What's In The Safe?

My dad was not just a pack-rat - he was a pack-rat with questionable taste. I mean, who even buys a buddha with a clock in its belly, let alonesaves it?

Bless his heart.

When he died, I joined my brothers and sisters at his home to sift through room after room of his stuff. Just saying those words - his stuff - makes you feel like you’re almost trespassing. Plus, Dad never knew that he wasn’t coming home from the hospital, so there wasn’t a chance for him to do a bit of purging. (Not that he would’ve.)

Anyone who has lost a parent knows how hard this is. For starters, you’re already grieving. Then throw in guilt, as each person looks at the others and says, “Do you want this?” The answer is usually a quick shake of the head. I felt awful realizing that most of Dad’s prized possessions would become homeless. But what can you do? We’re all busy collecting our own senseless junk, and can’t take on strays.

Each drawer and cabinet inflicts a fresh wound. But you press on, because . . . well, what choice do you have?

When we worked our way into the overstuffed walk-in closet in Dad’s bedroom, we were surprised to find, buried in a far corner - tucked behind long-forgotten clothes - a safe. You know, a big, honkin’, dreary-looking safe. It was a cube, two-feet to a side and about as tall. We eyed it for a minute. None of us had ever seen the thing before, and Dad certainly had never mentioned a safe. It was a mystery.

We lugged the heavy, iron beast into the family room, where the postulating began. Hidden love letters from our mom? Some rare, valuable collection? Government secrets?

The combination dial was spun a hundred times as we tried every set of numbers that might make sense. At one point I even put my ear to the metal, hoping to hear the tumblers fall into place, which only looked foolish. We scoured the house for any scrap of paper that might hold the winning numbers.


My brother, Dean, vowed to get inside the thing one way or another, and that’s how we left it for the time being. After the hour-long distraction, we went back to the business of parsing our father’s life. But the mystery of the safe lingered in our minds.

I’m sure we each harbored our own fantasies. Dad had a mysterious past anyway; none of us ever really knew his family, nor his family history. Could clues to this shrouded past be locked away in the safe? I hoped so, anyway.

Over the ensuing weeks our attention turned to more immediate issues with the estate settlement. The safe sat in Dean’s garage, mute. Taunting us.

My dad saved everything, from receipts to magazines to old 8-track players, but he kept those treasures out in the open. It wasn’t unusual to fly in for a weekend stay at his house and discover four pairs of used bowling shoes stacked on the guest bathroom counter. The kitchen hosted its own collection, with old letters, non-winning lottery tickets, even out-dated calendars. Why he kept a monthly calendar from 1979 I’ll never know, but I suspect it may have been the pictures of bass fishing on each page.

But then there was the safe. It not only defied entry, but it had been stashed in a place no one would ever dare to tread (his closet), obscured behind baggy trousers and suit jackets that never went out of style (no matter how much we pleaded). The safe was the one thing he never showed off. We knew nothing about it.


What did a man of mysterious background keep locked away from the prying eyes of his children, to the point where even the combination was a puzzle? Wouldn’t most of us at least have informed somebody about both the contents and the entry code? If you think about it, it was damned rude, wasn’t it? I mean, who torments their kids like this?

Back in Denver, a thousand miles from his home - and a thousand miles from the secretive block of iron - I went back to work, back to my friends, back to my life. The safe slowly receded into the corners of my own closeted mind.

Until three months after Dad’s death. Apparently the intrigue finally pushed Dean into calling a locksmith - or a jewel thief - to get this monstrosity open. My brother was laughing when I answered the phone. He and his wife had crowded around the safe as the expert drilled it open, and when the bulky iron door swung open it revealed . . .


I’m told the locksmith gave my brother an exasperated look, along with a sizable bill. He’d labored away, breaking into a safe that turned up bare, and the client was laughing until tears rolled down his face.

Here’s what we deduced later, and it’s the only story that fits. Dad was a collector of all the things you and I find worthless: He’d rescue a discarded microwave from someone’s curbside, or pick up a neighbor’s dusty old golf clubs before they went to the dumpster. I’ll never forget him walking in, carrying a giant velvet painting of the Starship Enterprise, as proud as Ralphie’s dad in A Christmas Story when he won the leg lamp.

I gotta believe my father stumbled across this piece-of-crap safe at a garage sale, and likely got it for nothing because it came sans combination. I further believe that he, too, was captivated by the mystery of what might be within, perhaps even allowing him his own fantasies about the metal box.

Furthermore, I’m now convinced that Dad knew exactly what he was doing when he hid it in his closet, behind the clothes and the old dry-cleaning bags. He was always, at his core, a jokester, a man who treasured each and every laugh he could evoke. The safe was my father’s way of getting the last laugh with the kids who loved him and loved his sense of humor. He knew we’d go crazy wondering what was in that freakin’ safe, and he likely envisioned the consternation as we spun that damned combination wheel.

Somewhere, I guarantee you, he’s laughing still.

Photo credit: Daniel Leininger