My dad got a combination lock for his high school gym class in 1940.

He used it for forty years until he lent it to my brother when he started high school.

My brother promptly lost it.

Only now, with a teenager of my own, can I really appreciate how that must have felt. It’s a small thing, a gym lock, but it is an accomplishment to carry it for most of your adult life. And it is a sad thing to lose it.

One of the big mysteries is how parents abide those small, steady, inevitable and seemingly endless losses with good cheer. And how they get up the next day willing and eager to endure more.

An even bigger mystery is how my father remembered the combination. His secret was simple: pick two words, each with five letters that didn’t repeat, for example POWER LIGHT or BRICK HOUSE.

He would write the numbers 0 to 10 next to the ten letters and align a letter with each number. Like this:


0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9

Then he’d use a labeling gun to print out a label like this one for the combination. In this case the code was 07 then 7 then 1.

My father labels everything. It helps him keep track of where things are and when they require maintenance.

Its no surprise he maintains extensive ledgers for his finances, manuals for how to operate home appliances and records of real estate deals.

The house keys are labeled so you can quickly know which is the front or back.

The baskets in his closet are labeled so work shirts aren’t mixed up with socks or undershirts. The socks are pinned so no time is wasted matching them.

Lots of people label bins or baskets. What distinguishes my father is his penchant for including the purchase date and price and for the variety of things he tracks.

We were re-arranging furniture in his bedroom about ten years ago and I noticed a piece of paper under the mattress. It included the price and when it was purchased. There was also a schedule for rotation so it wouldn’t wear out.

He did the same thing with the living room rug, a paper underneath cited the purchase date and price, along with a history of when it was turned so it would fade evenly.

As time went by I discovered dates and prices on the bottom of garbage can lids and a line on the garage wall marking the high tide during Hurricane Sandy.

When I was a young boy I would visit my father at his office in Morristown. He had taped paper to the wall and each day at the same time he put a dot where the sun’s light reached. Over the course of the year the dots traced an arc, showing the effect of the orbit of the earth.

Most of the labeling and notation my father does is for the sheer pleasure of it. But there are practical benefits.

The jars of nails in his workshop are labeled with the sizes. There is a note on the windshield indicating when the car has to be inspected.

Recently while cleaning house I found an old lock. At first I thought it would be useless. There was no way I could guess the combination.

But turning it over I smiled.

It wasn’t a mystery after all. The clue was right there where it was supposed to be.

**Published by Ted Merz Jan 4, 2018 **