On living life in the fail-safe lane

Just the other day - the same day a burglar alarm in our neighborhood rang for 12 minutes, by a sensitive listener's count - we read that the fire alarm in the Peabody Museum in Salem, Mass., had sounded off four times within a matter of hours.

The burglar alarm, according to neighborhood gossip, was tripped by an extra-large cat named Clyde leaping onto a windowsill. The Peabody Museum alarm, according to the report we saw, was triggered by spiders weaving webs that agitated photoelectric beams.

The alarming cat made a fine story, but the spiders made an even better one. As soon as we presumed that all hands had caught their breath after the fire drills, we called the museum to confirm the spider theory.Alas, we were informed that the spiders had been proved innocent. The bugs in the system were of the electronic variety.

What a disappointment! That's the last time we'll check out a good story, we can promise you that.

But as we reflected on the ubiquitous buzzing in our ears, we realized our true subject was not spiders anyway, but alarms. The point remains valid: If it is not spiders or cats tripping the world's alarm systems, it is all too often something else beside the menace being guarded against.

One wants one's bacon well done, and - whoo-ee! - there goes the smoke alarm.

We once owned a car with a sophisticated set of warning signals ahead of its time. Sure enough. Everything did go wrong with the car - including the warning signals. When the oil pressure dropped, the battery charging light went on. When the engine overheated, the fasten-your-seat-belt reminder buzzed.

Our car was the mechanical equivalent of a man we once saw at the beach, scratching his left arm after a mosquito had just bitten him on the right leg.

One day, when our lemon was running as perfectly as it ever did, all the red lights went on at once, setting the dashboard blazing like a Christmas tree.

Shortly afterward - very shortly - we sold the car. That's the way we are. We can forgive a fallible machine. We just can't forgive the fallible alarm system for it - the boy who keeps crying wolf, often at 1 o'clock in the morning.

But in the end, our quarrel is not with things that go beep in the night. What worries us is the way everybody worries. The more backup systems we install , the more double-bar locks we put on our doors, the more of the same we feel compelled to add.

Fail-safe - the word mocks us. The term was not even invented until after the atomic bomb, when the world became considerably less fail-safe.

And so we come to ''star wars'' - the fail-safe system to protect us from the nuclear menace by being the mightiest nuclear network of all.

There is such inconsistency to this passion for security. People install antitheft devices on every possession down to a tricycle. They insure themselves to the hilt against every contingency a nasty imagination can conjure up. And then they're so bored by their own fortress mentality they go out and hang-glide or motorcycle on weekends.

We're not against caution - that would be un-New Eng-land. The Peabody Museum is an enchanted place, full of figureheads and ship carvings and artifacts from India and China and the Pacific. Ships' logs and parch-ment charts evoke the presence of Salem captains from the days when the seaport was thick with sail. Who would want this precious collection not to be protected?

But one cannot help thinking: How little protection, how little security these Salem sea captains enjoyed when they fought their way around Cape Horn! Their alarm system was a night lookout in the bow, wiping the spray out of the eyes. They would not have known what to make of words like fail-safe. They put themselves in the hands of what they quaintly called Providence. So, in the end , do all the fail-safe engineers, though it may ring all their emergency alarms to admit it.

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