`What is that noise?'

By

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.

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.

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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.

Friend wife padded toward the door, debating the outrageous insensitivity of all these rather rude demands. I started putting on my pants. Friend wife, who rebels up to a point, is a stickler for authoritative instructions and, since the voice had not instructed anyone to put on pants, she perhaps thought I was cheating.

``What are you doing?'' she screamed (to be heard above the siren).

``Putting on my pants,'' I yelled. ``I don't smell any smoke, so why not get dressed?'' She accepted this and began searching the suitcases for her earrings. She has her logic, I have mine.

She called to me: ``How will they apply that rule, women and children first?''

``That's only for sinking ships,'' I shouted. ``When there aren't enough lifeboats! I think the hotel is big enough for everyone all at once.''

In no time at all we entered the stairwell and became part of a stream of people somnambulating downward. They were a bleary lot. Not only from being waked out of sound sleep but also because they had been going round and round in steady descent from very high altitudes.

It was not until we bottomed out and entered the lobby at long last that I encountered the strangest group of all. The only way to describe the stupefied, heterogeneous tableau of about 100 people is to say that Halloween will never scare me again. They all looked like actors in a science-fiction movie who had been captured by some expressionless, outer-space creatures. I gradually recognized these invaders standing guard as firemen, all wearing huge, black, armor-like rubber coats; oversize, pointed firehats; and heavy black and red boots.

As it turned out, there was no fire and no smoke. Only the continuing blast of the fire alarm and the Gilbert and Sullivan chorus standing awaiting their cue.

I held back, fearing that if I joined this group, I would turn into Salvador Dali. But I was pushed forward by the staggering people behind me, pressing on in search of solid ground.

There was a thin, baldheaded man with bare feet, wearing the worst pair of pajamas I have ever seen, which includes those in my own closet.

There was the pudgy woman, insufficiently wrapped in what must have been her daughter's robe. Her daughter apparently had to settle for her father's raincoat.

Pudgy loudly complained, ``I'm backwards from the hips down!''

To which her daughter shouted a reply, ``It is impossible to put pantyhouse on backwards.''

Eventually we were returned to our rooms via the elevators.

Perhaps there is some purpose to all this. At least such events are rare enough to be remembered in a special category along with ``the day Mom went into the men's washroom'' or ``the day Dad sat on the wedding cake.''

At least we had no trouble falling asleep the following night. But one can never be too complacent about the law of averages.

At around three in the morning the same fire alarm went off, and my wife, as before, was lifted into the air.

``I dreamed this happened last night!'' she screamed.

The clear, officious female voice began: ``Attention please! A fire alarm has been activated. . . .''

Goodbye forever to cozy corners.

Guernsey Le Pelley

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