Security is a lock Essay: Combination of curiosity and a break-in made opening and fixing the old safe a must.

October 26, 1998|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN STAFF

Old houses always come with surprises. Ours came with a safe.

Made of steel and cast iron, and completely covered with rust, it sat in the basement, near the door, as if it had staked a claim there and had more right to be in our 1920s rowhouse than we did. In terms of longevity, it did.

The safe is roughly the size of a large-capacity washing machine. It rests on four wheels, which move only sideways, not back and forth. The door has a handle on the left and, in the center, a round combination dial, tightly locked.

When we bought the house, my husband tried to get rid of the safe, but it weighs more than a quarter ton. He settled for rolling it, slowly, into a corner of what had once been the coal bin. There it remained -- stalwart but forgotten -- until our neighborhood suffered a series of break-ins, one of them at our house.

After we were robbed, I remembered the safe and decided to try to put it to use. I called several locksmiths, only to discover that many do not employ specialists in this particular field. One, however, referred me to Jim Hughes, who calls his business Safe Tech Inc. He offered to come out and give us a free estimate.

Hughes is a big man, 6 feet tall and strong. He was able to move the safe by leaning into it with his arms. (My husband, who is also fairly strong, preferred shoving it with his back.) Hughes recognized the safe's manufacturer immediately -- a Cincinnati company named Halls, though the chipped and corroded name on the front looks more like "Hilts."

The other identifying feature on the front was a small hole drilled just left of the lock. Hughes studied this hole and concluded it had been drilled in the proper place, but had not been drilled all the way through. Then he gave us an estimate of $200, for which he guaranteed he could open the safe and make it workable.

On the morning of the actual procedure, Hughes had an audience consisting of myself, my rather uninterested dog and two extremely interested 13-year-old boys, who had petitioned earnestly to be in attendance.

I was glad for their company. The day we moved in, a neighbor had told my husband about something grisly that had happened in our house. I didn't want to know what it was then, and I didn't want to find any evidence of it now.

Using a drill as his primary tool, Hughes was ready to open the long-sealed door in less than a half-hour. One of the boys did a drum roll on a metal trash can.

Hughes has stories of safes filled with cash, stock certificates and jars of gold coins. Ours contained a wooden framework, clumsily built of plywood. The shelves held drawers fashioned out of cigar boxes -- Romeo Sweethearts. A piece of dark floral carpeting, tinged with mold, lined its floor.

Crestfallen, the boys retreated upstairs to watch a video.

Hughes told me the safe was probably made about 80 years ago, which means it is older than the house. It was also once quite handsome. The inside of the door is painted deep forest green with gilt trim. Three hand-painted pansies -- their yellow and purple petals still bright -- decorate the area behind the lock.

We'll never know, of course, what such an elaborate safe was doing in such a modest rowhouse. Whatever it once held, it now holds our wedding silver.

I like knowing that it is secure in there. But because I still have trouble working the involved and tricky combination, I sometimes have visions of dinner guests knocking on the front door while their hostess crouches in the dank basement, desperately trying to free the imprisoned forks and spoons.

Pub Date: 10/26/98

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