PORTLAND, ORE. — My reputation as a reliable foot soldier in the campaign for homeland security took a big hit over the July 4 holiday. Fortunately, there will be no official investigation or neighborhood tribunal, since I freely admit guilt.
It was a simple task my daughter and I have performed flawlessly in the past. A nearby couple had gone away for the weekend. We were supposed to bring in their mail and newspaper, and feed the cat.
There is an old wartime expression that says plans are useless once the battle begins. That also applies to housesitting. On the first night of our supervision, I unlocked the front door and stepped inside, unperturbed by the beeping sound triggered by our entrance.
The normal procedure for deactivating the alarm is simple: Walk to the kitchen, pick up the telephone, and punch in a series of numbers. Then an electronic female voice is supposed to say, "Alarm system OFF!"
But nothing went normally after I entered the numbers. The voice inside the phone said, "Code INVALID! Try again!" I looked on the information card my neighbor had prepared, and carefully punched in the code again. Was it my imagination, or did Robot Woman sound irritated when she repeated, "Code INVALID!! Try again!"?
On the third attempt, a horn started wailing. I don't know what audio engineer came up with the exact frequency and intensity of that "Whoop! Whoop! Whoop!" but it seems calculated to induce panic. In addition to the noise, the electronic voice chimed in yet again. This time she was talking from a box mounted in the hallway: "Intrusion Zone Four!"
I tried dialing in the code over and over, but it was useless. Angry and frustrated, I exclaimed my displeasure in a spontaneous tirade, using a variety of words that amazed my daughter. After a few minutes, as the horn kept wailing and the voice continued to yammer about Zone Four, she decided the crisis needed better management: "I'm going to get Mom!"
The alarm finally stopped on its own, but then I went to close the front door and set it off again. A few minutes later two police officers showed up and told me that in the midst of trying to reenter the code into the phone I had hung up on the dispatcher, who was calling to find out if the alarm was an accident or a genuine break-in.
When the homeowners returned a day later, the alarm system worked fine. Up to now I have thought of myself as the neighborhood Sergeant York. But on the front lines or the front porch, one little snafu has demoted me to the rank of Sad Sack.