Smoke detectors warn you when your house is on fire. This is good.
They also make strange noises when their batteries run down. This can be unnerving.
Like the time one of my smoke detectors started "quacking" and saved a dinner party.
It happened years ago, shortly after my wife and I had moved "out East" and bought our first house. My parents had flown out from Kansas City, and I wanted to impress my folks that I could handle all this domestic responsibility.
Things were going well. The air-conditioning was working. The roof wasn't leaking. No major appliances were dying. The mood was so buoyant that in the middle of the visit, we all decided to invite some distant relatives over for dinner.
Generally speaking, when I am reunited with distant relatives I soon remember why we have remained so far apart. There is little I have in common with them, other than the fact we are related.
In this particular instance, the night before the relatives arrived, my mother took the precaution of going over what would be safe topics of conversation at the following night's dinner party.
Politics and religion and, above all, Richard Nixon, were taboo. Not only did the distant relatives hold the "wrong" views on these subjects, they held them with great tenacity. Safe topics for discussion were the weather, kinfolk and how many miles per gallon different cars got.
It looked like the dinner party was very safe, but pretty dull. Then, all of a sudden, the smoke detector "quacked."
I know now it was the smoke detector. At the time, I had no idea what was quacking. When my dad heard the disturbance, he turned to me and asked me to identify it.
This is something the men in my family are supposed to be able to do. We are supposed to know our household noises.
As a kid, I was taught to recognize the sounds of the refrigerator compressor starting up, of the washing machine filling with water, of the furnace kicking in. No house noise went unobserved.
Yet here I was, a grown man who owned his own house, and I was unable to say what was quacking. I felt inadequate.
Rather than doing anything unmanly, like admit I didn't know something, I issued orders. I grabbed a flashlight, told everyone to be quiet, and sat silently waiting for the return of the quack.
It was a long, nerve-wracking search, but eventually my dad and I tracked the quack down. It was coming from the smoke detector in the hall. The smoke detector was signaling that its battery was low.
I got a step ladder, climbed up and removed the bad battery. When I put in a fresh battery, all was quiet on the quacking front.
The next night when the distant relatives came to dinner we first feigned interest in details about lost-long cousins. But when the conversation moved to the tale of the quacking smoke detector, things gotalmost lively. It was the hit of the evening. We talked about it for hours. Or maybe it just seemed that way.
Since then few smoke detectors have been able to fool me. Whether they buzz, beep, or whistle, I have been ready for them.
Until the other morning. I was sitting at the kitchen table, reveling in the strange sense of peace that comes over the house after the kids have left for school.
I heard something chirp.
A first I thought it was our one remaining parakeet. The bird was hungry. We were out of bird food. I walked over to the cage to tell the bird to pipe down.
When I got to the cage, I heard another chirp. This one didn't come from the bird cage. It came from the stairs.
For a moment, I thought the chirp might be the ghost of a parakeet from the past, namely the one that died a few weeks ago. The bird in the cage thought so, too. It answered the mysterious chirp with a few song notes of its own.
I stood there in the middle of the kitchen, listening to one bird chirp, and trying to track down the other chirper. For this I went to graduate school.
It turned out that the chirp was coming from the smoke detector at the top of the stairs. Its battery needed replacing.
The parakeet in the cage didn't know that. And as I climbed the ladder to put in a fresh battery in the detector, the bird was yammering away like a teen-ager on the telephone.
Once I muzzled the smoke detector, the bird calmed down as well. Quiet did not exactly descend on the household. That only happens in the middle of the night.
But at least all the noises were familiar.