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Nabbing mail: I think I can, I think I can


I PICKED UP a flashlight, summoned my courage and told my wife: "If the police nab me, come down to the station house and bail me out." She said she might.

With that tepid assurance, I set out on a mission, namely to get in and out of a house without setting off the burglar alarm.

I know people do this every day. But most of them are entering and exiting their own houses, punching their own alarms. I was going to try to do this at a neighbor's house.

I had inherited this job. It had been passed along to me during morning carpool duty. Somewhere during the ride to school, our 15-year-old son realized that since he was heading out of town on a camping trip, he would not be able to pick up the mail at a neighbor's house, a task he had been employed to perform while the neighbors were away.

He delegated the job to me. I protested. "Don't they have an alarm and a big dog?" I said.

The kid gave me that I-am-so-disappointed-in-you look that teen-agers specialize in directing at their parents.

He explained that the dog was not home and that beating the alarm was "cake." All I had to do, he told me, was force open a garden gate, unlock a door, then hustle through the house over to the control box and punch in a code that turned off the alarm.

"It's easy," the kid said.

I wanted to quote a twisted version of the "easy for you, difficult for me," line that Senor Wences, the Spanish ventriloquist, used to have his character Johnny spout on the old "Ed Sullivan Show."

Instead, I grunted. I have found that when communicating with 15-year-old males, grunting is the way to go. I have become conversant in the vocabulary of grunts. There is the grunt of affirmation, a one-syllable utterance that faintly sounds like a swallowed "yep."

There is the grunt of disapproval, a two-syllable statement that sounds somewhat like "uh-uh." Then there is the three-syllable grunt meaning, "I don't know."

Usually parents are the recipients of the grunts, the ones trying to decipher their meaning. But in this instance, I was the grunter. It was early morning, not my peak verbal time, and I wasn't sure what to say. So I made an affirming guttural noise, one that put the kid at ease.

But while my grunt said "yes" to the job, my gut kept saying "no way." I remembered an ear-splitting incident that happened a few years earlier when another kid was watching another neighbor's well-wired home. Then, instead of hitting a button that closed a garage door, someone hit a button that sent the household's alarm system into the "attack" mode. It remained in this mode for several hours, summoning a security patrol and emitting a howl that could wake the dead.

I feared that if there were a rematch pitting my reflexes against the uncompromising demands of another alarm system, it, too, would end with howling alarms and the arrival of squad cars.

So instead of meeting this responsibility head-on, I was going to shirk it, running away like a coward. Then I thought of the withering I-can't-believe-you-people look and the what-a-fogey grunt of annoyance the teen-ager would visit upon me if I had to tell him I had been afraid to fetch the mail.

So I forced myself to take a risk. I propelled myself out of our house and headed down the alley and around the corner, giving myself a pep talk along the way.

As I turned the key in the door, the alarm started beeping, ticking off the seconds - how many I wasn't sure - until the alarm called for the gendarmes.

I jogged toward the alarm box, chanting the code so I wouldn't forget it. I felt a twinge of panic when I momentarily couldn't locate the touch pad. It turned out to be cleverly hidden behind the alarm box door. I punched in the code. The beeping stopped.

I felt like a genius. Better yet, I felt like Leslie Neilsen, that silver-haired actor who plays the role of a bumbling spy, a guy who defuses a bomb and doesn't have a clue how he did it.

I got the mail, then reactivated the system. At least I think I did. Then I sprinted to the door and locked it before the alarm went bonkers.

As I left the house I grunted twice. These were the two staccato grunts that mean "nice job."

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