Tuesday, August 29, 2006


Here’s a story for your files. A couple of months ago, I joined some friends in Wisconsin for a short camping trip. We drove up on Saturday afternoon, played beanbags and beach volleyball near Castle Rock Lake, and fired up some flame-broiled burgers over an open pit in the rain. It was a relaxing, if wet, break from the breakneck pace of 21st century civilization.

Sunday morning I woke up around 8am, climbed out of my tent, and stumbled into the woods to pee. Everything was completely soaking wet from a night of steady rain. When I finished steaming up a patch of leaves at the base of a pine tree, I meandered back to camp and started packing things down.

I deflated my air mattress, packed up my wet clothes and started loading everything into the back seat of my car. I then set to the task of airing out my rainguard prior to rolling it up with the tent. Everything would need to be dried out once I was back home, but I wanted it to be as dry as possible before stashing it in my car for the journey back. I folded up the tent and stepped on the air pockets, flattening them for the next fold. I looked around at the rest of the site to be sure we weren’t leaving anything behind. Everyone else was busily packing down as well, mildly hungover and relatively quiet.

That’s when my car honked.

Everybody looked up to see who dared break the silence on this dreary Sunday morning. I walked over to my car, which I had been slowly filling with things for the past half hour and saw that the theft-deterrent system was blinking inside. Strange, I thought, since that doesn’t come on unless the car is locked. I looked in the backseat and saw my overnight bag – the bag I routinely pack my keys in when camping. I was suddenly afraid to try the door handle. If it was locked, with the keys inside my bag inside the car, how was I going to get home?

My camp-mates gathered about me as I speculated as to why the car honked.

“Okay – which one of you assclowns has my keys? Very funny, Joke’s over.”

Everyone just started at me vacuously. Not a smile in the bunch. I turned back to the car and tried the handle. It was locked. I frantically ran around the car. They were ALL locked. Why would the keys lock themselves in the car? Did the 2006 Passat come with a safety feature I didn't know about? I knew that if I didn’t open the car door within 30 seconds of remotely unlocking it, it would lock itself. Perhaps I had remotely unlocked it unknowingly, stowed the keys inside the car, and after 30 seconds it had locked itself. Was that even possible, and if so, who was the German engineer behind that bit of brilliance?

It started to rain softly again. No one knew what to do or say. I was on the outside of my car looking in, 10:30 a.m. on a Sunday morning, deep in the middle of nowhere Wisconsin. I couldn’t LEAVE the car here, I thought. I would need to get in somehow. I began writing a very nasty letter to Volkswagen in my head.

I told the others to keep packing down and that I would be back. I started hoofing it up the gravel road to the highway. From there I walked another quarter mile to an intersection where a recreational park station was situated. I walked up the ramp on the side of the trailer, unsure how they were going to help, but in dire need of some. An older woman with orange hair and thick glasses met me at the counter.

“Hi,” I said nervously. “I’m camping a short ways down the road over here and somehow my keys got locked inside of my car. I was wondering if there’s anyone here who would be able to help me get them.”

“Where are you?” she asked sternly.

“Right over that way,” I said, pointing in the direction of my useless automobile. “About a quarter mile across the highway.”

“Across the highway? Oh, we got nothing to do with that.”

“I know – it’s private land. But it’s right over there and I don’t know who else to go to. Isn’t there someone here I could talk to?”

“I don’t know who. Sounds like you need a locksmith.” And with that bit of wisdom she hefted a yellow pages book out from under the counter and dropped it on the glass top between us.

“Can’t the police help me? Maybe we could call them. It’s MY car – I just locked the keys inside.”

“Police ain’t gonna do nothing about that. You need a locksmith.”

“Okay, then. Let’s see.” I nervously rifled through the pages until I found a few numbers. The addresses were all foreign to me, so I asked which one was closest.

“That one there’s about an hour away. But on Sunday morning? Good luck.”

“How about this one?” I asked.

“That’s another 15 minutes past the first one.”

“Which is the closest one here?” I said, spinning the book around so she could give me her best estimate.

“I’d say this one right here – it’s about 35 miles away. But on a Sunday morning? I don’t know.”

“Right. Sunday. Okay. So, is there any chance I can use your phone?” She looked into the back room behind her where her toothless son was gabbing away about paintball efficiency and said, “Sorry. Only got one line.”

I left the trailer and headed back to my car, certain that she could not have been less helpful.

I returned to camp and gave a progress report, which was to say that no progress had been made. I noticed that the others had been kind enough to finish rolling up my tent and rainguard while I had been off searching for help, and I thanked them. They offered me a ham sandwich and asked what I wanted to do. I really had no idea.

I fished my cellphone out of my pocket to see whether it had any battery power left and if I could get a signal. Fortunately, I had a couple of bars and enough strength to access the mobile web via Verizon Wireless’s broadband network. In a couple of minutes I had a Google window open and was looking up Volkswagen dealerships in Wisconsin. They might be able to help me get out of this sticky situation.

Unfortunately, car dealerships are closed on Sunday – so that search was an exercise in futility. Then I remembered that, with my lease, I enjoy emergency roadside assistance 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year through Volkswagen! Of course, the number to call was on a card in the glove compartment, safely stored, very dry, inside the car.

Things were not looking good.

