Twenty years and $20: The tale of a trunk: Column

Ceason Ranson
Ranson Ritings

I’ve known Bryan Graham since sixth grade, when we both entered Mrs. Click’s homeroom, and I have managed to stay friends with him ever since. He is a cheerful guy, loves fun and adventures and is just a genuinely good dude to have around in a group setting. And he’s the reason I had a locked trunk in my house for 20 years.

When my parents were redoing the house I grew up in, they decided on a theme of early American meets antiques, so they spent a lot of time in antique shops and estate sales, and one of the estate sales they attended was the Judge Oliver D. Kessel sale in Jackson County. The particulars of the sale escape me now, but I do remember them bringing home a locked black trunk with gold hardware and immediately calling the local locksmith to crack it open, which Woody did with ease because he had the touch. Woody also strongly admonished our whole family that under no circumstances should we press the locking mechanism back into place, because there was no key and he’d have to crack it again.

Flash forward seven years to New Year's Eve 1999. My best group of buds and I were celebrating at my house because my parents were cool like that, and because they left my Grandma Kate as chaperone, and after getting everyone settled with drinks and food, someone asked me about the trunk. I gave them a brief history, and then as a total afterthought, told them all to make sure they didn’t press the lock back into place. They all agreed they wouldn’t, and we went on about our partying.

Bryan missed that announcement. Not sure where he was, maybe he was just late, but no kidding, within 30 minutes of him showing up, he had gotten a drink and a plate of food, sat down in front of the trunk, and then just as easy as you please, reached over and pressed the lock back into place. Y’all, I about died. “Bryan,” I asked exasperatedly (one of my special skills is saying things exasperatedly), “Why would you do that? I just told everyone specifically not to do that!”

In Bryan’s defense, he was very apologetic and tried for a while to pick the lock, but eventually had to admit defeat. And I got to ring in the year 2000 by telling my parents that our antique trunk got locked again, and I can tell they never quite forgave Bryan because whenever I would say his name, they always qualified it with “Oh, that kid who locked our trunk?” long after any of my friends were kids.

So for 20 years, that trunk has sat locked in our house. Every now and then someone would walk by it in the living room or in a bedroom and say out loud, “We really should call Woody and get him back here to unlock it.” Then they’d leave the room and forget about it. So for 20 years that trunk has basically served as an extra coffee table or as a flat surface to hold holiday decorations, a very heavy showpiece that I move all over the hardwoods and carpets depending on how I’m laying out the rest of the furniture.

But a few weeks ago, I don’t know, I just got this wild hair that I was not going to go one more year without having that trunk unlocked. I am starting to acquire a rather large collection of seasonal blankets and that trunk would be perfect to hold them, so I got it in my head that I was going to get that trunk open on my own so my blankets would have a neat place to lay.

You read last week’s column where I talked about how people should make careers out of their special skills? Well don’t anyone think I’m going to be making a career out of lock-picking. Armed with a bunch of different sizes of flat-head screwdrivers and a five-minute YouTube tutorial, all I succeeded in doing was spinning the key part of the lock in a circle and prying up one nail head, and I swear the trunk laughed at me the whole time.

In exasperation, I ran another search using the numbers I found on the lock, hoping there would be a more specific tutorial available, maybe involving a bobby pin or a butter knife, which were all the tools I had besides screwdrivers. What I found was an Etsy listing for a vintage trunk key T6655, my exact trunk model. So now a quandary: I could spend the afternoon playing “Ocean’s Eleven” and possibly ruining the lock. I could swallow my pride and call Son of Woody and ask him to open the same lock his dad opened 27 years ago. Or I could spend $20 plus shipping on a key that may or may not work, but wouldn’t require me to use tools or shame.

I went with the $20 key.

The day the key came in the mail had been a fairly awful day at work, and I came home discouraged and unhappy, and slightly despondent that I’d thrown $20 to the Etsy overlords for nothing. I didn’t even run upstairs to try the key out when I got home, just tossed it on the stairsteps for later, while I moped about the basement. Then before bed, I trudged upstairs, this little silver key in hand, trudged over to the trunk, fiddled the key part of the lock back in place from where I’d moved it around a week ago, slid the key in, expected nothing when I turned it, and then ... click. The locking mechanism fell open, and I opened the trunk like I was Indiana Jones and this was the Ark of the Covenant (minus the face-melting).

It’d been years since we’d looked briefly through the contents of this trunk, and right after Woody cracked it the first time, one of the first things we saw on top was a picture of Ella Dee Kessel in her Miss America finery, and even a cursory dive into the contents revealed more pictures from that era and things like Kathryn Kessel’s diploma from Davis and Elkins and letters galore to Judge Kessel, like the one from his dad, E.D., asking him very pointed questions about the man Oliver’s sister was dating (spoiler alert: he was not a fan), or the one from Ella Dee while she was at WVU, where she talks about her flying lessons and changing out her summer for winter skirts.

When we first cracked the trunk, we did attempt to contact the Kessel heirs, but we didn’t get much response, and then when the trunk got locked again, we just kind of let the subject rest. I’m not sure if they ever knew what was in the trunk when they sold it, and I’m not sure they’d be interested in the contents now, but if anyone knows the Kessel/Stone/Caperton heirs, give them my office number and they can contact me about it. They might even recognize the picture I set up in the lobby of a very young Oliver Kessel surrounded by law books.

But my great hope is that my $20 investment turns in a future display for the Ripley history museum, a picture-heavy walk back in time for a family that has deep Jackson County roots and a reminder of when everyone was rooting for Miss West Virginia. Those aren’t the kinds of things that should stay packed in a trunk for no one but me to see — they should be out for everyone to read and look and remember, and I’m not just saying that because it perfectly blends my desire to preserve history with my desire for blanket storage. The history museum is the right place for those things, in the hands of people who know how to preserve history better than my family, who have managed to hold on to all these things only because we were stymied by a lock.

And Bryan, if you read this: You’re totally forgiven. Also, you owe me $20 plus shipping. I accept ApplePay.