By SUSAN G. HAUSER
By Portland standards, there was a media frenzy on the concourse. Reporters from four television and two radio stations focused their cameras and mikes on the 13 members of the Ring of Fire hand-bell choir, instant Oregon celebrities after being named the only musical group in the Pacific Northwest invited to perform at the inauguration of George W. Bush.
"You go, bells!" called out an airport worker, and on the flight to Washington all of the passengers applauded. The state was united in pride for the choir, kids age 12 to 16, who are students at Tualatin Valley Junior Academy, a Seventh Day Adventist school in Hillsboro. The good news also spread quickly among America's 300,000 or so hand-bell choirs. This would be the first time that hand bells would be played at an inaugural parade.
My curiosity about how 13 kids can march and play 61 bells at the same time was satisfied when I learned that they don't. March, that is. They set up the bells, which range in weight from a few ounces to more than 10 pounds, like the keys of a five-octave piano (the B bell next to the B-sharp bell, which is next to the C bell, etc.) on five tablescovered with thick pads. In fact, at the inaugural parade, these kids weren't going anywhere. They were assigned to a covered stage a few blocks from the White House, where they would entertain the gathering crowd from 10 a.m. until the newly sworn-in president was expected to pass by at about 2:30 p.m.
A member of the Presidential Inaugural Committee told me that it was a no-brainer to approve the wholesome choir, one of only 43 music groups that had been picked for the festivities from thousands of applicants. "You just don't find that many hand-bell hooligans," he explained.
Nevertheless, the seven girls and six boys, plus their director, Jason Wells, were submitted to the same excruciating security doled out to anybody who would be in proximity to the president. Now these kids may not be security risks, but neither are they complete rubes.
Recognized as one of the top hand-bell choirs in the country, they have already traveled extensively in their three years together. In fact, last year at this time they were in Las Vegas, rockin' the house at Pinnacle, an annual gathering of the best hand-bell choirs in America.
But surely this was the first time their shiny bells had been sniffed -- repeatedly -- by bomb-detecting dogs. Their first trip through metal detectors was Friday at Constitution Hall, where they warmed up the audience for the Laura Bush salute to American authors. Before sunrise the next morning they were sniffed and scanned before getting a police escort to their parade location. By evening, when they passed security in order to perform at the largest of the inaugural balls, they had racked up inspections from a veritable pack of dogs and police.
On the parade route, the reason for the security was clear. Directly across from the Ring of Fire, angry protesters outnumbered placid paradegoers. Waving signs and shouting slogans, they seemed oblivious to the bells. It takes real strength and stamina to ring those things for hours -- blisters and muscle strains are not uncommon.
Rocking from foot to foot, jabbing the bells forward -- left, right, left, right -- the kids looked like boxers in the heat of battle. Smiling all the while, they were in constant motion, sometimes flinging the bells in the air, sometimes hitting them with mallets, using their fingers to pluck the clappers and even smacking the bells against the pads in a technique called martelatta, Italian for hammer blow. The kids told me that they didn't need to pump iron to stay fit during the choir's playing season. They just pump bells.
Their vigorous performance, besides keeping them warm in the bitter cold, began attracting attention on both sides of the street. Soon many of the protesters were dancing to the bell ringers' rousing tunes and applauding after each piece. And suddenly the ringers became the focus of their chanting.
"Bells not guns! Bells not guns!" echoed down Pennsylvania Avenue. Yet again, the Ring of Fire had won over a crowd. The group takes its name from the volcanic mountain ranges of the Pacific Rim. It's also a play on words, in that they ring in such a fiery, animated manner.
David Tiller, a hand-bell choir director in Reston, Va., and an official with the American Guild of English Handbell Ringers, who lent the group tables for its performances, told me the Ring of Fire is a sensation in the hand-bell community. It is one of the few choirs that memorizes every complex tune in its repertoire, so it can maintain a full musical relationship with its audience.
At the inaugural ball held at the Ronald Reagan Building, the kids gave the crowd a generous serving of music, from Handel to Hava Nagila. They played the seven patriotic songs they had memorized in 25 hours of rehearsal before their departure for Washington, and they played their most difficult piece, the 3,800-note "Tempest," by composer Kevin McChesney. They played for 40 minutes to an attentive audience that was not yet distracted by the arrival of the president.
What it meant to come all the way from Hillsboro, Ore., to play at the president's inauguration hadn't quite sunk in, mostly because the kids had been working hard on little sleep ever since their arrival. Thirteen-year-old Ian Holm, for one, was nostalgic about last year's trip to Las Vegas. "We got to go on a couple of roller coasters," he sighed. Their director, Mr. Wells, was confident that the significance would hit them sooner or later. "I really think someday they'll look back at this and go, 'Wow.'"
The kids had already completed their inaugural ball performance and had packed up their bells when President and Mrs. Bush made their appearance. Too bad. They missed a great show.