A key point of good behavior

THE BALTIMORE SUN

ONCE YOU assume the moral high ground, your descent back to the basement of reality can be painful.

The case of the missing car keys hammered that point home to me this week.

Being a person of exceptionally good habits and lofty standards, I felt certain that I was not the one who had misplaced a set of keys to the station wagon. The fault had to lie elsewhere in the family.

After all, I was the one who regularly preached the importance of "putting the keys back in the same spot every time, after each use."

Moreover, I was the household's stickler for good key behavior. Whenever there was a violation of proper etiquette, a set of keys left dangling from a car trunk or door, I would remove the keys and wag them, scoldingly, in the face of the offender.

Filled with rectitude, I would remind the offender that these rules were "for the good of the entire family. Since four drivers are sharing two cars," I would continue, "other people are depending on you."

Whenever keys went missing, sometimes for days at a time, I would hound the likely suspect. "Have you found them yet?" I would ask every day at breakfast.

Occasionally I would get a notable answer. Once one of my kids told me that the keys weren't "lost," they were just spending a little time away from home and would be back soon. Sure enough, they showed up a few days later under the back seat of a friend's car.

One strategy I have tried for dealing with a household's wandering keys is the "copy and hoard" approach. I make copies of important keys, but hide the extras from family members. The theory here is that if a person loses a key and you give him another one, he will lose it, too. It is not an especially uplifting view of humanity, but it does force the key loser to hunt for the missing item. Yet in an emergency, you have a backup key.

The "copy and hoard" tactic, however, runs into trouble when dealing with car keys.

Nowadays most cars, at least those that don't want to be easy plucking for thieves, have ignition protection systems operated by remote control devices. Before your key will start your car, you must first push a button on its remote control transmitter.

This means that for every set of car keys you own you also need a remote control transmitter. These transmitters are simple pieces of plastic and circuitry, but they don't come cheap. I recently coughed up more than $150 for a replacement transmitter for our 1997 Toyota Avalon.

The transmitters that "chirp" our 1993 Ford Taurus station wagon into action are less expensive, but they still run about $40 a pop. Given that price tag, and the fact that the station wagon - the "family tank" - is a vehicle with a limited life span, I was in no hurry to buy another remote control transmitter to replace the missing one.

Instead I conducted an inquisition of the household.

I searched the usual key hangouts. I made my wife retrace her steps and check her purse and briefcase. I pawed through the dirty laundry. I was about to phone the college boys, one in Boston, one in Carlisle, Pa., and interrogate them, when I came to my senses. I might be the culprit.

I recalled that a few days before I had driven the station wagon over to the Eastern Shore and had stopped to talk with Farmer John (Selby) at his produce stand on Route 8 in Stevensville. As happens when you visit 86-year-old Farmer John, I returned home with much wisdom and an armful of sweet corn and sweeter melons. Since my hands were full, I had stuffed the keys and its attached transmitter in my briefcase as I carried the produce into the house.

There they had stayed, as I ranted and raved and pointed accusing fingers at family members. Later when I sheepishly admitted that I was the one who had misplaced the car keys, my wife let me down easy. It wasn't the first time that she had seen a self-proclaimed paragon of virtue end up slinking back into the cellar.

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