The key to openness

Is there any reason the world could not have been made just as safe a place to live without the invention of combination locks? What is wrong with keys, for example?

When a key is lost and you are turning dresser drawers, clothes hampers and the kitchen trash can upside down in search of it, there is always an encouraging possibility the fugitive piece of metal will flash a glint of sunshine your way. A lost key is an entirely tolerable annoyance.

On the other hand, I have never known of a combination that glinted. Combinations merely disappear into the catacombs of the mind, and years of experience have taught me that a move to Madagascar would involve less frustration than trying to locate their burial places.

One Christmas when I was a boy, I received a long chain with a 3-digit lock for my bike. Someone wiser than I programmed the mechanism to open when I spun the gears to reveal the family phone number. This was simple enough in those days. Our telephone number was 312. Besides, it was a small town, and if I forgot the number, I could always ring up Mrs. Wilson, the switchboard operator, and ask her to tell me what it was.

Then, something happened which the lockmaker had not foreseen. The phone system was automated. Mrs. Wilson retired. To this day, so far as I know, a red boy's bicycle is chained to the rain gutter outside the band hall of my alma mater.

For high school graduation, I received a handsome set of luggage, flawed only by the absence of keyholes. This time, the combination chosen was my birthday, but within two weeks I had forgotten whether that involved the month or the day first. Or possibly the month and year. Or it might have been the day and my age at the time. Anyway, things went along all right until I used the luggage for the first time, on a 21-day trip through Alaska.

Friends and family still recall their surprise over the piquant frontiersman image I presented upon my return and how I startled them with my fervor once I got my hands on a chisel.

In my past, it was not uncommon to encounter combinations that used letters of the alphabet. One could always coin a word or acronym with letters. When I was in college, I got along fine with a foot locker named Hannibal Laded Salted Peanuts. My postal box at the mail station opened to S-F-L. Although ol' Sniffle was usually empty, I could open it anytime I chose. I used to dash over between classes just to build self-esteem.

Then we entered the era of pocket calculators and digital watches. Letters were out; numbers were in. Those of us who are not accountants were doomed. Worse, for the foreseeable future numbers alone are here to stay. Is it too much to expect from lockmakers, who are clever enough to devise these puzzles, that they should realize some of us cannot even remember our social security numbers or license plates?

I welcomed electronic gimmicks at first. I even bought a watch that was also a calendar and wrist calculator. Its great appeal was not its versatility but a memory to which the user was admitted simply by depressing one miniature button. (How this defect escaped the designer's attention, I never figured out.) What the sales clerk neglected to explain -- when electronics and I are combined, all details should be explained - is that the ''Memory'' is activated only so long as the calculator mode is switched on. My own memory functions that long!

In ignorance, I thought I might store in ''Memory'' a particularly aggravating combination -- the lock on the door separating a parking garage from my office. Building management takes special delight in reprogramming the combination every other Friday afternoon at 6 o'clock.

Last Friday evening I was almost home when I remembered that in making change for a friend just before 5, I had emptied onto my desk everything in the pocket that contained my house key and returned to the pocket everything except the house key.

Earlier in the day, the building manager had revealed yet another new combination, so, returning to town, I approached the door about an hour later with confidence and punched in 011689. For ten minutes I punched in 011689. Then , I remembered the new combination went into effect next Monday. Not that it really mattered, because as someone was kind enough to point out later 011689 is the International Access and Country Code for direct-dialing Tahiti.

It was only after I had rung up New Caledonia, Taiwan and the Fiji Islands that I thought, in desperation, to hit the ''Memory'' button on my watch. It did not divulge the needed information, of course, but it did blink a curious set of ciphers which, if I interpret correctly, mean a Certificate of Deposit in my safety deposit box will mature next Tuesday at what appears to be an interest rate of 15.2AM percent. If I can remember by then where I've put the safety deposit box key.

You might think spending the night in the front seat of a car in a parking garage is a waste of time. Actually, it is not. Under no other circumstances I can imagine would I have had, for example, 12 hours of leisure in which to contemplate where Western civilization went wrong.

While I was never able to pinpoint an exact date, it must have been shortly after the Arabian Nights, because I know Ali Baba never stood in front of a door and bellowed ''Open, 011689!'' until he was red in the face. That is a modern humiliation.

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