• Wednesday, November 14, 2012


Smoke detectors are a good thing. In our case, too much of a good thing.
Here’s the scoop.
When I was growing up, our smoke detector was like the dinner bell. Whenever it went off, Mother snatched her latest catastrophe from the oven, hopped on a stool and beat the alarm with a meat mallet until it squawked and died.
She did not enjoy cooking and thus paid no attention to the process until the alarm shrilled. We went through a lot of them. I definitely remember Dad replacing three in one year.
Once Mother was all dressed up for an Eastern Star meeting when the alarm went off. (A pot roast burned to a cinder, if I recall.) She snatched a spike-heeled pump from her foot and smashed the device so hard she left divots in the wall. Then she waltzed out the door.
Then there was the 1 a.m. excitement a few years ago. On the first cold night in my brand-new little house, I decided to inaugurate the gas-log fireplace. I felt so cozy. Then I felt sleepy and went to bed.
The fire alarm woke me an hour later. I leaped out of bed screaming “GAS!!!” and ran around opening all the windows. In February. When the alarm kept shrieking, I called 9-1-1.
“I just used my gas fireplace for the first time and now my fire alarm is going off. What should I do?”
“Leave the premises,” the dispatcher said.
“Huh?” I said.
“GET OUT OF THE HOUSE NOW,” she bawled, and I flew from the front door to the street in two strides. And there I stood in my bunny slippers and bathrobe, quivering pitifully.
Moments later a fire engine and EMS truck rolled up. It was both surreal and wonderful to see firefighters in turnout gear hustling into my house.
The upshot: I wasn’t gassed; the alarm was brand-new and extremely sensitive. It just went off for no reason, the way I sometimes do.
Fast-forward nine years. Last week I was home alone in the house I share with Widdle when the fire/smoke/carbon monoxide detector went off. This was huge: flashing lights, blaring horn and a woman’s voice with a faint British accent screaming, “Unsafe levels of carbon monoxide detected. LEAVE THE PREMISES!”
Being a mellower version of my mother, I climbed on a chair and removed the batteries. When Widdle came home he deemed it a fluke and replaced the batteries. Four minutes later, all hell broke loose again.
“It’s old; it’s malfunctioning. I’ll buy a new one,” he said, and did.
Not 10 minutes after he installed the fancy new one the alarm blared again, just as I stepped into the tub. (All catastrophes happen when I’m in the tub.)
This female voice had a faint Dutch accent when it screamed, “Exit now! Carbon monoxide detected!”
Widdle disabled the alarm and announced, “This one must be broken, too. What are the odds?” Then our eyes met as the truth dawned:  When two alarms scream “carbon monoxide!” in 24 hours it’s because, hello! There’s carbon monoxide in the house.
Widdle promptly turned off the gas-fueled heat and called a repairman buddy. There was a hole in an element and a new one had to be ordered. Which is why we had no heat from Friday to Tuesday.
The good news: We have heat again, and the alarm hasn’t gone off. The bad news: I’m too nervous to take another bath.
 Julie R. Smith, who urges everyone to obey their smoke detectors, can be reached at widdleswife@aol.com.


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