Several months ago, I found myself in a housing snafu. My previous residence ... a small rental cottage that I'd been happily ensconsed in for a few years ... had been sold by its owner, so I needed to relocate. I had ample time to make the move, but not once but three times I secured a new abode only to see the arrangements unravel before my eyes at the "eleventh hour."
Luckily, I had an older aunt and uncle ... relatives from my mom's side of the family, real characters in their late sixties ... who offered me a place to crash while my life sorted itself out. The whole thing worked out fine, but my aging kin came to rely on me for my willingness to help out and do odd jobs around their sturdy-but-dated home.
So today, I received a somewhat frantic call from my aunt ... the actual blood relative. "That darn smoke detector our son bought us is making an awful racket, dear. Dad (my uncle) says it's the batteries. Could you be a sweetie and come check it for me? You're so good with those things and that chirping is getting on my last nerve!!"
For anyone who has read any of my previous blog postings, you know that my aunt's predicament created a unique personal flashpoint for me. I have a thing about being prepared for energencies ... almost an obsession but just shy of needing therapy. On one hand, I have caches of the oddest items stored away ... I have enough Band-Aids for a third-world skirmish. And a shutdown of production facilities for toothbrushes, dishwashing detergent, ball point pens, deodorant, or toilet paper would not affect me for at least eight months! Same goes for Ramen noodles and instant potatoes.
Then there's that pesky "other hand" ... the one that belongs to a man with a near-phobic reaction to just seeing a ladder and an intellectual understanding of what a four- or five-foot fall can potentially do to the human body.
But in the end, I quickly agreed to be at my aunt's house right after work. After all, she and her husband had been so kind to me during a turmultuous time in my life and any chance to repay a little of that generosity was worth a little queasy stomach. And ... she was promising pie!!
When I arrived, I said a quick "hello" to the pair and retrieved their assassin-in-disguise step ladder from the attached garage. It was no big deal to swap out the batteries for fresh ones I purchased on the ride over. Everything seemed "ready to rock" but I told my aunt and uncle that I wanted to double check the situation. First, I took the "old" batteries and popped them into a little drink mixer gadget I had bought for my uncle to help him blend the fiber concoction he drinksevery morning. The small whip-like appliance whirred to life ... the supposedly-defunct power cells seemed fine. Next, I grabbed a small piece of newspaper and a pack of matches from a utility drawer. Digging deep for my "inner man," I remounted the ladder. Once steadied, I rolled the newsprint into a tapered "candle," lit one end, and held it under the slightly dusty, "green for go" detector unit. Five seconds ... nothing. Ten seconds ... nada on the blood-curdling siren I was expecting. Twenty seconds ... zilch! The smoke alarm was completely non-functional.
I shared my discovery with my older relatives after stowing away the ladder, giving it a quick "I cheated death ... HAH!" smirk. My aunt seemed excited, immediately planning a "trip to town" for a replacement like it was a week in Dollywood. My uncle muttered his reply ... something that included the word "figures" and the phrase "damn Japs!" ... before returning his attention to the TV set.
My aunt insisted that I stay for a bowl of soup and the promised slice of pie. I agreed and went to wash up. I knew it would be several minutes before supper commenced, so I did a little snooping around the house, my eyes trained on safety "infractions" and simple ways that my dear relations might avoid injuries and mishaps.
At the table, I was presented with my aunt's awesome vegetable soup, thick with sliced potatoes and chucks of roast. Damn, my Mom's family can cook, I thought as I took my first bite. As we all supped, I interjected my "findings" into the general dinner-time dialogue. I also included some good-but-startling statistics to emphasize the point of the discussion. Based on a 10-year study conducted by the United States Fire Administration (USFA), I told them over soup and warm rye bread for dipping, more than 397,000 housefires occur in the U.S. each year. These conflagrations cause more than 3,000 deaths and nearly 15,000 injuries annually.
"Most people think that housefires are started by careless smokers or unruly kids playing with matches," I told my aunt, the more receptive of my two fellow diners, "but that's more of a myth." While these stereotypical scenarios do pose obvious dangers, smoking-related fires account for less than 2 percent of U.S. housefire incidents. Leading causes include cooking mishaps (26.4 percent), malfunctioning furnaces and heating units (11.4 percent), and candles and decorative lighting left unattended (5.4 percent).
