Keyless in America

“Where in the hell is the damn church key?” yelled the senior football player. It was after midnight, the pony keg was empty, and it was time to break into the cases of beer. But a can opener was needed and could not be located using only the light of the fire. Someone found a flashlight and after digging around in the glove compartments of several cars, a bottle/can opener, AKA a church key, was found. Great celebration ensued. I was a fifteen-year-old sophomore and this was my first woodsy. Outdoor keggers were a staple of Friday and Saturday nights in Colorado Springs during the fifties, sixties and seventies.

Several seniors bought 3.2% beer and set up a fire and party spot off of what is now North Academy or Powers Boulevards. Where strip malls and apartment buildings now reign, baby boomers first learned how to handle alcohol. It was a good system. The seniors charged the underclassmen $2 for a plastic cup and you got all of the beer you could handle. You can’t drink enough 3.2 % beer to get alcohol poisoning, and if anyone got obnoxious or tried to take advantage of a tipsy female, the senior football players straightened them out quickly. Cause too much trouble and you got banned from the parties. But then came overreach by MADD (an organization whose basic mission I support) and 3.2% beer for eighteen-year-olds went away. I’m all for getting drunk drivers off of the road but no one will ever convince me that military personnel shouldn’t be allowed to drink because of age. As a result, young people binge drink on hard liquor without any real supervision.

All of these memories came flooding back recently when I was searching through a seldom-used toolbox and found a “church key”. Self–opening bottles and cans eliminated the need for a can/bottle opener at a party decades ago. The final use for this tool was opening oilcans for cars. But then oil was put in plastic easy-to-open bottles and now church keys are pretty much useless antiques. Of course not everyone learned how to handle alcohol. Many of my clients have drug and alcohol problems and we try to give them the keys for sobriety.

It’s the word “key” that really intrigued me. What an extraordinary word both in its actual and metaphorical use. I’m typing on a keyboard trying to articulate key ideas that might be of interest or use to my three regular readers. There are hundreds of books that offer the key to success the key to love, the key to a happy marriage, the key to good relationships, the key to communication, or the key to successful parenting. Pick a subject and there is a book that promises the key to success in that area. We all would like a key to help us with the problems we face on a daily basis. Even the word keyboard has multiple meanings. I have a piano keyboard next to me right now. I could write something in the key of C instead of in English.

Consider this sentence: I am so keyed up that I can’t concentrate on the map key to the Florida Keys where we will pick up a key of dope. There are also answer keys, keystones, key clubs, and keynote speeches. And no one wants their car keyed. We also can’t forget that every religion claims to have the keys to heaven. There is even a sexual connotation to the word. Exhibit A is a children’s book about sex titled How You Got To Be You that uses a key and lock metaphor to describe intercourse while the Kama Sutra alludes to a similar idea to explore sexual compatibility.

Yet none of these uses of the word key deal with its original meaning, which is to secure and then access one’s property. This usage goes back to ancient Egypt at least. But we may be coming to an end of the line for this. Keyless entry is becoming more and more common. My son’s house was totally controlled by his phone. No physical keys necessary. Fewer and fewer cars have actual locks; most now open and start with electronic key fobs. I have an RFD key card, which opens certain doors at my work. In fact physical keys represent a sort of hierarchy for individuals.

The fact that school janitors have a lots of keys conveys a certain status. But the school principal carries very few keys. It seems that climbing the organizational ladder requires that you obtain more and more keys until you get to a tipping point. Then you either acquire a universal key or lose the need for any keys at all. Donald Trump hasn’t carried a key in years. Doors open for him without him doing anything.

It’s pretty strange when you think about it. The two groups of people who are keyless in America are the very rich/powerful and the homeless. Neither carries any physical keys at all. At the rate the economy is going, we may all become keyless. Want to guess which group most of us will be in?