Breaking Point

The chirp of a dying smoke detector.

That was my emotional breaking point.

Not the day I thought I had thoroughly screwed up a local staff employee’s job out of Embassy Kabul. Not the day I sat with a young woman as she told me she thought she was pregnant while the father of her baby was back in Afghanistan and had not been heard from in weeks. Not when we faced the possibility of measles or drug resistant tuberculosis within our guest population. And not when I sat with guests as they told their stories of escape and survival to a variety of press outlets.

None of these secondary traumas on a military base broke me the way a dying smoke detector in Pentagon City did.

After ninety days at Fort McCoy, working long, stressful hours, carrying the weight of 13,000 refugees and their stories, I arrived back in my DC-area apartment, tired to the bone and harboring the tell-tale signs of a head cold. Wanting nothing more than to eat the chicken and macaroni lovingly put in my fridge by a friend earlier in the day, I walked into my home, dropped by two oversized duffle bags and prepared to flop down on the new couch that had been delivered in my absence. I am not sure my rear had even hit the couch cushion before the undeniable chirp of the alarm squealed in my ear.  

As I looked around the apartment, searching for the source of the godforsaken chirp, my eyes landed on the flat plastic disk sitting flush with the ceiling of my living room. Normally, my super high ceilings are a bonus to my small apartment, but when it comes to needing to do maintenance, they quickly become an issue. Tired and wanting nothing more than cheesy carbs (after all, my body was accustomed to fried cheese curds on a regular basis), I dug through the entryway closet to get my stepladder, teetered on the top step and attempted to pull the detector off the ceiling.


And again.

With no luck.

It would rotate slightly, but with no leverage and balancing on a wobbly ladder in socks, progress eluded me. Worried that breaking it would set off the alarm to the entire building, I hopped down and called the front desk, not wanting to be the reason eighteen floors of people had to evacuate their homes on a cold Saturday evening.

Of course, on a weekend night, there are no maintenance folks on the premise. The lovely concierge promised me that whatever I did would not set off the alarms for the entire building and offhandedly mentioned that whatever I broke could be fixed on Monday.

I took this as the green light to do whatever I needed to do to get the chirping to stop.

Whatever I needed to do.

Back up the stepladder I went, this time with a screwdriver and a hammer in hand. Leveraging the disk off the ceiling a few centimeters, I was able to slide my fingers under it and pull hard enough to get it to come off, only to discovered it was connected by a bunch of red and black wires. Remembering the less than subtle message from the front desk, I used my screwdriver to loosen all the wires and with a bit of a yank, the entire apparatus fell off the ceiling and into my hands. (The hammer turned out to be unneeded, but you never know…)

Standing there, finally in silence, my eyes darting between the plastic pieces in my hand and the wires dangling from my ceiling, I couldn’t help but feel a comradery with the smoke detector. It was just doing its job (and to be fair, doing it well) and I broke it. I didn’t want to tear it off the ceiling- I would have gladly run to CVS for a battery if that would have done the trick, but in a moment of crisis, we each did the best we could.

On Monday, the very kind maintenance man came to my apartment and asked no questions about the many plastic pieces on my kitchen counter. He just competently reconnected the wires and reinstalled the disk on the ceiling, leaving with a wave and a smile as I was in my den on a work call.

While the smoke detector was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back, it was also a metaphor for my time in Wisconsin. (What English teacher wouldn’t love both an overused idiom AND a metaphor only relatable to about a dozen readers in a single essay?) But, in many ways, that was Fort McCoy for me. I gave everything to that mission for ninety days, came home a little broken, needing a battery recharge, but fixable.

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