Between bites and buttering the dark, earthy bread, I tried to gauge my relatives' reactions. For the most part, they seemed unconcerned. "Look," I added. "The Fire Administration has some pretty simple ideas to keep people safe and ready. They suggest having a good smoke detector at common 'hot spots' like the kitchen, garage, and the basement or utility area near heating equipment. And I think for you guys one more upstairs wouldn't hurt. You can find a decent unit for $20 or less."
I could see my aunt stressing ... probably imagining four little monitors ganging up on her with their "low battery" screeches all going off at the same time. And my uncle's brow was furrowedas I spoke, more than likely doing the math on the cost of four smoke detectors. I figured What the hell, so I plugged away and added my "two cents" about adding fire extinguishers and carbon monoxide detectors to the safety plan. USFA suggested locating fire extinguishers in the same "caution areas" ... kitchens near the stove, garages near tools and work tables, and basements near the furnace.
A combination extinguisher is what I have at my apartment, I told them. It has an A-B-C designation, meaning it's effective on ordinary combustables (wood, paper, etc.), flammable liquids (like grease and gasoline), and even small electrical fires. I also shared that the one I have in my kitchen retailed for right around $25. Carbon monoxide detectors ... with suggested placements near bedroom areas and heating equipment ... I estimated at $25 per unit.
"You guys could do it all for under $200 and I'd help you install all the brackets and stuff." The furrowing on Uncle Ed's brow turned menacing and Aunt Gloria actually dropped her spoon when hearing the dollar amount for my suggested expenditure, but before I lost any steam I reminded them that a couple hundred dollars was nothing compared to the devastation of losing your house to fire and all the irreplacable belongings like photographs and antiques and collectibles. They nodded solemnly at that.
I also explained that there were competitively-priced services that could come in, evaluate their home, and install more active monitoring for a monthly fee. My uncle looked up at me like I'd started talking Potuguese. "I don't need no Dot-Heads digging through my stuff and then sitting somewhere hoping my house will burn down!" he stated vehemently.
"Indian fellows, dear," my aunt said, patting my hand with her liver-spotted one like I was a two-year-old trying to make sense of an adult conversation. "Your uncle thinks they watch our every move." In response, my uncle aggressively crumpled some saltines into his second bowl of soup.
The three of us sat quietly for a few moments. I, too, got a second bowl of my aunt's home-cook masterpiece. Conversation resumed slowly, a trading of stories about family and their misadventures. I laughed and sighed at what I thought were appropriate places, but my mind was buzzing with all the other information I wanted to share. Did they know that home injuries cause over 20,ooo deaths each year, as well as 7 million disabling injuries and more than 20 million hospital trips? Were they aware that falls are the major cause of home injuries and could be safeguarded against by simply tightening banisters and railings, applying non-stick appliques or slip-resistant paint to bathtub and shower floors, basement steps, and garage floors, and purchasing proper types of ladders and step stools? Did my dear aunt and irksome uncle know that a used copy of "First Aid and Safety for Dummies" ... my go-to home bible ... could be acquired on Amazon.com for less than $10 (plus shipping)? And could they PLEASE shell out a little money each winter and let Timmy Miers up the street shovel their walk and driveway so their property wasn't a slushy deathtrap?
Okay ... over cherry pie (mine's much better) and coffee, I finally reached my limit. I begged my uncle to let me buy two goofy lunch boxes and help him assemble an emergency tool kit and a first aid kit out of stuff they already had. Secretly, I knew that I'd be augmenting the project with some extra items like a "crank" flashlight/radio, some "liquid" bandage, hydrogen peroxide, a few extra fuses and light bulbs, hand sanitizer, and anything else that caught my eye.
I turned to my aunt and queried her about finding some extra blankets and storing them in a tote in their basement with a few cans of soup and vegetables like peas and corn ... things that can be heated on a grill or eaten cold if need be ... plus a pot, a can opener, and maybe some jerky. We lived in Ohio, I reminded them, and tornado season makes the basement an important location.
"And bottled water ... you should but a case of Aquafina or Dasani down there too for emergencies."
My uncle stopped short of his mouth with a forkful of flaky pie. "Dasani?," he said with a sneer, "that sounds Italian (pronounced Eye-talian) ... I don't much care for Italians."
POINT OF RANT: My uncle really isn't a nice man.