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James R. Stout

All Keyed Up

            The month before I turned 25, I was offered a sub-contract job that needed to be completed within 6 weeks. The job entailed devising a Grand-Master keying system, rekeying the locks in a group of 12 apartment complexes, and the installation of the keyed locksets and deadbolts for what amounted to about 600 apartments. It was a very big job and I was only going to make enough money off of it to pay for my own labor. So, no additional help would be available. It was for one of the largest property management companies in the Dallas area at the time. It took me about 4 days of non-stop planning and cyphering to come up with the key system. There would be a Grand-master key that would open every lock in all of the complexes. A master key that would unlock each lock for each complex and individual key combinations for each apartment of all 12 complexes. It was expected that there would be roughly 48 of the apartments that would need new locks due to there were still some old locks that wouldn’t work with the new system. Therefore, after coming up with the keying system, I rekeyed the new locksets and matching deadbolts to use as a kick start on the job. A great deal of time was also needed to make the keys required. I used roughly 1200 new key blanks to make the keys necessary. Two keys per unit would be needed as well as the additional grand-master keys and master keys.

            I was told from the beginning that there had been a situation where the existing grand-master key had somehow or other been stolen and several apartments had been broken into. Things were stolen and in one case a woman was sexually assaulted. The guy who got the contract to do the job didn’t have the time to do the job himself and he came to me and offered me the sub-contract job. He would get 40% of the payout, allow me to use his key machines to go along with my own making it possible to cut three keys at the same time, and he put up the money to buy the 48 new locksets and deadbolts (which he would get back with profit once the job was done). I figured 60% of something is better than 100% of nothing. I needed the work because the locksmith supply company that I had been working for was being shut down by its creditors.

            For the next 5 weeks my typical day started at about 6 a.m. I would drive to the area where the complexes were, the infamous “Oak Cliff” area of Dallas where Lee Harvey Oswald had been captured after killing a police officer about an hour after he reportedly shot JFK, and be ready to start installing the new locks and deadbolts. The first day I did just that and I took home the old locks and deadbolts to be keyed for the next day. The truth is I was only able to get about 15 apartments done in a day. I would rekey the locks that I took home and have my stock for the next day to install. I have to be honest here and tell you that it was a rough area of town. I was warned by the guy that I was sub-contracting for and by the apartment management to be very careful. They were straight-forward with me and given they were all black, I don’t believe that they were in any way being prejudiced when they told me I was the wrong color to be “walking around” the complexes. I was given a large badge with the property management company logo on it to wear and I was told to knock loudly on all doors before entering and to also speak loudly once opening the door alerting anyone inside that I was with the complex etc. It was somewhat unnerving. Many of the residents were not at home, in fact most of them were not at home when I knocked on the door. However, many of them had left their stereo systems blaring loudly to make a thief thing that someone was home. There are three songs that to this day that when I hear, I am taken back to those weeks in 1980. You might say that they are burned into my memory. Those songs are “Give Me The Night” by George Benson, “Upside Down” by Diana Ross, and “Once In a Million You” by Larry Graham.

            For just over a month I worked on that job night and day. I barely took off time for anything else. It was a big job. I had decided that the best way to do it was one complex at a time. I’d finish one complex and then start the next. Finally, about the third week of September I finished the job. Boy, I was proud. I had done a huge job all by myself and had proven that I had the ability to devise the key system needed (unless you’ve done one, then you don’t know how intricate the math is for doing it) before computer programs would do it all for you. The guy I had sub-contracted for was happy and promised me more work. He came through and I was kept busy for another 3 months.

            Now, for the rest of the story. About the time John Lennon was shot I was over at the contractor’s shop and working on a small job for him. He came into the shop and sat down to visit a few minutes. So, I turned off the key machines and picked up a cola and sat down to visit. That’s when he said, “You ain’t gonna believe something.”

            I said, “Surprise me!” and he did indeed surprise me.

            He said, “The grand-master system at 12 Hills is already out and someone has been using it to burglarize apartments.”

            You could have knocked me over with a feather. All that work and now it felt like nothing.

            “You gotta be kidding me!” I nearly shouted.

            He explained the bare truth. Someone had a copy of the grand-master key and was using it to break into people’s apartment. At first, I thought they might blame me. But I had been very specific about how I handled the whole thing just in the event something like this happened. I made only two of the grand-master keys in the contractor’s presence and then gave him those two keys. I didn’t have a copy and couldn’t make a copy without the special keyway that was used. There was no way I had could have a key or make a key. I was sure thankful for that foresight.

            He told me that it was most likely an employee of the property management company who was either doing the burglaries or was in cahoots with the person doing them. By the end of December, the owner of the property management company had hired a private security company to investigate and sure enough one of the employees was working with a boyfriend and together they had been doing the burglaries. They were arrested and the last that I heard back then was they were going on trial in the summer of 1981. By that time, I had moved back to the Houston area and pretty much put my Dallas “experiment” out of my mind.

            The last time I was in Oak Cliff was in July of 2017. Not so long ago really. My oldest sister was in the hospital in a medical center not far from Oak Cliff and near to downtown Dallas. I decided to stop and buy some flowers to take to my sister and the nearest place to find a florist was in Oak Cliff. It sure looked different. But then, it had been nearly 40 years. I was visiting with my brother-in-law this past January and I mentioned that when I had gone to see Barbara in 2017 I had no idea her time was so short. She would pass away within 6 months of that visit. This caused me to remember the whole key job from back in 1980. I started to think of what a waste it had been and then I realized that while it was certainly an expenditure that the property management company shouldn’t have had to bear, it wasn’t a waste.

            It helped me stay afloat financially for several months following the collapse of the company that I had moved to Dallas to work at in the first place. It paid rent, a car bill or two, bought groceries, paid electric, water, and phone bills, and generally gave me a sense of accomplishment given how difficult the job had been to do. As for the property management company, it ferreted out a dishonest employee and allowed them to be used as an example to other employees of what could happen to them if they decided to pull something similar. So, the whole thing had not been a waste at all. But I wouldn’t do it again. Not today. No way. I don’t think I have to explain why. Things are different today than they were then. Very different indeed.

            I’m reminded of watching an Ed Sullivan Show back in the early 60’s when he had The Everly Brothers on not long after they had both spent 6 months in training for the U.S. Marines Reserves in 1961-1962. They were dressed in their Marine Corp Dress Uniforms and there was a few minutes in which Ed Sullivan asked them about having gone through boot camp. They both agreed that it was an experience that they wouldn’t trade for anything but wouldn’t want to go through again either. That’s kind of how I feel about that those 6 weeks or so back in 1980. But isn’t that the way life is? We go through a lot of things that are hard and yet we come out of them better for it. Stronger for it too. If you’re going through something now that seems so very hard and is making you have to reach down deep and pull out reserves that you didn’t know you had, then be thankful. It’s going to be one of those times that you’ll look back on and be glad you went through it even though you wouldn’t ever want to have to go through it again. Life’s funny that way.

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