800 years of history found their way into my bike lock

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Listen to Brenda tell the story

As if remembering dozens of passwords wasn’t difficult enough, bikes and suitcases sport combination locks. Add these to your impossibly long list of numbers to keep track of.


I long ago stopped locking my suitcases when going to the U.S. since the authorities there require them to be accessible so they can inspect luggage for drugs, snakes and really scary stuff like oranges (and no, I didn’t make up the orange thing). The Transportation Safety Administration employs big men who have big muscles, just not quite big enough for them to become a cop.

So they’ve gotten stuck checking luggage, and they take out their frustration over this humdrum job on my suitcases. Surely that flowered purple tote is packed with contraband. After all, the route between Munich and Cleveland, Ohio is well-known for drug runs.

I had gotten used to this. If some agent wants to rifle through my dirty laundry, by all means. Nothing had ever gone missing. But one time, an overly conscientious employee not only rummaged through my stuff, he also locked the suitcase when he was done.

Never had I locked this bag. And I had absolutely no clue what the combination was.

What a ridiculous situation. Locked out of my own suitcase!

Google, the source of all knowledge, seemed like a place to look for help. I found a video made by a guy with a thick Russian-sounding accent that lent him a distinct aura of lock-picking expertise, reminiscent of old James Bond movies. He proceeded to show systematically and in great detail how to “get up really close and listen for irregular clicking noises.”

Just like in a spy movie! Accent and all! This man clearly knew what he was talking about.

An added plus was learning how to use my cell phone – the modern-day version of a Swiss army knife – like a magnifying glass. Wow, I thought. I am going to crack this baby in no time!

Turn, click…turn, click… turn, click.

My heart raced with excitement at the sound of these hopeful clicks. Each one meant I had hit one of the correct numbers of the combination. It’s working, I thought! This is awesome! I’m picking a lock! My mind raced. Maybe I could somehow use this expertise the next time I locked myself out of the apartment.

Until I realized it was clicking every time – even for the wrong numbers. It wasn’t working.

My old ears are deceiving me, I figured, so I put my daughters to the task. But they only heard fake clicks, too.

So much for my sleek Russian YouTube spy. You just can’t get good spies these days.

In the end, my younger daughter succeeded the old-fashioned way: by clicking nonstop through every feasible combination.


I also once had a kerfuffle with the combination lock on my bike after being gone on vacation for four weeks. Motoring along interstates and turnpikes across the American Midwest in a road-hogging family van had completely blacked out my bike brain. Normally I cycle every day, so I open the lock every day, too.

It never even occurred to me that I could ever possibly forget the combination.

But there I was, fumbling with the lock. Grrr.

Think, Brenda, think!

I always use important historic dates for combinations. The obvious one for a red-blooded American, of course, would be 1776. The year Thomas Jefferson penned the Declaration of Independence, announcing to the British crown and the entire world that America was no longer going to be anybody’s whipping boy and was going to go it on her own now, thank you very much.

1-7-7-6 – nope!

Silly me! Of course, I had used another date – the Spanish Armada. Except I had subsequently learned that there were several armadas, all of which failed over the course of a decade. Talk about bad luck with the weather! And you were ticked off that it rained on your beach vacation last summer! Try launching a freaking armada and having the weather turn on you – three times. That’s some seriously bad karma. Or in this case, bad karmada.

The date that went down in history as the armada was the first and largest one, in 1588. As a hispanophile who spent her teenage years memorizing lists of Spanish vocabulary, dreaming of eating tapas and dancing flamenco, this year was most apt indeed for my combination lock.

1-5-8-8 – but this didn’t work, either.

Think harder, Brenda, think harder!

How about the Magna Carta? The beginning of the end of tyranny in the English-speaking world.The year when English nobles forced King John to sign a document that went down in history as the first curtailment of royal power.

1-2-1-5- Oh, come on!

What was I thinking when I set that combination? I wasn’t thinking. How could I assume a historic date would be so easy to remember?

There were a zillion possibilities:

How about 1789 – both the French Revolution and the founding year of my alma mater, Georgetown University? No.

1945, the end of WWII and the beginning of a strong bond between my home country and my adopted country (yes, I know, this relationship is beginning to unravel, but you understand). Wrong again.

Birth dates. I tried my entire family’s birth dates.


Think harder, Brenda, think harder! Go back even farther in time…

Yes! This was it: the Battle of Hastings, when William the Conqueror invaded England, or from his point of view, claimed his legal right to the crown. Any self-respecting Anglo-Saxon knows this date.

1-0-6-6- Click.

Ahhh! I was never so relieved to hear such a soft, sweet, small sound.

Back to the roots. Now if only our politicians would remember the momentousness of such dates and their import on the issues of our time.

With that thought, I hopped on my bike and off I went. And I have never forgotten my combination again.

Brenda Arnold

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