As someone who spent long, formative moments of the Cold War huddled in public-school basements under CD signs and who once thought her parents foolish because they refused to stock the cellar with two weeks' worth of canned water and food, I am well aware of the powerful impact of school safety programs.
So, over the years, I have tried to be sympathetic, cooperative even, when my daughter has come home from school bearing messages about the Seriousness of one situation or another.
I didn't, for example, scoff during the years of the Halloween Horrorcasts when she arrived with a three-page warning stating that if children absolutely had to trick-or-treat, they must only go out bathed in fluorescent lighting and flanked by two adults carrying buckets of water. Nor did I laugh when, under strictest school orders, the mini-Wonder Woman at my side refused to accept any unwrapped treat and dissected the brownies at her grandmother's house, looking, as she had been told, for razor blades.
In fact, I watched with some interest as schoolchildren were turned into mobile anti-smoking campaigns, human safety-belt buzzers and, more recently, anti-choking rescue squads. I have only recently recovered from my daughter's anti-choking demonstration. My ribs will be unstrapped any day now, but I have, I assure you, learned to chew my food carefully.
All of this is merely background. I want to explain the simple fact that over a year ago a school visit by the local fire-prevention crew ended up with our purchase of two home smoke alarms.
Within a few weeks of owning these round, friendly early-warning systems, I should have known that something was wrong. I had already experienced some strange new facts about home safety.
I discovered, for example, that if there were ever a fire that started from a broiled piece of meat, we would be the first to know it. If there were a spontaneous combustion of a marinated chicken, we would never go unaware. If, indeed, a reheated pizza ever leapt from the oven to the rafters, we would be out of the house before we were overcome by pepperoni fumes.
You see, the sensitive soul of our system was set off by the mere whiff of a hamburger three rooms away. At a hint of bacon frying, it set up an alarm more intense, more judgmental, than the voices of a dozen committed vegetarians.
Never mind the label "smoke alarms": We were the proud owners of two Lamp Chop Alarms.
If, in a fit of forgetfulness, we attempted something even more offensive than cooking, if we tried to use the self-cleaning cycle on the oven, they would wail out their objections to housekeeping until they were forcibly removed from the wall and buried under a mound of comforting pillows.
Let other alarms be praised for the work of fire prevention. Ours should have been arrested for cruelty to animals. Even a dog that had been stoical through two years of violin lessons retreated, groaning, to another mound of pillows.
Let other smoke alarms go beep in the night when they had to; ours went beep in the night when they wanted to. Without a lamb chop or a puff of smoke, they set up a regular false alarm that raged through the hour of two o'clock. They complained in terrifying spurts if they were dusty, if their batteries were weak, if they were bored, or, I suspect, if they wanted to test our reflexes.
Still, for many months, I considered all those problems to be minor ones - the sort of peculiarities you could tolerate in a hyperactive watchguard, and a small sacrifice to make for safety. Until last weekend.
On that Sunday, we built a first-of-the-season fire. With the flue closed. It took three minutes of shouting and action until the flue, the windows and the door were opened and 10 minutes until the heavy smoke subsided. But during this time there had been one noticeable pocket of silence.
Our smoke alarms had slept through it.
Those bone-chilling noisemakers, those terrors of the broiler, those champions of dustfree batteries had acutally flunked their only trial by fire.
It is now clear that we own a duet of incompetent, functionally unfunctional eccentrics. Even someone of my own inclination toward safety first, my devotion to paranoia of every kind, is finally faced with the ultimate existential question: Is there any reason to keep my home safe from a broiling lamb chop?