My father, usually a reasonable man, had an uneasy relationship with inanimate objects that crossed him. Once after banging his head on a car door frame, he beat the top of the car repeatedly with the side of his fist. His car must’ve gotten the message because the door frame never attacked him again. Another time when he was opening a beach umbrella and, without provocation, it pinched his hand, he threw the umbrella down and cursed it in waves till the tide turned. But his greatest victory was his battle with a hotel smoke alarm. I can tell you the story now because I’m almost sure the statute of limitations has run out.
My father, mother, a brother and I were on a vacation to Epcot. Daddy had found bargain-priced accommodations in Orlando in a brand new condominium building that was operating as a hotel until more units could be sold. The condo still smelled of carpet glue, and spread around our entire suite were placards warning of how hypersensitive the building’s fire alarm system was. The slightest whiff of burnt toast could set it off, and God forbid anyone should light a cigarette in the room.
All these warnings with their threatening tone freaked my father out because, you see, my mother was a devoted smoker. If there had been an NSRA, a National Smokers’ Rights Association, my mother would have been president. But at my father’s insistence she grudgingly promised not to smoke inside the condo.
At about 4:30 in the morning, I was waked up—we all were—by the blaring of an alarm. In seconds we were standing under the smoke alarm in a panic. My father stood on a kitchen chair to look for an off switch but couldn’t find one. He pried off the cover to remove the batteries, but there weren’t any; the alarm was wired into the electrical system. “Have you been smoking?” he asked my mother, but she assured him, “No.” So he established that the alarm was not just doing its job; it was in fact going out of its way to maliciously harass us.
That’s when my father’s years of training in hand-to-hand combat with unruly objects kicked in. He had tried doing this the nice way, but the alarm simply wouldn’t be quiet. So he started smashing its guts with his fist. Soon it was a blood-stained pulp of aluminum and electronics. There was no way it could still be functioning—and yet the siren screamed steadily as ever.
Not until that moment did it occur to me that the source of ear-splitting noise might be somewhere other than inside our unit. I opened the door to the hall to even more decibels and could tell the sound was coming from a fire alarm horn in the hallway.
By the time the firemen knocked on our door, my father had replaced the smoke alarm cover, and we had put the chair back in the kitchen. The fire chief explained that there was no fire and that the building’s computerized system flagged only a malfunctioning smoke detector in our unit. “Hunh,” my father said. They removed the cover and stared at the destruction and blood. Though my father did the best he could at hiding his injuries, he literally had blood on his hand, was literally red-handed. Even so, I realized that there was no way we could admit that my father had smashed and smashed the life out of our smoke alarm. So we stood there silently, complicitly, nervously, trying to look as innocent as possible.
When the fire chief concluded that the previous occupants must’ve damaged the alarm and not reported it, we nodded to imply our agreement as well as our sad condemnation of people who could wantonly destroy such an important safety device without even having the decency to own up to it.
That was the last time I know of that my father had to resort to violence to subdue any adversarial things. He had murdered an innocent hotel smoke alarm—and had gotten away with it. And I think word got around.
My thanks to Wildacres Retreat, where this essay was written.