My dad’s beeper was designed to draw attention to itself: if it didn’t make loud sounds, he’d never know when to go put out fires. I didn’t know its varying tones were signals to different fire departments, so I made a game of deciphering what each one might mean. Low, long beeps meant something boring, a kitten up a tree. Alternating low– and high-pitched beeps meant a car wreck. And, since my dad only reacted to the most urgent-sounding one, the rapid, high beepbeepbeepbeep, I knew it was reserved for the real emergencies. I didn’t realize for years that the tone he responded to was just the one his fire department happened to use. Dad’s beeper was also hard to ignore because it was the size of a small brick, and because it had a shiny button on it I was forbidden to press.
I happened one day to find myself alone in Dad’s truck, waiting for him to pay at a gas station. I didn’t notice the beeper on the dash until it screamed, breaking me from some 10-year-old’s reverie. I knew I should take the beeper to Dad, who would, left to his own devices, sprout roots from his feet at the cash register, talking the day away, and miss the message from the fire department’s dispatch.
I reached for the beeper and pressed the button, producing a satisfying burst of static and then silence. Often after the alert tones are played, Dad would listen for a garbled message from the dispatcher to find out where he needed to go. I could never make out a word of what was said through the static and the tinny beeper speaker, and often as not neither could Dad. But on that day, alone in the truck, a voice came to me clear as a bell.
A woman’s voice said a series of numbers and the name of a road I didn’t recognize. I’d seen a lot of Smokey and the Bandit by then, and I knew how people talked into CB radios. Whenever Dad couldn’t make out what someone was saying through his beeper, he always ended up calling another fireman for news, and I never understood why he didn’t just use his own little radio to ask the dispatcher. So that’s what I did. I depressed the silver button, adopted my sternest prepubescent voice, and said “Breaker, breaker, how about a quick repeat?”
A moment of silence, then the woman’s voice was inquiring, puzzled, “What station is this?” And I knew I was doomed. I couldn’t hear any of the responding chatter through the blood pounding in my ears and the sudden appearance of my father at the door. I dropped the beeper on the seat between us and said not a word all the way home.
In bed that night I stared at my ceiling, mapping constellations in the glow-in-the-dark stars I put there and imagining what kind of crisis I might have caused. The responding fire department assumed, I was sure, that the station I represented would have everything well in hand, and some poor family’s home would burn idly to the ground thanks to my negligence. I saw the conflagration, the bedraggled family standing tearful on the lawn, the charred husk of the puppy who never made it out. Images like these would wake me from fitful rest for the next decade.
How was I to know, at that age, that Dad’s beeper had no microphone, no mechanism for broadcasting? There was no way the words I said made it beyond the windows of the truck. And even if the call had been for my dad’s department, he’d have heard one of the followup calls and been able to respond. Even after I learned all this, I couldn’t forgive myself for so grievous a transgression. Even writing this confession, my heart pounds a little.
This is the inaugural post in a synchroblogging experiment with some friends. I would like it very much if you read the other participants here: