Sunday, November 05, 2006

With a Little Bit of Luck

When my children were young, not quite old enough to be in school, I had the chance to take them along on lock jobs. It was a perfect one on one opportunity for a dad. If I were making keys to a Ford product I could work on the door/ignition key, the 10 cut system was in full swing at the time, while handing the child a box of old trunk keys. They could put different keys in the trunk lock to see if one fit. Every now and again they’d get lucky. The excitement of the moment was worth paying them a dollar, their having earned a small percentage. That’s all there is to being a locksmith; just pick up an old key and with luck it’s the right one, at least that’s what my kids thought.

Some adults are about the same when it comes to understanding what a locksmith does, not quite thinking on all cylinders. I’ve had them watch as I “read” the wafers inside a lock, clipped a working key as if it were a factory key and they’d ask, “How’d you know how to cut that key?”

“I’m a good guesser, just pick numbers out of the clear blue sky and most of the time I guess pretty good.” “If only I was that good pickin’ numbers for the lottery.” I know; but it’s more fun giving a dumb answer than explaining the technical aspects of reading a lock.

This afternoon I was fitting a key to an older Bonneville, one with a VATS key. I suspected that the ignition switch had been changed by how new the black plastic ears looked. The clock spring alignment was off by a notch and the lock plate retaining ring no longer was snug in its grove on the post. Most everything else looked pretty good and I managed to figure out the cuts after picking and holding down the side bar.

One of the used car salesman stopped by while I had the column field stripped and was in the process of putting it back the way it should be. I think he had a customer waiting to test drive; but thought maybe he should show a different unit, at least give me a little longer so as not to scare them off. “How much longer?”, he asked not realizing that I had to interrogate the VATS module.

“With any luck at all, thirty minutes to an hour. I have to find the value of the chip”. I gave up calling them VATS keys a long time ago; settling for the over worked term, “chip key”, that most used car people lump transponder and VATS/PASS keys into. Don’t get me wrong, I make certain to write the details on my work orders when it comes time for billing; but it’s still interesting to see the manager type in “Cut Chip Key” when he fills out the “We Owe” that gets tacked onto my work order.

“Luck was a Lady”, this afternoon, a reference to a Sinatra song that I enjoy. When I hooked up the interrogator to my newly produced key I used the last tested setting, that being what had been successful the last time I worked on a VATS unit; the cherries all lined up on the pay line and the engine purred like a kitten. Did I charge for interrogating the VATS module; does the sun come up in the morning, yer dern tootin I charged for interrogating the system!

Several years back I bid on a large church building to re-key and master all the offices. I figured it would take somewhere between 16 – 20 hours to complete from start to finish. As luck would have it, they hired a brand new building maintenance man and it was his first day on the job. He was very accommodating, wanting to make a good impression, showing me around the building as I removed locksets and took them to my truck, re-pinned them to match with the notes I’d prepared and replaced each lock as it was finished.

The day wore on and the sun began to settle in the sky. A funny look came over the maintenance man, like he wanted to ask a question but was reluctant to bring it up. He knew I still had plenty of locks to work on and at the same time he wanted to go home, having put in a full day and then some. My guess would be that he’d been told not to leave the building until the job was done.

“You go on home”, I told him. “I have to finish this all in one whack; might be around midnight before it’s done.”

“You’re kidding, right?” Actually, I was figuring closer toward two in the morning, getting tired would make things go slower, having to double check my work and all. He was determined to last it out, prove that he was the right man to be trusted to take care of the church building. He volunteered to go down the street for hamburgers and I handed him some money.

Around eleven or so I noticed he’d fallen asleep on the front seat of his truck while listening to the radio, his feet hanging out the rolled down window to accommodate his long lanky frame. I was getting a little blurry eyed myself so I splashed cold water on my head to sharpen things up. That worked for a while as I found myself going through the motions like a robot, not really thinking as I filled the pin tumblers and slapped them back on the doors.

I got the last lock put on around three in the morning, waved good bye and headed home; relieved that I’d been able to complete the job as promised. My phone rang around ten the next morning, “Hey, everything is perfect. You did a nice job…” There was a decided hesitation as I waited for him to complete the remark, “…except, this one lock. I can’t even get the key to go in it.”

“Let me guess; the library door?” That was the last one on the list and I was pretty much out of it.

“How’d ya’ know? It don’t even look like the rest of the locks.” He continued to express his bewilderment. I had it figured out as soon as I went out to my truck. The knob set that should have been put on the library door was sitting in the box on the floor of my truck. Seein’ as how this was a church building I suppose the phrase, “God only knows” what I put on that door would be a fair statement. I must have reached down in my sleep at three in the morning and grabbed the first thing that felt like a lock; I’m surprised I made it home in one piece. I drove over to the church, took the one lock off and replaced it with the right one and had a good laugh at myself. I can tell you what that maintenance man is thinking, “With any luck I hope to never see that locksmith again.”

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