The Old Smoke Detector

Up until recently, my parents had three smoke detectors in the house that they had purchased for when the house was built. There was one in the upstairs hallway where my brother and my room were. The second was at the bottom of the basement stairs that was once the intersection of the recreational basement and Dad’s workshop. These two never went off. It was the third, the one in the downstairs hallway that scarred us for life. It was at the top of the basement stairs, and the basement was where the only switch to turn it off was located. Usually the basement door was closed anyway if that hell spawn was going off. It was usually not finicky, and was not known to go off unjustly. It was the sound it made that created a Pavlovian reaction in my brother’s and my brain. After the 70s, most houses had a smoke alarm that beeped, noting the fire and thinking about the best way to wake the family. “Excuse me, I don’t mean to alarm you but there seems to be some sort of smoke emitting from the left quadrant of this dwelling. Would you be so kind as to check on this and if necessary vacate the premises in a non panicking manner?” This was not so in the McLaughlin house. When that smoke detector caught the slightest whiff of smoke or steam, there was a split second of absolute silence. Everyone knew of the vacuum of sound that came before Armageddon, and they were powerless to stop the imminent torture.


It was like a game show buzzer but high pitched just for the dogs. No wonder Lassie saved Timmy so many times from a burning building. They probably had one of these installed where the fire started. This sound radiated into the ears, past the drums and into the brain. You could hear our smoke detector with your cerebral cortex. As a teenager, I polled my friends who had ever heard the smoke detector in our house go off, and most of them said they would rather die in the fire then hear that monster go off.

After we heard that sound once, my brother and I made it our mission in life never to hear it again. One time when it went off, Dad was holding me at his hip. He ran down into the basement with me (having passed under this thing I wonder why I’m writing this so calmly) around the staircase and to a gray electrical box in his workshop. He opened it and flicked a switch. The sound was gone. I had the power. I could never remember which switch it was, so when it made its brain electrocuting shriek, I would run downstairs via the basement door and shut down the entire house, just to make it go away.

One day, Eric and I were watching a big black bug crawling on the hall ceiling. It inched toward the smoke detector. We had no idea it could crawl into the vile contraption. It disappeared inside the off white casing. My brother and I giggled about it, thinking what the insect would do if it heard our famous smoke detector go off, especially from so close up. Suddenly we heard a short sharp BIRRT! The black bug was never seen again. Our best guess is that it either had a heart attack from the sound, an aneurysm from the brain damage, or simple just disintegrated because its tiny brain and body just did not know what to do. Either way, at least it didn’t suffer like we did.

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