Tim Sample: Stories I Never Told You

That strange beeping noise

Posted:  Tuesday, August 13, 2013 - 8:00am
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Regular visitors to this space may recall a recent column wherein, upon returning from a family vacation, I discovered that an electrical breaker switch which has apparently been lurking in a box on the outside of our house ever since we bought the place, managed to fry itself while we were away.

Fortunately, our new best friend, local ace electrician Gary, had all systems up and running within 24 hours. Well, almost all systems.

Returning from my office a day later, I was greeted by a faint, annoying “beeping” sound, which emanated from the interior of our home.

For better or worse, “faint beeping sounds” of the “is that your cell phone or mine?” variety are an increasingly common fact of modern life.

Like most folks I’ve learned to accept these auditory intrusions for what they are: just one more off-key note in the increasingly jangly soundtrack of contemporary culture, a reminder of the still-a-work-in-progress technology, which pervades 21st century American life.

It seems that any consumer gizmo produced with a cord or a battery these days must also come equipped with its own distinctive electronic “voice.” As a result, domestic life often resembles an episode of what might just become the next wildly popular reality/game show, “Name That Beep.”

Ma: “Is it the microwave or the dryer making that beeping noise?”

Pa: “Um, neither. I think maybe it’s your new bread making machine, either that or maybe a low battery warning from the ozone detector.”

Ma: “You sure it ain’t just your hearing aids squealing again?”

Pa: “What?”

Alas, the sound I heard that afternoon was none of the above.

It was, in fact a distinctive, unmistakable and all too familiar tone. Not actually a “beep” at all, so much as a piercing high-pitched shriek, the sound of yet another smoke detector alarm “going off.”

Not that there was smoke within a hundred yards of the house you understand. From my own experience I’d have to say there rarely is.

Although I’m sure a fire would have done the trick just fine, from what I’ve observed, fire and smoke are pretty far down the list of things most likely to set the average smoke detector to wailing like a banshee.

In this particular instance I suspect the malfunction was related to our recent circuit breaker issues, but who can tell? It could have been almost anything. Ironically, water is often a prime suspect.

When shopping for new house in Portland a few years back, we rented an apartment in Portland’s Woodford’s Corner neighborhood. Though, my safety conscious Minnesotan wife was pleased that we were able to find one fairly bristling with smoke detectors, I was considerably less sanguine.

When I see smoke detectors, I expect trouble. In this instance, I didn’t have long to wait.

We’d barely gotten our things unpacked when the wailing began. Returning from a trip the corner market we heard the unmistakable ululations from several blocks from away. As we walked into our apartment, the cacophony was overwhelming.

A half dozen smoke detectors screeching in unison sounds something like I imagine a dressing room at The Metropolitan Opera would sound like if a gaggle of sopranos ensconced therein simultaneously attempted to hit a glass shattering “high C” note.

It was a devastating auditory assault, one from which I’m not sure our faithful poodle Maggie, snoozing peacefully in the apartment at the time, ever fully recovered.

Once the fire department had arrived, evacuated the building and checked everything out, we were informed that (surprise, surprise) no actual smoke or fire was involved. The culprit, they said, was “humidity.” But, frankly, it could have been almost anything.

Actually, my worst smoke detector nightmares have involved the dreaded “low battery” alert. There ought to be a special punishment for the sadistic genius who decided to make a smoke detector’s low battery warning virtually identical to the sound of a real cricket.

I’ve wasted countless precious hours of my life searching for the source of this random chirping. I once searched for nearly a week before locating the source of a hideously mind scrambling, intermittent “chirp” lurking under some acoustic ceiling tiles in our basement.

So what’s the solution? None that I can see. Until somebody wins an “X-prize” for developing a better system, I’ll just keep buying and using smoke detectors like everybody else. The risk of not doing so is too horrific to contemplate.

But I don’t have to like it.

Nope, I just don’t trust smoke detectors as far as I can throw them, which by now I’m sure you’ve figured out is a very long distance indeed.