Clock Striker Crashes Through Courthouse Ceiling, 1935

December 1, 2016 § 6 Comments

Time-Keepers-1.jpgNovelist and essayist Lee Martin reflects on the violent attacks at Ohio State University this past Monday:

When the cable broke and the striking weights fell, the janitor, Ben Conover, found himself trapped in the belfry, where he’d gone to wind the courthouse clock. The clock stopped at 8:30 a.m., the time when the strands of the cable that held the weights unraveled. Seven hundred pounds of iron weights came down, demolishing the belfry staircase, crashing through two ceilings, and coming to rest, finally, at the rear of the Bar of Justice in the Circuit Court Room.

How the plaster dust must have risen and coated Ben’s boots, the legs of his coveralls, perhaps even his eyebrows and hair.

It was Friday, April 12. The year was still a year of economic depression. The unemployment rate was 20.1 percent. There in the small towns and farming communities of my native southeastern Illinois, Ben Conover’s world must have been one of want, must have been one of always standing on guard against the next worst thing. I know because I’m the child of parents who survived the Great Depression. On that day in April of 1935, my father would have been twenty-one years old, the only son of an aging farmer in Lukin Township. When I was a boy, I heard the stories of the market crashing, the banks closing, the savings being lost, the crop prices bottoming out. One day you could think you were flush, maybe even a little up on the game, and the next day you could be falling.


This morning, when word came that there was an active shooter on the campus of The Ohio State University where I teach, the news struck a blow that rattled me and put an ache into my throat. I was safe in my home, but my thoughts turned toward those who weren’t. I watched the story unfold on television, facts coming in a few at a time, until it became clear that there had been no shooter, only a single person who drove his car into a group of students and then got out with a butcher knife. Eleven people ended up being treated for lacerations from the knife, and injuries from being hit by the vehicle. A campus police officer shot and killed the attacker.

It’s toward evening now as I write this, 4:05 p.m., the time, if this were an ordinary day, when I’d be getting ready to meet my MFA creative nonfiction workshop, but Ohio State has canceled classes, to resume tomorrow. My next class will meet on Wednesday evening. Each time I’ve stepped on campus the past few years, I’ve wondered if this day might come. This is the world we’ve made.

I sit and look out my window on a day that’s become cloudy, look out over the lake, where the water moves in ripples and the twilight waits. Soon lights will come on in the homes on the other side, and the darkness, little by little, will creep in, the Earth turning over one more time.

I think about Ben Conover trapped in that belfry while the chaos swirled beneath him. I imagine people calling out to make sure no one was hurt, giving thanks when that turned out to be true. I’ve read the newspaper report. No one was in the Circuit Court Room when the weights fell. One minute Ben had been turning the windlass, and then the cable broke, and like that, the clock stopped. No whirring of the gears, no pealing of the bells, nothing to mark the hours.

Before Ben made himself known—before someone brought a ladder so he could climb down—did he hear the wind moving through the giant oaks on the courthouse lawn? Did he hear birdsong? The chatter of squirrels? I like to think he reveled in the pause, in what must have seemed like time’s heavenly absence.

Did he imagine it all unwinding, as I do now, spooling backwards, past every human pain and sorrow, to the days before the people came, when the land belonged to the animals: bison, gray wolf, mountain lion, deer. I imagine them moving through woods and prairie grass. No thought of time. No sense of how it hurtles forward into the future.

Then something comes—some scent, some vibration, some sound—and they freeze, ears alert, the muscles in their haunches about to quiver.

Oh, to hold them there in that majesty, that blessed instant, that split second, before nerves twitch, and they run.


Lee Martin is the author of the novels, The Bright Forever, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction; River of Heaven; Quakertown; Break the Skin, and Late One Night. He has also published three memoirs, From Our House, Turning Bones, and Such a Life. His first book was the short story collection, The Least You Need to Know. His fiction and nonfiction have appeared, or are forthcoming, in such places as Harper’s, Ms., Creative Nonfiction, The Georgia Review, The Kenyon Review, Fourth Genre, River Teeth, The Southern Review, Prairie Schooner, Glimmer Train, The Best American Mystery Stories, and The Best American Essays. HHe teaches in the MFA Program at The Ohio State University, where he is a College of Arts and Sciences Distinguished Professor of English.

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