Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Burning Down The House

For the second time in its relatively short history (three years), Duloc Manor has managed to escape incineration. The first time, it was an improperly installed ground outside at the meter. We noticed that our lights flashed and wavered like a disco, so we called Progress Energy. The technician took one look at the mess, cut off our power, and said that he wouldn't turn it back on until the unsafe condition was corrected by an electrician. Basically, it was a fire waiting to happen. Since this was shortly after our closing, the house was still under warranty so the builder took care of it.

In that first year, we had two other outlet problems, but nothing particularly threatening. Both were repaired under the builder's warranty, and we didn't think any more about it.

Fast forward to the present day: It's dinnertime, and Barb is innocently preparing to nuke up some Stouffers lasagna. Little does she know that's she's about to flirt with fire once again.

Actually, I suppose that we should back up 15 years or so first to examine my fire paranoia. While I've never been in a house fire (thank God!), it happens to be a particular fear of mine. I don't know its roots, although the house next door to ours burned to the ground when I was an infant. Maybe some residual memory?

I also seem to have a premonitory sense where potential blazes are concerned. I always had a bad feeling about my brother's house, and I shared it with my husband. Sure enough, that creepy old place burned. Thank goodness only my nephew and grandnephew were home, and they both made it out safely.

I also absolutely hated my husband's house, which he had purchased before we were married. Since I lived in an apartment, I moved to his place after the wedding. That awful 1970's avocado-sided nightmare gave off the worst vibes I've ever felt. I was firmly convinced that one day we would come home to a smoldering heap of cinders.

Thankfully it never burned, but it did get destroyed by a flood. While we were gone for the weekend, the upstairs toilet tank cracked. The ensuing water did so much damage that it had to be gutted, and we had to move out for three months while it was almost entirely rebuilt. Interestingly enough, when the contractor was working on the basement rec room, he said that the wiring was a fire hazard. The former owner had installed it himself and apparently had no idea what he was doing. We had to have it all redone, and we sold the house shortly thereafter.

I never got that "danger sense" in my apartment or in our condo, which we bought after fleeing the Nightmare House. I never really had it at Duloc Manor, either, even after the initial electrical problem.

But then, a month or two ago, I was sitting out back in the hot tub and gazing through the window, and I had the oddest sense. I was looking in at the family room and kitchen, and overlaid onto the scene was a mental image of what it would look like in the aftermath of a blaze. I could picture the charred, blackened interior and the jagged, broken window. Despite the 99 degree water, it chilled me to my core.

I convinced myself that I was just paranoid and that it was my old fire phobia rearing its ugly head. I never said anything to my husband, and I forced it out of my mind. The sense came over me one more time, a few days later, but once again I pushed it away.

Now, let's jump to the day before all the excitement. I popped some tuna noodle casserole into the microwave, intending to have it for lunch. As it cooked, I went upstairs to shower since I'd just returned from the barn. Oddly, I flashed on something that hadn't entered my thoughts for years. I had a very good friend whose sister lived in a trailer. One day, the sister started nuking her dinner and fell asleep while it was cooking. Somehow, the microwave caught on fire; her house was totally destroyed, and she suffered some nasty burns while trying to rescue her pets.

I thought fleetingly, "Maybe it's not such a good idea to leave the microwave while it's running." But the thought had no real power; after all, my husband and I do it all the time. We'll pop something in, then wander off to another part of the house or even out in the yard. What are the odds that something will happen? They must be infinitesimal.

Now we can jump to the present. Once again, I was preparing to nuke some food. Since my husband was out, I dug out the frozen lasagna that would serve as my evening repast. I punched in 10 minutes at 50 percent power and pressed the magic start button.

This time, I had no time to ponder the wisdom of leaving the room. Almost as soon as I turned on the microwave, it started acting funny. It popped off and on twice before finally settling down into an erratic and wavering hum. I was a little disconcerted, but when it's on 50 percent it's normal for the motor to cycle. Still, this was going beyond the norm...the light inside, and even the time display, were flashing from bright to dim and back again.

I don't panic too easily, so instead of cutting the power, I called my husband on his cell phone to get a second opinion. He tends to err on the side of caution, so his advice was, "Turn it off!" I was reluctant, as I wanted that darned lasagna! True, the microwave motor was thrumming up and down as though it was bipolar, but it didn't seem to be spewing radioactivity. I figured I could nurse it through one last cook cycle before it gave up the ghost.

Hubby was still yammering with the voice of reason in my ear, while I tried to silently will the microwave to settle down and complete its task. But its erratic behavior was getting worse, and at this point my husband was urging me to turn it off and pull out the plug. "But I don't know where the outlet is," I lamented. He explained that it was in the upper cabinet, so I pulled up a chair and climbed up to locate it.

When I opened the cabinet door, the outlet was spewing blue sparks like a mini fireworks show gone terribly awry. There was no need for further discussion...I slammed that Off button with every ounce of strength in my index finger! Then I tried to pull out the plug, which was eerily hot to the touch, but it wouldn't come out. I felt the faceplate, and that was hot, too, as was the wall above it. Not good.

My husband instructed me to pull the circuit breaker; it bothered me that it hadn't tripped on its own, but I dutifully ran upstairs to cut the power. Then I cautiously approached the outlet, which was still quite hot. I decided to open it in case anything might be smouldering inside.

Once I had the thing dismantled, I realized just how closely I had flirted with disaster. The outlet had suffered a catastrophic meltdown, and I mean melt literally. The plug wouldn't come out because the heat had melded it to the socket. The wires and melted plastic were blackened by scorch marks, and the whole thing had a nasty burned odor. Thank God I had opened the cabinet door; the timer still had five minutes to go, and by that time I think there would have been a blaze in the wall.

I shivered, realizing just how close my vision of a blackened kitchen had come to reality. Believe me, if another appliance ever starts acting erractically, I'll turn it off first and ask questions later. The lasagna that had once been so important was now a half-thawed, forgotten lump.

For the third time this year, I pulled out the papers for our extended home warranty. I'm sure the company rues the day that they ever offered us coverage. First it was the leaking air conditioner pipe, then a broken dishwasher pump. Now, it will be an electrician. I said a silent prayer of thanks that we had purchased the coverage. If we hadn't, I can't even imagine how much we would have racked up in repairs this year.

I also said a prayer thanking God for averting disaster. I don't know if my premonitions were some sort of warning, but I do know that if this had happened just one day earlier, I would have been in the shower and the blaze would almost surely have taken hold. I can't even imagine walking downstairs to a fiery kitchen disaster.

It will be interesting to hear what the electrician says. It seems to me that the circuit breaker should have tripped, so I wonder if there is a more fundamental problem than just a faulty outlet. Between this and the other electrical faults that cropped up right after closing, I wonder if our wiring was done by someone who was either drunk or suffering from a massive hangover.

Oh well, the important thing is that my vision didn't come to pass. As scary as it was, at least the meltdown is safely over now. And perhaps it was meant to happen the way that it did...if the outlet had to fry, at least it occurred when someone was right in front of it.

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1 comment:

Two4Disney said...

So glad you escaped harm. I experienced a fire in my 20s when I stepped away from french fries frying in a deep fryer on the stove to answer the phone in the other room. Bad, bad move. Good point about keeping watch over the microwave, too.