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`What is that noise?'

By Guernsey Le Pelley / April 1, 1986

THERE are certain events that seem to happen only to other people. I am talking about rarefied happenings like winning $40 million on a state lottery, being the one-millionth person to go through the gates at Disney World, or being evacuated from a high-rise hotel. I have seen stuff like this on television, but none of it happens on the two-lane, secondary highway along which I travel.

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Recently this has changed and I've been run over by the law of averages. I didn't win any $40 million, but I was evacuated from a high-rise hotel along with a bunch of strange, owl-eyed people wrapped in blankets and old rain-coats.

You see, staying in a hotel always meant something to me. It gave me the feeling of ultimate security. Like being a little bar of gold in the cool, dim corridors of Fort Knox, remote from the world, cocooned in silence except for the soothing, soporific hum of an expensive air-conditioner. My hotel image has now collapsed and even Fort Knox is beginning to wobble a bit.

Sooner or later everything goes, as Rabelais would have it, ``above the pitch, out of tune, and off the hinges.'' Cozy corners, secure and serene, have gone the way of men's barbershops.

The experience was cosmic, and I relate it here for the benefit of the thousands who have not had my newly acquired experience as a man of the world.

In the first place, the fire alarm went off with Armageddon force about three o'clock in the morning. Since it was on the wall, less than six feet above my trustful, sleeping form, it seemed not so much a sound as a stake being driven through my solar plexus.

My wife, who was with me, is never at a loss for words on such an occasion. The words are not necessarily helpful, but they do start the conversational ball rolling, so to speak. So when this piercing sound propelled her straight up off the bed, still in horizontal position, she began talking even though airborne.

``What is that noise? What are you doing?''

I wasn't able to answer. I had to keep my mouth tight shut for fear that the sound reverberating in my head would shatter my teeth. Thus I was unable to explain immediately that I was just a little bar of gold in Fort Knox and wasn't doing anything.

Suddenly the hideous sound ceased, letting my wife drop back to the bed. Than a sharp, official female voice took over, ominous in its clear precision: ``Attention, please! A fire alarm has been activated. . . .''

``Ha!'' friend wife shouted in derision. ``Tell us something we don't know!''

``Yeah,'' I yelled, feeling my teeth were now safe, ``tell us something we don't know!''

The voice continued, ignoring my wife's conversational invitation. ``Please remain where you are until instructions for evacuation are given. If the alarm resumes after the instructions, you are to evacuate the building by the nearest stairway. Do not attempt to use the elevators. The elevators will not be in operation.''

When the voice finished its instructions, the hideous siren once more took up its screaming. Translation: ``Evacuate. Evacuate. Evacuate.'' This demo-niac sound was the background for all action and conversation henceforth.