EAST MANATEE -- Joe "Taco Joe" Martin leaned down to grab a neon green bottle of Noxon. He squirted some of the metal polish on a white rag, then onto the big brown bell.
A black leather vest decorated in dozens of patches hung loosely off his petite frame. "VIETNAM BROTHERHOOD," it read on the back. "POW * MIA, YOU ARE NOT FORGOTTEN" covered his right chest. On the left side: an American flag.
Martin, who is 58, scrubbed, polished, scrubbed some more. Seven other Vietnam brothers followed him by buffing the bell with electric tools, preparing it for painting.
Freedom Elementary School's bell, situated near the front office, has welcomed legions of students and visitors since it was installed in 2007.
Over the last seven years, the bell has become a symbol of school tradition. Starry-eyed kindergartners dream of ringing it on their last day of fifth grade, marking the end of a chapter in their little lives.
But the gold glow of the bell, which was donated by the YMCA, has been weathered down, subdued by years of heat and rain and the touch of tiny hands. It had never been cleaned.
Martin, who saw the bell caked in grime, felt obligated to clean it.
At the age of 17, Martin enlisted in the military and became a cook on the Navy ships. In Navy tradition,
the cooks always clean the ship's bell. Martin did the deed until 1993, when he was discharged after a 22-year career.
"Every ship, every naval station has a bell. It's a sign of tradition, respect," he said.
Martin, who is now a managing partner at the Mexicali Border Cafe on State Road 70, saw the dirty bell and enlisted the help of seven other members of the Sarasota-based Vietnam Brotherhood to come up Wednesday morning and give it a clean. For free.
"This is great. Look where it is. It's right in front of our school. It's on yearbooks, it's on school letterhead," said principal Jim Mennes, who was grateful to have the bell cleaned -- a service that could rack up to $50 per hour, if done professionally.
Martin doused the bell in brake cleaner, a makeshift primer for the paint.
"I'm the one who paints first!" said Luis "Dancer" Basquez, 69, holding a can of metallic spray paint, cigarette dangling from between his lips.
The brothers covered the bell in bands of gold; rays of sunlight made it sparkle. The old chime was made new by men who understood it better than anyone else.
After the thick coat of paint dried, Basquez took a rag and rubbed it some more.
"We've already done that," Martin told him.
"I just want to do it one more time," Basquez said. "This is the side people are going to see."
Sabrina Rocco, East Manatee reporter, can be reached at (941) 745-7024. Follow her on Twitter @sabrinarocco.