But when you’re woken out of a sound sleep at four in the morning because the hotel’s fire alarm is honking madly away, you can be excused for expecting a great drama. At least. Here’s what happened —
It had been a fine trip so far for a bunch of elderly excursioners from Northampton (including the Hub and me). We’d departed our town that morning at 7:30 sharp; had a smooth bus ride up to Ogunquit, Maine, where we’d had lunch and a walk along the cliffs by the sea, toured a delightful small art museum, then continued north to Portland, Maine. We dropped off our luggage at a hotel which shall remain nameless, then scattered to do our individual things. (Ours was to have a long-anticipated dinner at one of the city’s trendiest, noisiest, happening-est restaurants, Fore Street.) So — a full day already. We turned in about 11 pm, and were, for a change, fast asleep when I heard the noise — on and on and on — noise dimly penetrating my foggy brain. A fire alarm? A FIRE ALARM? I shook the Hub, who, hard of hearing, thought it was our wakeup call and reached for the phone —
Peeking out the door, I saw the swift and the fleet already heading down the hall. Quickly we pulled on jeans, grabbed wallets, key cards, glasses, watches, cameras, jackets, a few crackers and a water bottle (you never know how long, how hungry, how thirsty), and began heading down five flights of stairs. (Some of you doubtless skim down five flights without drawing a deep breath; it’s not quite so simple in your seventies and eighties.) This is what the scene in the parking lot looked like at first to me:
But soon enough it resolved into this:
In like manner, this is how I expected the firemen to make their entrance:
But in fact this is how they actually arrived:
No smell of smoke. Surely an encouraging sign? No one rushing, except in my over-excited eyes. The firemen all had axes (hatchets?) as part of their elaborate gear, but no one rushed to hack down walls or anything. After a longish wait a manager-type appeared dangling keys to some kind of control room. And very shortly the crisis was over.
The firemen began battening down the hatches on the hook and ladder. We began our long trek back upstairs — there were far too many people heading the same direction to try and get into one of the two small elevators that service the hotel. Rumors, of course, had been flying and continued to fly all through breakfast. A false alarm? Well, yes. But why? Someone had been smoking. Or the water pressure had failed somewhere and the sprinkler system had been set off. Or none of the above. No one ever found out for sure.
But I have my own theory. In olden times travelers were lured off safe paths and into danger by will-o’-the-wisps, lights caused by phosphorescence or swamp gases or who-knows-what. Those misleading, deluding, delusionary lights were known as ignis fatui, false fires. And so I conclude that we travelers had simply been led astray by an ignis fatuus. And I’ll stand by it. It sounds more like an adventure, and a good deal more impressive than simply having been the victims of a false alarm.