If the key fits, can it be legit?

Posted Feb. 04, 2011, at 7:43 p.m.

In a newspaper containing a grim menu of reportage on topics ranging from scurrilous local acts of mayhem and depravity to killer snowstorms in the nation’s heartland and rioting revolutionaries abroad, the item out of Dexter was a welcome oasis of sunshine.

It was a news story guaranteed to bring a knowing smile to the face of any reader who has ever approached a vehicle in a crowded parking lot, believing it to be his own, only to learn upon trying to climb aboard the clunker that it belonged to someone else.

In this day of cloned vehicles when, if you’ve seen one drab gray 2004 Honda Civic you’ve pretty much seen them all, the mistaken-identity thing likely occurs more than we might suppose, although rarely in the manner in which it happened to a 78-year old Dexter man.

According to a story by Bangor Daily News reporter Diana Bowley in the weekend newspaper, the unidentified man finished his weekly grocery shopping, placed his purchases in what he thought was his vehicle, fired up the engine and drove home.

It wasn’t until he arrived in his dooryard that the chap realized the green 1996 Ford Explorer liberally coated with road salt residue — identical to his vehicle, save for a broken door handle — was not his.

The perplexed motorist called the Dexter Police Department to report the mistake. Police Chief Jim Emerson said it was the first time he had known an ignition key for one vehicle to fit the ignition mechanism of another.

After determining that the vehicle was registered to a Levant resident, Emerson advised the man to return it to the store, where his own salt-encrusted green 1996 Ford Explorer presumably awaited, provided it had not been unwittingly driven off to Levant by the other owner to make an even better story for our reading pleasure. No such luck, however, and all concerned resumed their daily slog through life none the worse for the experience.

The incident begs a related question: Who among us has not temporarily lost a vehicle in some jammed-full big-time parking lot or unfamiliar municipal parking garage? There’s nothing quite like the thrill of disorientation that sets in upon your arrival at the spot where the car is believed to be, only to find the space occupied by a vehicle other than the one you brought to the dance.

In the carefree days when a souped-up Mustang convertible was my transportation, I regularly would lose the lean mean machine in shopping mall parking lots from Presque Isle to Portland. In summer, as I rammed around the countryside with the car’s ragtop roof down, the vehicle had such a low profile that it easily was hidden from view when parked amongst the big boys.

Not until I smartened up and took to raising the roof, locking it securely in place before leaving the automobile unattended, did I become passably proficient in finding the damn thing upon returning to the parking lot.

Like many motorists, I try to leave my vehicle near some landmark — a parking lot lighting standard, say — to help in the location process. That works swell in the smaller lots, but not so hot in the huge layouts if you forget which light pole in a vast sea of light poles you’ve hitched your pony to.

When we run out of ways to misplace our automobiles, Mother Nature — in cahoots with mischievous snow gods — can show us new methods, as illustrated in dramatic television footage of numerous cars buried in the snowbanks of Chicago’s windblown Lake Shore Drive earlier this week.

The footage, a perfect face for the latest savage storm to sweep the continent, brought to mind a great front-page newspaper photo that epitomized an early 1960s blizzard that paralyzed most of the state. Shot on Rockland’s main drag, the photo showed a side view of a low-slung sports car that had been partially dug out from its overnight hiding place in a humongous snowbank. There were perhaps 3 feet of snow atop the roof, and even deeper snow hid from view the car’s front and rear.

Attached to the handle of the driver’s side door was a fluorescent red parking ticket. In Maine (The Way Life Should Be), some days are like that.

BDN columnist Kent Ward lives in Limestone. Readers may reach him by e-mail at olddawg@bangordailynews.com.

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