trademark filing describes it as “Merely a Fanciful Combination of ‘Enchilada’ and ‘Burrito,’” and it’s been off and on menus since the 1970s (currently off, I think).

According to the Wesley Snipes/Sylvester Stallone dystopic action thriller Demolition Man, Taco Bell will be the only franchise to survive the fast food wars, which occur sometime between now and 2032. A tragic moment in world history and a failure of mutually assured destruction, the fast food wars began when a 1.21 gigawatt white laser was fired from the BellGrande 1 satellite, disabling the McStrategic Defense Initiative with Egg missile defense system. This opened the door for Grilled Stuft XXL ICBMs to rain down in a mcflurry of hellfire and avocado ranch sauce. The subsequent MexiMelt fallout destroyed inter-franchise communications and rendered McDonald’s tactical response McNugget silos inoperable. If you want a vision of the future, imagine an enchirito stamping on a human face—forever.

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