On this cold January morning, Constance lie awake in the dark silence. She worried.
Last week, her boss at the small hospital in town had excused her from the volunteer job there. “It was a rule,” he had told her. A volunteer could help only up to her 80th birthday.
As she lie awake, she worried about how she would keep busy. She had worked at the hospital for many years, and enjoyed it. She liked visiting with patients, and helping families find their way around. Much of the time she was lifting someone’s spirits. Few knew that she had a degree in social work.
Now these winter days at home by herself would be long—tough to get through. Her children were busy with their jobs. Her grandkids were too. And her great-grandchildren were in the city, too far to visit on weekdays.
Constance watched the time on the clock radio change from 5:29 to 5:30. The radio turned on. The station reported news, traffic, and weather.
She listened to the reports of car accidents and city shootings. Although every morning she had heard this, this morning it made her more anxious. Without a place to make a difference, she wanted even more to make things better, to make things safer.
Her heartbeat and breathing became fast.
She had felt this on some other mornings, so she started to calm herself. She closed her eyes, began breathing deeply, and quietly started to pray, “Our Fa…”
Then, from outside, a tornado siren sounded. The layered tones rising and falling, the volume increasing and decreasing.
The sudden siren interrupted Constance’s worry, and started her onto a new one.
“Strange.” She thought. “Is there a tornado coming? A tornado in January?”
She looked out the window, but with the darkness saw only gleaming street lights and still tree silhouettes.
The siren continued as the radio showed 6:00 A.M. The voice of the meteorologist confirmed the weather was clear and cold.
“It must be just a test…but at this hour?”
The siren went on, higher then lower, louder then softer.
The out-of-place siren got Constance out of bed. She got up, and dressed. As the siren continued, she answered her own question.
“A test doesn’t last this long.”
At 7:00 she was eating breakfast, listening to the siren.
She could not stand it anymore. “That’s it!” she said out loud. She went to the bulletin board near the phone, found the number for the village, and called.
A middle-aged woman with a voice, raspy from smoking, answered. “Village Hall. Can I help you?”
Constance paused before speaking. Through the phone she could hear the siren.
“Yes. My name is Constance Sharp. I’m calling from the 500 block of College Avenue. I’m hearing the tornado siren.”
“The tornado siren?” The village clerk seemed unaware.
“Yes, the tornado siren. And it’s been going now for almost two hours!”
“Hmmm…” the clerk said. “Can you hold a minute?”
“Yes.” Constance replied. While she waited, the siren continued.
After about a minute, the clerk was back on the line.
“Yes, the siren is going.”
This response frustrated Constance greatly. “I know it’s going. But WHY is it going? Is there a storm coming? Is the siren being tested? Are we being attacked? Constance didn’t really think it was an attack.
“Ma’am, I don’t know.”
“Well is there someone you can check with? Public Works? Or the police?”
“Ma’am, there’s no one here I can check with. The rest of the office comes in around nine.”
“Well I find it hard to believe that the siren is going and you don’t know why.”
“I’m sorry, Ma’am. If you want, call back at 9:00.”
And before Constance could reply, the woman from the village hung up.
“Well!” Constance was beside herself.
She went to the TV and clicked through the channels. Everything was normal: broadcasts from downtown streets in New York and Chicago. Weathermen letting tourists say ‘hello.’
She wanted to check with her neighbors, but it was too early. So she paced the house, waiting for nine o’clock.
At 9:01 she called the village again.
“Hello. It’s me again. Ms. Sharp calling about the siren.” She thought that being more formal, she might get a better response. “It’s still going. Is it being addressed?”
“Ma’am, just like when we spoke last time, there’s nothing I can do.”
“But you had said you could check with someone else when they got in. Have you done that? Have you checked with anyone else?”
“Ma’am, please hold.”
Now Constance was really beside herself. “How could this be?” She said out loud, knowing that no one was listening.
In a few seconds the clerk was back on the line.
“Ma’am, there’s nothing we can do.”
“There’s nothing we can do? It’s certainly not being tested. And, we’ve confirmed that there’s not bad weather coming. We’ve also confirmed that we are not being attacked.”
“Then why is the siren on?”
“That we don’t know.”
“You don’t know? Can’t you just turn it off?”
“It’s kinda’ funny you ask that Ma’am. The mayor is in the office now, and he’s been walking around asking the maintenance guys that same question.”
“And what are the maintenance guys telling the mayor?”
“Oh… They can’t find the key to the fence that’s around the base of the tower. They’re saying that they need to unlock the gate, to get to the switch.”
“Can’t they just climb over the damn fence?” Constance was losing her manners.
The woman laughed, “You sound just like the mayor, Ma’am.”
“The guys are saying that the fence around the base was beefed up by Homeland Security, and that breaking-in, in any way, could trigger an alarm in Washington.”
“Oh my…” “Wait! Are you saying that the only way to turn off the siren is with the switch at the base of the tower?”
“Yes! That’s how it is turned on and off.”
“But I have a son who works with TLCs or PCPs or something like that… He tells me that big things like motors can be turned on and off from laptops miles away. That son of mine actually had me turn on the air conditioning at Yale once, from our house! Don’t you have some sort of setup like that?”
“Ma’am, I have no idea what you are talking about.”
“Um, Ma’am? Excuse me. Hold on one second. I might be getting an answer.”
Constance could hear a man talking to the woman, but could not make out what he was saying. But she did clearly hear the woman’s voice saying, “Yes… Yes… Okay. I will ask her.”
Then the woman from the village came back on the line. “Ma’am?”
“Yes, I’m still here.”
“The mayor was just now talking to me.”
“The mayor?” Constance said, a bit impressed.
“Yes, the mayor. He just now asked me…if you could do us a favor.”
“A favor? Well, I don’t know. How could I possibly help with this?”
“The mayor is saying that part of the problem is that the guy who took care of the siren…
“The mayor accidentally laid him off during the last round of budget cuts.”
“Oh my! Well can’t you just call that guy up and get him back?”
“He’s moved away. He’s workin’ a siren in another town now.”
“So what does the mayor want me to do?”
“He’s looking for a volunteer…A volunteer to take responsibility for the tower, and the siren.”
Constance had no response.
“He says it’s easy. Just a few hours a week.”
Constance surrendered and said sarcastically, “Don’t we need a key first?”
“The mayor will take care of that today. Next Monday at nine, come on into the village hall and we’ll get you started.”