Sweet dreams, despite the machines

Every night when I drifted into sleep, the refrigerator clicked on, Then the electric furnace.

We liked the house we lived in when we took care of a ranch in the Blue Mountains of northeastern Oregon, though it had no electricity or any other modern conveniences.

That job ended, and we accepted a job taking care of the water intakes, at 5,000 feet on the east slope of Tumalo Mountain, for the city of Bend, Ore. The city provided us with a house that had electricity, running water, a refrigerator, freezer, washer, dryer, electric heat, and a telephone.

Every night when I drifted into sleep, the refrigerator clicked on. It would rumble and hum, and I'd startle wide awake. When the refrigerator shut up, finally, I'd drift back into sleep. Then the electric furnace in the basement would click on, and the fan, bolted to the floor joists, would rumble warm air into the upstairs and vibrate the house. I'd jolt awake again.

I knew the machines in the house had operated well for years without anyone staying awake to monitor them. I knew the two smoke alarms upstairs and the one in the basement, where our daughters' bedrooms were, all worked. But what I felt about the sounds and machines around me didn't answer to reason.

During our 8-1/2 years in an electricityless house, I'd cleaned flues, fastened reflectors between stoves and walls, and monitored every potential source of fire. We had an escape plan, and supplies ready in case we had to survive a very cold night after a house fire.

In our modern house, I wasn't willing to turn the management over to machines. Could I be sure they were safe and effective? But it wasn't only my distrust of the machines that managed our environment that kept me awake. I found it hard to live with the noise.

I worked hard to learn to accept the sounds the house made. At last, I was ready. The smoke alarms worked, and we had a good fire-escape plan. I had checked all the wiring and all the appliances, and they were in good condition. I was ready to let the machines take care of the house, with all their rumbling, humming, and vibrating. Any unusual sound, symptomatic of something going wrong, would wake me. And our dog was on duty. He would bark if anything unusual happened.

One night, I drifted peacefully to sleep. The phone rang. I jumped out of bed, thundered downstairs, lifted the receiver, and spoke.

A woman said, "There's a June Bolen or Bowen out front. What do you know about that?"

I faced the clock. It said 12:45 a.m., an hour and a half since I went to sleep.

I said, "Out front of what?"

"Isn't this the police department?"

"No, it isn't." She hung up.

I wanted to know more about June Bolen or Bowen and what she was in front of. It took me a long time to go back to sleep. I again become very sensitive to the mechanical noises around me.

The next night, at 1 a.m., the phone rang. I snatched up the receiver and barked "Hello?"

A different woman said either, "I'm trying to contact Bob at the place he works," or "I'm trying to contact the department of public works."

I said, "What?"

She said, "I think I'll try a different number," and hung up.

I wanted to tell her, "I wasn't yelling in anger, exactly. This phone line sometimes doesn't give a very good connection, and I hoped to get you to speak up," but it was too late. I couldn't shut the phone off. My employers had to be able to contact me if problems developed with the water intakes. And I couldn't revise the house into a quieter system of machines, because its owners, my employers, thought it was good the way it was. They didn't want me messing with it.

I told myself it was just a coincidence that people misdialed when I was having trouble sleeping. There wasn't a conspiracy to destroy my sleep. Whoever bolted the heater fan to the floor joists was probably not gleefully looking forward to the day when I, a light sleeper, moved in.

I liked the modern house. We didn't have to buy batteries every two weeks for the radio and tape deck. We had all the light we needed. It was easier to take care of our needs than it had been in Whitney Valley, so I had more time to write, play my guitar, and sing. Plus, I knew I wouldn't enjoy being a hermit. My wife and daughters loved the place, and I intended to stay with them. I went back to bed, and it didn't take me long to go to sleep.

I rarely received a wrongly dialed call in the middle of the night after that, and I usually slept well. The house was well insulated, and my wife and I slept in the loft. It stayed warm even on a subzero night.

I moved our bed close to the window, and we slept with the window open. Natural sounds - the waterfall behind the house, coyotes, owls, and deer - covered up mechanical sounds, knit my nights together, and soothed my dreams.

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