And 2009 ends with a bang and a false alarm

It is about 6:15 p.m. the Monday before Christmas when I round the corner to my street. What appears to be my father’s car is parked in front of my house. A slight panic rises in my throat. What’s wrong? It is dark, and as I turn into my driveway the headlights catch something and I have a vague awareness that there are newspapers on the driveway that I don’t remember.

“You just ran over the gingerbread house,” my father says as he walks toward me. “You missed it with the front tires, but you got it with the back.” He is angry. That anger that takes over when you have been worried about one of your children, they arrive home safely, and all that adrenaline gets funneled into “where the hell have you been?”

“This looks like a nice peaceful street, but half an hour ago it was crawling with fire trucks and police cars.”

Later, when I check my voice mail on my cell phone, there is a message from the alarm company at 4:17 p.m. The fire alarm in my kitchen is going off. They have called the fire department. They have also moved one down on the call list, and my dad answers the phone. My mother is out Christmas shopping. He can be there in 20 minutes. They ask him to describe his car so they can alert the fire department. When my father arrived at the scene, in the middle of the driveway, there is a cookie sheet with a smoldering gingerbread house. A firefighter comments that they are lucky my house has such a good alarm system and that the only house lost that night was a gingerbread house.

Earlier that day, my daughter confronted me. “Did you eat three Skittles and a sour rope off the gingerbread house?”

I hadn’t. Max, our 100-pound, 1-year-old black lab, licked some of the frosting off the cookie sheet, but how could he have managed to remove only three Skittles and one sour rope off the top of the roof? She had placed the cookie sheet that held her creation from Sunday’s gingerbread house party at the back of the stove. Max has been, shall we say, inquisitive in the kitchen in recent days, and this we thought was a safe spot. Apparently not.

Neither one of us used the stove that day. There is no pilot light.

The knobs to turn on the burners, however, are strategically angled so that if a large dog were to perhaps jump to get a look at what was just out of reach, he might, just might, lean his weight on the knob and turn it as his front paws returned to the floor.

My daughter left to go to the movies, so, uncharacteristically, wasn’t answering her cell phone. Now, if my dad knew how to text, he probably would have gotten through, since being without the ability to text would be like losing an arm for my daughter. My phone was turned off. My mother was shopping in the mall and at Ralph’s. Her cell phone is buried in her purse, so no chance of hearing the Jeopardy theme ring tone while she was out and about in the crowds.

“Everyone is always using their cell phones for crazy stuff, and when it is a real emergency nobody is answering.” My father doesn’t remember the code to turn off the alarm. The firefighters are equipped with ear plugs.

My father is not.

Max got out of the yard when the fire fighters opened the side gate.

They smelled the smoke and went around the house. He tore off down the street. The neighbor wrangled him and tied him to the streetlamp. At 4:46 p.m., my son gets a message on FaceBook from his friend who lives across the street.

“Your mother’s house is on fire and she left 10 minutes ago. Nobody is home. Your dog peed on me.” When the hook and ladder arrived from Camarillo, my father said, Max tried to hide. The alarm was going off, sirens were blaring and, of course, the lights and lots of strangers. My father had a vague awareness of Goody, our German shepherd, darting past him, running frightened among the 15 or so rescue workers out in the yard and the street.

I am profoundly grateful that the firefighters saw the doggie door and used it. My father overheard a young firefighter saying that he was all suited up in his breathing apparatus, and they told him he had to take it all off to go through the doggie door. No opportunity to break glass with an ax on this night. When they did open windows and doors, it set off the burglar alarm. The police arrived.

The firefighters needed to clear the house, make sure that everyone was out safely. They found a walker and my father explains that I had knee surgery the week prior and there was no missing old person somewhere hiding in a closet.

They set up a large fan at the front door and went through a well-scripted series of opening and closing windows and doors to get maximum air flow to blow the smoke out of the house. Another big gold star for the fire department. I had no idea that they did that kind of cleanup. My father said they used some sort of air purifier that was supposed to get rid of the smoke smell. My brother wondered if he was given a choice of pine, vanilla or new-house scent.

When I get into the house, there is the smell of burnt sugar. Very little is out of place. The fan over the stove is running and the cabinets above and below are opened. A door or two that were closed are now open and one that was open is now closed. There was barely any sign that anything had gone on. All was tidy and cleaned up. The dogs were back in the yard thanks to a firefighter who was good with dogs under stress.

My father said that all of the rescue workers seemed to really enjoy their jobs. There was camaraderie and back-slapping going on in my front yard and in the street as I walked the aisles of CVS.

My hat is off to the Ventura County Fire Department. Thank you very much for your work, professionalism and dedication.

The Saturday after Christmas, I received a letter from the Thousand Oaks Police Department that they had been called to the house on a false alarm and that if there were three false alarms in a calendar year, I would be fined $100. Three police cars had stayed for the duration. Three cars, no burglar. We crossed the year-end milestone without reaching that first penalty phase for “false” alarms.   

Jennifer Gross lives in Newbury Park where she raised two children. Growing up in New Jersey, Jennifer has had a passion for writing and photography since grade school.