Friday, September 2, 2011

Still Life with Robin: Where's the Fire?

by Peggy Robin

Sunday night was smokin’ at our house…literally. My husband, Bill, was upstairs when he first caught wind of a sharp, burning smell. He called down to me in the kitchen to ask if the oven had been left on. It was off and nothing was inside. For the next few minutes we walked around, sniffing the air, trying to figure out where that worrisome smell was coming from.We checked the basement, we checked all the appliances, but we couldn't pin it down. It didn’t even seem to be stronger in on the second floor (where Bill first had smelled it) than on the first floor.

It seemed prudent to call the fire department, so I dialed 911 and explained the situation to the operator. I did say there was no fire. We just wanted to have the smoky smell checked out by experts. The operator took down information and advised us to wait outside on the porch. I was thinking perhaps a fire inspector or two would come by in a car.

No more than five minutes passed, and two long red fire engines streaked into view, taking up all of our little dead-end street. Out jumped a full complement of suited-up firemen, hauling hoses, carrying axes, ready to battle a blaze. I felt slightly chagrinned at having to disappoint them with our vague, smoky smell. But the firemen were not the least bit put out to find they’d been summoned for that purpose, and hastened to reassure me that I’d been right to make the call.  They opened the front door and nodded as the smell hit them, and then instructed us to wait on the porch until they found the source.

In the meantime, the neighbors on all sides had heard the sirens and were coming out to see whose house was ablaze. The minute we came out, we were offered shelter, food, whatever we needed, even as we were reassuring everyone that nothing was wrong, except for an odd smell that needed to be tracked down. 

Inside the house, eight or nine firemen were trooping upstairs and downstairs, feeling the walls for heat, checking the electrical outlets and wires, looking at the fireplace, stopping to sniff the air. Outside, we could see there were even more fire engines lined up around the corner. I apologized again to one of the firemen for taking up so much of their time, when nothing seemed to be wrong.

But again, he assured me, quite courteously but firmly, this was exactly the sort of thing they were there for, and they wouldn’t leave until they had satisfied themselves as to the cause of the smoky smell. A few minutes later, after several of the firemen had conferred about where the smell was strongest, they gave their conclusion: It was coming from the old halogen lamp in the hallway. Their best guess was that a little ball of dust had burned up, or perhaps a bug had flown into it and had been incinerated. With that, they all trooped back to their trucks, recoiled their hoses, and slowly (ever so much more slowly than they had arrived) rolled away.

After they were gone, I realized I hadn’t thanked them. At first I thought I should write a letter to the fire department to say how impressed we were with the speed and professionalism of the response. Then it occurred to me that it would be better to thank them publicly, in the form of this column. That’s a use I’m more than happy to have it serve.

But I want to give the last word to our friend Howard, who, after hearing our tale, commented that this past week we have seen the action of each of the four classical elements of nature: Earth (quake on Tuesday); Air and Water (the wind and rain of Friday’s hurricane); closing out with Fire (or at least smoke) on Sunday. Having gone through the complete set, I am thinking --or hoping-- we must be done for a long time to come.

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