Six degrees of separation: a curly headed girl from Belleville, Illinois to Prince Charles and a lesson in history
Eastern Europe is a land of tradition, rivalries and ancient enmities. Many of the traditions commemorate battles long since fought. Krakow, the ancient capital of Poland, hosts one of the most significant traditions to Poles world-wide.
St. Mary’s Trumpet call, with its broken note at the end, is played every day at noon for broadcast on Polish National shortwave radio going out to a world-wide audience, and has done so every day since 1927, making it the longest running serial broadcast in the world. But the history of the trumpet call, which is played at the top of the 270-foot-tall St. Mary’s tower in the Krakow Public Square, dates back much further than that. According to Polish tradition the trumpet call dates to the Tartar invasion of 1247.
A sentry stood guard at the top of the tower to warn of fire or invasion. He warned of either event with a trumpet call. As the city lay sleeping the Tartars attacked, the fire guard played the trumpet alert, when a Tartar archer launched his arrow at the watchman, piercing his throat and ending the alert on a broken note.
The Polish fire service has maintained a watch at the tower and played the trumpet call since. At the conclusion of the trumpet call, the bells are rung at noon over Polish National Radio to let Poles world-wide remember the courage of the fire watch.
There is no elevator to the top of the tower. The climb is up 272 steep stairs to the top. The guardian trumpet players are specially selected members of the Polish Fire Service who undergo arduous training for the position. A mere handful of trumpeters who were not members of the fire service have been allowed to play the evocative tune from the open tower. Likewise, it is on only rare occasion that a non-fireman is allowed the honor of pulling the heavy cords to ring the tower’s bells.
I learned of these Polish traditions through the American military’s State Partnership Program, which educated me in the long and often tortuous history of Poland and Eastern Europe. The State Partnership Program dates back to the early 1990’s and still operates to support US military and diplomatic objectives world-wide.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union and its military alliance, the US and NATO wanted to ensure the democratic development of the Eastern European nations freed from Soviet dominance. A combined effort of the Department of Defense and the State Department came up with the concept of pairing state National Guards with Eastern European nations.
The goal was to train the former Soviet allies in NATO tactics while keeping the expense down by not stationing active-duty US forces in those nations. It also served the purpose of not unduly alarming the Russian government.
Illinois with its large Polish population, Chicago is the second largest Polish city in the world after Warsaw, and its robust National Guard, paired with Poland in 1993. The relationship has steadily grown with Illinois National Guard troops serving in combat with Polish forces 365 days a year, 24 hours a day for the entire Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
The partnership is not limited to the military, but has grown to include emergency management, fire and police cooperation in training and best practices.
As the former Illinois National Guard adjutant general, or commander, I frequently traveled to Poland to participate in exercises and to develop cooperative training programs between the two nations. Due to the diplomatic nature of many of these exchanges my wife would, on occasion, be invited by the Polish government to accompany me.
During one such event, the commander of the Polish Fire Service, which is a para-military organization, so the commander holds the rank of brigadier general, invited us to the noon ceremonial ringing of the bells. Meeting up in the charming town square, one of the few not destroyed during WW II, the commander invited us to begin the climb. As the ranking officer with two stars to the fire commander’s one star, I led the way. Not overly fond of heights, I raced up the stairs to avoid the anxiety of a long climb up centuries old stones with a similarly aged wooden banister separating the climbers from the long fall.
At the top, the welcoming watchmen of the day stood erectly in dress firefighter’s uniforms. The unfurnished stone and wooden room stood open to the elements in the four cardinal directions. Less a room than a catwalk around the gaping hole containing the bell’s pull ropes, the simple wooden railing exposed the stairs circling the 270-foot tower. The city square and the city spread out before us, café tables tiny below.
The national fire commander explained the ceremony’s history to us as we absorbed the view. He then laid out our role in the noon ceremony. Annette and I were instructed to take hold of the bell ropes. Precisely as the final broken note, emblematic of the broken note when the Tatar archer’s arrow pierced the watchmen’s throat eight centuries ago, we were to ring the bells signaling to Poles world-wide that the watch stood tall.
He went on to explain that the old-fashioned looking microphone dangling near the rope pulls dated to the first radio broadcast nearly a century before. They had tried newer microphones, but none provided the rich sounds of that early technology.
Seconds before noon the fireman began his lonely bugle call. Precisely as the broken note finished echoing off the cobblestone square, Annette and I heaved on the bell ropes. Just as the bells have sounded over Krakow for eight centuries, they rang once again.
Afterwards one of the young firemen emerged from the tiny break room which once served as sleeping quarters for the watchmen, bearing a tray of champagne flutes. The commander led a toast to the fire service, a toast to Polish freedom and a toast to US and Polish commitment to freedom.
Only after the toasts did the commander tell us that the last non-Polish firefighter to ring those bells in the noon ceremony was Prince Charles two years earlier. Stunned at the honor afforded us, we clambered back down the two-hundred-seventy stairs to emerge blinking in the sunlight.
And that my friends is the story of how a curly-headed girl from Belleville, Illinois, as my wife occasionally refers to herself, and her long-serving soldier husband’s six degrees of separation from the British royal family, thanks to the Polish National Fire Service.
Audio production by: Tom Calhoun, www.paguytom.com