The place was an old concrete bunker of a building, where paint was once manufactured and canned. Giant stirring devices had been removed, but the turning gears remained above. A stand-up furnace stood along the wall. A large exposed pipe with vents served to heat the room during the frigid Chicago winters.
Surprisingly, this hideous machine worked well despite a distinct quirk. When it fired up, it made a ‘BOOM’ sound and a flame shot out of the front of the vent. Alarming, I know, but we had all manner of experts in to examine it, clean it, massage it and otherwise pronounce it normal. Still, we gave it a respectful distance. Every spring I sighed with relief that the beast had made it through another winter and blessed my alarms for keeping vigil. My alarms were never tested in ten years of business there, until one day when they were nearly destroyed by the ready axes of our local firemen.
It was mid-morning on a pleasant spring Sunday. I was training a boisterous lab puppy when the piercing ‘WHOOOP, WHOOOP, WHOOOP of the fire alarm went off. I looked around for flames, ninjas, smoke or other interlopers but found no trouble. The phone call to the service was made, but I was told the firemen would be there soon.
“Can’t you stop them?” I asked. The answer was an emphatic, “No” and I heard the approaching sirens as I hung up.
They pulled up with enough manpower and hoses to quench the Great Chicago Fire. I held up my hand.
“I’m so sorry, I think it’s a false alarm.” Axes drooped and their disappointment was obvious. They stomped through anyway in their huge boots looking for any sign of smoke as the dogs barked as these odd-looking men.
“No problem, ma’am,” said the captain with impeccable politeness. I batted my eyes as they filed out and promised to look into it with the alarm company.
About five minutes later, the ‘WHOOOP, WHOOOP’ was wailing again. I cursed and ran to the phone, but the alarm was on override. I waited outside for the full brigade to return. They pulled up in force as a small crowd looked on.
“I’m really sorry; the alarm company said it would be Monday before they can come look at it.”
“OK, ma’am”, but the captain’s smile was strained.
I looked at the alarm box and puzzled the problem. As I shrugged and walked away, it began to scream again. Most of the dogs plastered their ears to their heads to shut out the worst of it, but two huskies and a beagle began to accompany the noise, their noses pointed straight up as if at the moon. The brigade pulled up, same guys, and this time, no smiles.
“MA’AM, WE’RE GOING TO HAVE TO TAKE A LOOK AT THAT BOX,” he shouted over the din. We opened the box together. The captain pressed the Cancel button. Nothing. He pressed it and held it. The ‘WHOOOP, WHOOOP’ continued to laugh at us. Now we had about six dogs howling for all they were worth. He pushed the button harder. Finally, the noise stopped but the howling continued.
“CAN’T YOU…” I took a breath. The howling subsided and I lowered my voice in the now hushed room.
“Can’t you ignore it if it happens again?” I pleaded.
“The law says we have to respond” said the captain wearily. His manners won out, but he clearly wanted to strangle me.
Two more times this nightmare was played out. Axes were raised and the beefiest of the bunch promised to “shut the thing up for good”. I was tempted to let him, but caution prevailed and they shuffled out.
Mercifully, the stupid thing finally did shut up. I glared at the furnace, thinking that somehow it was at fault, but it sat there benignly.
The next day was Monday, and the alarm man came. The culprit was a spider in the smoke detector, spinning a web that caused the detector to trip the alarm. The alarm stopped when the web was completed and the spider took a nap. I insisted the spider be spared and we took it outside in a Styrofoam cup.
Something had to be done about the firemen. I knew the story of the Boy Who Cried Wolf, and had no desire to be thought of as “that nut over by the dog place”. The local bakery made a large sheet cake for me, hand-decorated with a fire engine and Dalmation dog. The baker had depicted me as a cartoon figure in the engine next to the dog, smiling, no less. I could have done without that, but at least the cake would be delicious.
I hauled on a skirt and heels and combed my hair, and carefully drove the heavy cake to the fire station. I was welcomed by a young fireman in front, who grinned and brought me inside. I thought I would just drop it off for the captain and the guys, but was ushered downstairs into their lair. Coming down the steep stairs, I was glad my skirt wasn’t any shorter.
The young fireman announced me with,
“Hey, look at what we got here!” and a dozen heads turned. The captain parted the group, recognized me, and his entire face fell. He clearly associated me with failure, stress, and wasted time. Not so with the others, and I shoved the cake toward the rapidly approaching group of ridiculously handsome men. They cut into it, toasting me with their raised forks, and I apologized again to the captain. He relaxed and we chatted until I could make my exit, intimidated by the low ceiling and high testosterone, but I knew that if I ever needed help, they would make haste, axes at the ready.
Fortunately, the alarms never went off again.