I’d been gone for half the morning. The smell hit me the second I opened the back door. What the…? Bleach? Something burning?

My wife heard the door slam and yelled from the living room. “Honey, come here. Can you smell that?” She’d been noticing it for perhaps 45 minutes. It was bad in this room, awful in that room. The kind of smell that burns your nose, a mite scary.

The next hour served to remind me of a thing easily overlooked in an age of cynicism when it comes to our government. Whine and gripe all we want, often with justification. And yet we have unsung men and women doing their jobs the right way, seeing to our needs day in and day out, from the bureaus in Washington to City Hall to the cop in his or her patrol car to the nearest fire station. It’s government doing its work.

I looked and smelled all over the house. That wall plug in the den where you can attach one of those electrical thingamajigs that lets you feed probably too many devices from one socket. The dusty old attic seldom visited, where the heating and cooling machinery reside with their jumble of wiring, their gas line, their fan belts and whirling wheels and who knows what. My wife said she’d gone outside to sniff to see if neighbors might’ve just now chlorinated their pool. She smelled nothing. I went outside. I smelled nothing.

What was it? Not a clue.

All the while the thought had lingered in the back of my head: Maybe I ought to call the fire department. Maybe not. Why create such a fuss over a smell? Why expose the neighborhood to the wail of sirens all because of an unpleasant aroma at the Lott house? Why waste the time of public servants whose time might be more urgently required elsewhere?

I kept smelling and looking to no avail. The smell lingered, seemingly worse. I had to call.

I turned to my wife. “I’m gonna call the fire department.”


“Yeah.” I picked up one of those land-line telephones that she tells me are out of fashion with folks in the know.

“Who are you dialing?” she asked. I said 911.

“No. Don’t do that. Call the fire department.”

I headed for the phone book. “No,” she said. “Let me find it.” She got out her cellphone, scrolled around a bit and handed the cell to me with a screenful of Waco fire stations. I dialed the Columbus Avenue station. I was a bit embarrassed to tell the courteous woman who answered that I was calling about a smell. She sensed that and assured me the call was justified, asked if we had natural gas. Told us to get out of the house. Something might damage our lungs.

I checked my watch. It was 1:09 p.m. The firetruck pulled up at 1:15 p.m., no siren wailing. Four guys got out and followed me through the house, looking, smelling, checking this box, that box, the attic stuff. Another soon arrived with what I think one fireman said was a device that can smell.

We kept wandering from this room to that room with no answer. Soon a tall man came in. I assumed him to be an officer because someone called him “Sir.” Not much later he and I were standing in a small hallway crowded with firemen next to a bathroom. I noticed a lamp that wasn’t on. I said something to him about the lamp and clicked the switch. The lamp stayed dark.

He looked at me and smiled. He unscrewed the bulb, one of those swirling things that looks nothing like a light bulb should. It had burn marks on its bottom end. That was it.

I’d wasted their time over a light bulb. The officer told me, as others did, that I’d been right to call. It could’ve been worse.

No big deal, but an everyday example of government doing its work.

Bob Lott was editor of the Tribune-Herald from 1979 to the end of 2001.