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Saturday, February 19, 2011

The Exploding Alarm Clock

Austin, Texas
In my last two years of law school at the University of Texas in Austin, I roomed with Jay Westbrook and James Kunetka. Jay, about whom I've written before (see "How I Became a Law Professor," January 27, 2010), and I were in the same law school class, while Jim was a year behind us.

Jay, Doug, and Jim in 1967
We three were soul mates and had a great deal of fun both years. Jay and Jim are wonderful human beings: intelligent, funny, personable—all-in-all, great roommates. We developed running gags on many topics, and at the drop of a hat could plunge into improvised skits ranging from imitations of various law professors (there are incredible tapes of these) to mock TV interviews (a terrified Olympics luge athlete, for example). When bored, we often had more-or-less impromptu playreadings (for an explanation of my playreadings, see "Elena Kagan and Me," May 23, 2010). Let me give you an example of the sort of running gag that amused us. Once we three were watching TV when a truly dreadful commercial came on. One of us said that the producers of any commercial that bad should have an exploding chip surgically implanted in his/her brain, and viewers should also have access to a button on a handheld device. If a sufficient enough viewers thought a commercial really terrible and then pushed their button, the chip would explode in the offending producer's brain. As a consequence—and, trust me, this happened quite often—when we were watching a show and a bad commercial would blare its inane commercial message, simultaneously all three of us would silently push an imaginary button on our armchair.

It's possible to mine those two years for many fascinating stories, but, regrettably, some would get me into trouble, and, of course, I'd have to omit ones in which I myself would be shown in a less than flattering light (like the time I forgot to tell Jim that the Austin Public Library had called, awarding him a job for which he should report the following Monday). Jay, normally the most centered man on the planet, was afraid of spiders, but that difficulty didn't come up much. Jim, on the other hand, had a constant battle with orthophobia (fear of birds). One day he returned to our apartment from class and, to his horror, found a dead avian laying on our doorstep. He promptly accused Jay and me of having planted it there! Jim's phobia led to a running gag where, as a punishment for some supposed misdeed of his, Jay and I would muse aloud about tying Jim to a chair in front of the TV, and making him—doubtless screaming—watch Alfred Hitchcock's thriller "The Birds."

But this post is really about Jay's famous alarm clock and the trouble it caused me and a number of his prior roommates. Much of what I know about the provenance of this machine is hearsay—well, let's call it legend—but apparently from its first day of operation it was overly loud when sounding its wakeup call. As a consequence it had been pounded by a succession of angry roommates trying to shut it off before their foggy heads exploded. Jay swore these attacks had damaged the offending object in some way that made it even louder. He related a story about his poor visiting father (like his son, not a morning person), waking to the claxon of this monstrosity, and pitifully pawing a box of tissues sitting next to the clanging clock, trying vainly to silence its deafening din.

The arrangement in our 1967 rented apartment was that Jim was alone in the smallest bedroom, while Jay and I had beds in the larger one. Thus I was exposed to the blare of this mechanical terror on a daily basis, but, frankly, since I myself am not a morning person, I need something this loud to force me from the warmth of bed. So I tolerated Jay's alarm clock, and never thought much about it until the morning I'm about to describe.

On this momentous day, I was awakened by the ringing of our sole telephone, located in the living room. Annoyed that no one else seemed to hear it, I finally struggled free of bed covers and, wearing only underpants, padded into the living room and blearily answered the phone. Understand, reader, that not only am I slow to achieve full consciousness in the morning, but also that in those days I needed my glasses in order to see anything, plus a cup of coffee, and a cigarette before achieving anything like coherence. In addition it was cold in that apartment. Grumpily, I murmured, "Yes?" into the telephone before hearing the voice of Jay's father. It was 8:30 in the morning, and I was amazed that he himself was up (though, since he was a lawyer with a busy practice, why that would have surprised me I no longer remember).

Father Westbrook asked to speak to Jay, and that presented me with a social difficulty. Jay wasn't there. He was at the home of Polly, the woman he would marry two years later. Truth be told, Jay wasn't spending many nights at the apartment he shared with Jim and me (and, since that effectively gave me my own bedroom, that was all right with Doug). However, in those days (this was the sixties, remember) his nocturnal romance with Polly would have shocked Jay's parents and embarrassed both of the young lovers if I'd blurted out his current location. I was just mumbling some lie about Jay having to go down to the law school early, when I heard a bizarre sound from our rather large kitchen. Telling Jay's father I'd be right back, I put down the phone and stumbled to the kitchen, where I was amazed to see all four gas burners on the stove alight and creating quite a glow! Why? I wondered, only to remember that Jim (in spite of severe warnings by Jay and me to stop doing this) thought it was an efficient way to heat the kitchen on chilly mornings. Annoyed, I went to turn the burners off, only to find that (improbably) none of the knobs doing this worked. I moved each of them back and forth stupidly, but all were disconnected somehow. The burners blazed brightly on.

While I stood there, flummoxed, twirling knobs in vain, Jay's alarm clock suddenly went off in my bedroom and promptly exploded with a loud BOOM!!!
Not knowing what was going on between the un-extinguishable kitchen burners and the clock detonation, I raced back to my bedroom. Smoke was pouring out of that room, causing me to pause, frozen with indecision. I noticed the phone receiver sitting on the table next to the phone, where I'd left it—Jay's father! I picked it up and mumbled, "I'll call you back," before slamming the phone down on its cradle. I then tried to enter the bedroom, but was forced back by lack of vision in the smoky miasma. I turned around in the hall, coughing, and then noticed that our only bathroom door was shut.

That could only mean one thing: Jim was home and he was in there. Gathering my wits about me, I knocked calmly on the door. "Yes?" Jim responded happily. "Are you aware of the number of disasters I'm facing out here?" I asked. "No." "Well, the burners in the kitchen can't be shut off and my bedroom's on fire."

To his credit, Jim leaped from the bathroom in a flash. With almost superhuman efficiency, he bounded into the bedroom, pulled the plug connecting the alarm clock to the wall (thus extinguishing both sparks and smoke), and then did some sort of magic in the kitchen to calm the burners (the knobs really had ceased to work, so he may and pulled the plug there too).

When he learned of all this later, Jay was very upset that his beloved alarm clock was now defunct. He thought my detailed story of its demise most unlikely.

My former roommates are still in Austin, Texas (both are natives of that state). James Kunetka went on to become a much-published novelist, and he's currently the Senior Development Advisor for the Southwest Educational Development Laboratory. Jay Westbrook holds the Benno C. Schmidt Chair of Business Law at the University of Texas School of Law, and is an internationally known name in bankruptcy law—but to this very day he still believes I deliberately destroyed that damn alarm clock.

The Three Roommates in 2011

“A Guide to the Best of My Blog,” April 29, 2013

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