#12 Johnny and the Dead Bolt

“Johnny is in Mom’s bathroom and won’t come out!”

At fifteen, with the permanent title of Big Sister in Charge, I was the first to receive the news delivered in typical tattletale cadence by Little Dale, the next oldest kid after me.

I sighed and interrupted the much-more-important business of attempting to hide a soon-to-be pimple with Cover Girl medicated makeup that “hides blemishes instantly while helping them heal”. 

I followed Little Dale, who was already trotting in the direction of the small bathroom attached to my mother’s bedroom.  Seconds later, I found all the kids, except four-year-old Johnny, grouped outside the door, waiting expectantly.  

“John Patrick come out of there right now,” I said in the serious, but bored tone that usually inspired immediate obedience.

The door handle jiggled uselessly.

I grabbed the handle on my side of the door.
“Johnny, let go of the handle.” I ordered.

“And get away from the door,” I added as an afterthought. Perhaps the door was just stuck, and he might get hurt if I popped it open too fast.

I levered the handle down and then pushed. Nothing. I pushed harder. Not a budge.

“Did you lock the door?” I demanded with just the right mixture of annoyance and concern that usually inspired honesty in those under the age of six.

He sounded sincere, but I decided to try the Big Test.

“Okay, Johnny, we’re all gonna walk over to 31 Flavors and get us some ice cream cones. Guess you won’t be coming with us, because you can’t unlock the door. Bye, now.”

I motioned with my right hand directing the sibling chorus to enter into the drama, “Bye, Johnny, we’re going to 31 Flavors”, they all chimed in. A loud wail came from the other side of the door. “Okay, okay, don’t cry, Johnny! We won’t leave without you!” I shouted.

The wailing was immediately downgraded to sniffling. “I wanna go too!” came his plaintiff little voice.

“I know, I know. We won’t leave without you. Promise! I’m gonna get Mom and she’ll get the door open in no time, and then we’ll all go to 31 Flavors. Okay?”


I turned to the siblings with further directions. “You kids stay here. Try and cheer him up. I’ll be right back with Mom.”

They nodded solemnly. If I was abdicating my responsibility in favor of Mom, this must truly be serious.

I found Mom in the garden removing weeds and snails from her adopted children, the green things. I quickly summarized the situation and handed off the problem and the responsibility to the Ultimate and Final Authority of our family.

After several attempts at finding a solution herself, Mom got on the phone and tried calling locksmiths and handymen. None of them could come right over. If she needed help sooner than tomorrow or next week, they advised her to…

“I guess I’ll have to call the fire department,” she said.

“But aren’t they just supposed to be for fires?” I asked.

“If they can get a cat out of a tree, they can get my son out of the bathroom,” Mom replied with faultless Mom logic.

A few minutes later, a bright shiny red fire truck arrived, sirens blaring, with firemen in full firefighting gear—helmets, boots, jackets, the works.

The kids were ecstatic. I was extremely embarrassed and wished for immediate invisibility.

The firemen carefully analyzed the situation and came to the conclusion that they would have to break down the bathroom door. Unfortunately, the bathroom was very small, and Johnny was right on the other side of the door, with no place else to go.

“They’re trying to figure out how to protect John Patrick so he won’t get hurt when they break down the door,” Mom explained.

What? How did a simple problem like a locked door develop into such a dangerous situation?

Stupid lock. How did it work, anyway? I had locked and unlocked the bathroom door hundreds of times, but I couldn’t remember how I did it. I went down the hall to the main family bathroom with the huge bathtub. Too bad he didn’t trap himself in there. I locked and unlocked the door several times, breaking down the movements into separate actions. Maybe he didn’t understand how the lock worked. Maybe I could talk him through the process step by step…if the lock wasn’t bent or broken…if Johnny’s little hands were strong enough…if…

Back in Mom’s bedroom, I found her talking in a low, comforting voice through the door to my little brother.

“Mom, let me try something.” I explained what I wanted to do. She nodded. “Okay, give it a try. I’ll go see what the firemen have come up with.”

I put my mouth next to the door.

“Hey Johnny, I think we might be able to open the door if we both work together.  Do you want to hear the plan?”


“Okay, move back from the door a minute.” I took hold of the door handle and moved it up and down.  “I’m moving the door handle from outside, see?”  I heard a faint reply.  “The door won’t open because there are two handles—the big one that I can move and the little one that is just underneath it.  Do you see the little one?”  Another faint reply.  “I can’t hear you.  Come back to the door.  Do you see the little one?”

“ Yeah!”

“Great.  I can’t operate the little one from this side.  You’re the only one who can move it.” I explained what he had to do to unlock the door.

It took a several attempts using both hands, but my brother never stopped trying.  Finally, he was able to lever the knob into the open position, and the dead bolt slid out of the door jamb allowing the door to swing open.  

 “You did it!” I  grabbed him and gave him a big hug.  Then I saw movement outside the bathroom window. There was a grinning face of a fireman complete with helmet.  The window was too small to climb through, but he had been standing on an extension ladder keeping my brother entertained and supervised while the others worked on the problem.  

The firemen were happy and relieved that the problem was solved.  They rewarded Johnny by inviting him to sit in the driver’s seat of the fire truck and letting him sound the siren while wearing a helmet.   Then they drove away smiling and waving cheerfully.

“Can we go to 31 Flavors now?” asked Johnny.

“I’ll go get my purse,” said Mom. 


That should be the happy ending, but there’s more. The next day an article appeared in the local newspaper about John Patrick and the Firemen.  It got most of the facts right.  Firemen were called to such and such address. Check. Four-year-old Johnny had locked himself in the bathroom.  Check.  Firemen promised to let Johnny get in the fire truck if he would open the door.  Not really.  Johnny opened the door.  Check.  Firemen let Johnny sit in the fire truck. Check.

The facts were mostly right, but the way the story was worded gave the impression that mischievous Johnny had intentionally locked himself in the bathroom and then waited until he got just the right bribe before he consented to come out.  Bribe was duly paid, and Johnny was rewarded for his Dennis the Menace behavior.

In 100 words or less they had converted my little brother into a cartoon character.

I was outraged.  

“Mom! You have to call up the newspaper RIGHT NOW and tell them to apologize for that STUPID story.  They told it all wrong.  Johnny didn’t shut himself in the bathroom on purpose. It was an accident. He’s a good kid—he would never behave that way!”

“I know, dear.” Mom sighed. “But it was a tiny article in the back of the paper.  Nobody read it.  It’s yesterday’s news already.  There are more important things to worry about. Choose your battles wisely.”

Live and Learn. These are the lessons I took with me that day.

  1. Locks can serve as protection or prison depending on who has the key.
  2. Newspapers like to spice up the facts to make a story more interesting or entertaining, even though they sacrifice truth in the process.
  3. In life and war, you have to “choose your battles wisely”.

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