That’s when we resorted to plan B – which was actually plan AAA. A fellow camper and friend mentioned that he had AAA. As a member, he too received emergency roadside assistance – and if he told them he was a passenger in MY car, he heard they would come help us. He dialed them up and explained that we had locked our keys in the car and needed a locksmith. He then described our location to the best of his ability. He was then put on hold for about 15 minutes while the AAA customer service representative tried to hunt down a locksmith willing and able to drive into the middle of no where to break us into my car.

By this time, everyone else was packed up and ready to go. We made ham sandwiches and stood around in a circle eating them. I told them they could leave whenever they wanted and that I would figure something out. I still had my cellphone and credit cards, so I would be okay. They told me they had no intention of abandoning me there, and that we’d figure out something together. Friends rule.

“You did check your pockets, right?” someone asked jokingly. Of course I had. That was the first place I looked. In fact, I’d been checking my pockets every 2 minutes since the car had locked itself to be sure I didn’t have them. I panicked at the thought of having gone through all of this only to discover they were in my pocket. So I dug around again and assured everyone they were not. They were in my overnight bag in the car, I said. My EVIL car, with a bad temper and a mind of its own. I actually wondered how safe it was to be standing there, half expecting it would hear us talking about it, rev up the engine, and start mowing us down two at a time in the clearing.

AAA finally returned to the line to inform us that a truck was on its way. I was saved! We cleaned up and loaded the remaining gear into the cars, save my tent and rainguard, and the bean bag boards – which we decided we would play out on the highway until the tow truck arrived. That way he’d know where to turn and find us.

The locksmith showed up a half hour later in a tow truck and it appeared very possible that he had just put himself to bed (or more likely a couch) when AAA had called him. This mattered not to us, so long as he would be able to help me rescue the keys my car was holding hostage.

He began with some very basic locksmith tools, sliding metal rods inside the passenger doorframe to unlock the door manually. Discovering that the Passat has no manual door locks, he abandoned this strategy in favor of a bigger metal rod – this one designed to force the door handle open from the inside. When this rod didn’t work, we all started fidgeting nervously. My car clearly had no intention of giving up its contents without a fight. Made me feel safer about leaving things in it in the future – but pretty fucking helpless here.

The locksmith took his bass fishing baseball cap off, scratched his greasy hair, and stumbled back to his truck. After several minutes of digging around under the seats, he emerged with a third tool set. This one resembled a blood pressure arm band and squeeze ball attached to a heating pad. He used the metal rods to jimmy the door open about a half-inch, then slid the pad inside. He pumped and pumped the pad using the squeeze ball until it inflated, widening the doorjamb crevasse. He then inserted another metal rod and this time was able to pull the door handle open.

The door swung out and the Passat started beeping noisily, rhythmically, over and over again. It was not happy. We hit the automatic locks to unlock the other doors, but the automatic locks were disabled. So I leaned across and pushed open the driver side door, then reached around and pushed open the doors to the back seat. At once, we all entered the vehicle in search of the missing keys. Beep. Beep. Beep. I grabbed my bag and reached inside the pocket to pull them out. Beep.

The keys were not there. Beep.

I emptied the contents of the bag out on the wet ground as the car continued beeping loudly. I checked my pockets again. I knew they were in that car. Beep. Beep. Beep. The locksmith looked at me, then turned and spit into the woods.

“Are they in the glove box?” someone asked.

“The trunk?” Beep.

“Under the seat?” Beep.

“The center console?” Beep.

We tore through the contents of the car. Beep. Beep. We searched the ground around the car. We opened the trunk. Fished around under the seats. Unloaded all of the gear I’d stashed in the back seat until finally, we realized where they were. Beep. Beep.

At once, we all turned our heads away from the car and looked back at the smoldering campfire. Beep. Beep. Next to it on the ground was a rolled up tent and rainguard. We all raced over in a mad dash to make the beeping stop. Unfolding the tent, we dug around inside until we felt the familiar metal of a set of keys. They’d been hanging in one of the mesh pockets inside the tent and I’d forgotten to take them out before taking the tent down.

Somehow, as I had been stamping the air out of the tent, I had inadvertently hit the “lock” button on my remote car lock. The car had beeped at me to let me know I had locked it, but instead of putting two and two together, I chose to assume that the car was possessed by a poltergeist who was very unhappy with the grade of fuel I had been putting in it.

We hit the alarm button on the remote key lock and the car stopped beeping. The locksmith was already on his way back up the gravel path to his tow truck, surely cursing the idiot campers from Illinois who do this to him at least once a year. I stood in the middle of a collapsed, wet tent holding my keys in my hand – not my proudest moment. My car looked at me sadly from across the clearing, all of its doors, trunk, glove, and console wide open. It had been violated unnecessarily.

I sheepishly apologized for the misadventure and was forgiven in a chorus of laughter. This was not something I would live down, I thought. I piled all of my crap back into the car and set off for the long, drive back – upon which I decided to fill ‘er up with Premium. I also decided to program Volkswagen road assistance into my cellphone in the event I should ever actually lock my keys in my car.

All things being equal, the simplest explanation is usally the correct one.

Oh yeah... and I am an idiot.


barnyardfriend said...

That is one of the more hilarious stories I have heard. I just bought a car with ONSTAR and got one year of service free. I think that I will bite the bullet and pay for it next year b/c I have twice locked myself out of my car and had to call a locksmith to get me in.

Anonymous said...

great story. I remember reading that Ed Debono, lateral thinking evangelist, wrote something about the brain disconnecting to the obvious when panicked. It's a good reminder to double back when in doubt and AAA is your friend.