Peterson: Solving the car door opener mystery

The first clue should have been the automatic car-door opener that didn’t work.

But who would have thought?

Personally, I take the door opener for granted. I just expect it to work. And it always does.


I have no idea how the door opener works. You just press a little round button, and the doors unlock. Just like that. It saves fumbling for the key and putting it in the lock and twisting it to unlatch the mechanism. That, I kind of understand. It has something to do with tumblers.

But the door opener is a mystery. I’ve come to conclude it must be done by radio waves.

The thing is, there is no battery to operate it. I’ve looked the fob over and don’t see how it could be opened to replace the battery that powers the radio waves.

I could look it up on the Incredible Internet, but I prefer some things to remain a mystery and left to my imagination. The garage-door opener works on the same principle, I would guess, but it definitely has batteries, and there’s a little code that goes along with them by positioning little nubs to match those in the actual opener.

Not only does the car-door opener unlock the doors, press an oblong button, and it will lock all the doors with a satisfying little beep. A smaller button operates the trunk latch. And an oblong red one sounds the emergency beeping of horns and flash of lights.

I’m not sure why I need that power. It’s unlikely I’m going to happen upon a prowler trying to break into my 14-year-old Impala.

What is likely to happen is I will mistakenly depress that button and sound the alarm, much to my embarrassment. And it most frequently happens when my keys are in my pocket, and I am some distance from the car, not immediately realizing that the horns are blaring and the lights are flashing. Egad.

But the first clue was the automatic door opener that didn’t work. I thought to myself, standing there in the cold, that’s never happened before. And I fumbled for the key and opened the door the old-fashioned way. The only time I’ve done that is when I’ve locked my keys in the car.

But I carry a spare in my wallet. Just in case. It happens.

When I put the key in the ignition and turned it, nothing happened. Absolutely nothing. Not even a click. And that never happened before because we keep our cars well-serviced, and new batteries are routinely installed by the mechanic. You don’t want to have a dead battery when it’s cold. Or when it’s hot, for that matter.

And I didn’t waste any time dithering over a diagnosis. I had a dead battery, and I had to be at work. No time to waste time. My good wife had already left for work, so I was left to my own devices. And under T for towing in my cellphone directory, I have a list of towing services from across McHenry County.

I called the closest one – one in Woodstock – and, as luck would have it, the tow master was available and could be dispatched immediately, which surprised me. I was expecting to be told to wait an hour. We’re always being told to wait, especially when we are in a hurry.

But I didn’t even have to wait 15 minutes. Did I say I was surprised? He pulled up in a mammoth vehicle – a flatbed trailer to hoist broken-down cars onto – and exited with a hard plastic case that he could carry with one hand. I popped the hood, he attached the cables to the battery, and I was suddenly in business. My car was ready to roll. I wasn’t even late for work.

Maybe the dead-battery thing was happenstance.

It hasn’t failed me since then, and I think it’s going on a couple of weeks. But now, each time I pull out my key fob to automatically open the doors, I wait for nothing to happen. The suspense is killing me. Certainly, happenstance. Right?

• Dick Peterson, who lives in Woodstock, is a mental-health advocate. He is a freelance writer and a former Northwest Herald Opinion Page editor. He can be contacted at

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