Cracking the case

If David Knosalla ever has to deal with a stubborn lock during his job as a Timber Trails Public Transit driver, he shouldn’t be too stymied.

That’s because Knosalla, of Ogilvie, once made his living as what he calls a “safe cracker.”

Knosalla began his transit driver job last September, after a stretch of retirement following his last major occupation of installing advertising projection equipment in movie theaters.

Knosalla, 68, grew up in Clarissa, near Little Falls. After high school he spent four years in the Air Force, with one of those years as a weapons mechanic in Vietnam. He was at Ben Hua Air Base near Saigon, working on F-15 fighter jets and loading ordnance into them. The base was shelled a few times, but overall it wasn’t bad duty there, he said.

After his military stint, he worked at several jobs for relatively short periods. They included working at an ammunition arsenal and driving cab. The cab driver job was the shortest at two days when he realized he was not cut out for it.

His next job was as a locksmith at Warner Hardware located at Sixth and Hennepin in downtown Minneapolis. Knosalla said he became an apprentice to an old-time locksmith who taught him how to make keys and open and repair locks.

There was plenty of locksmithing work to do in a large city like Minneapolis, Knosalla said. Big businesses like Cargill, Pillsbury and Piper Jaffray, as well as legal firms, would locate there, and businesses would change offices or have personnel changes, so locks had to be changed, he said. Knosalla’s territory was a four- to five-block section of downtown Minneapolis.

Knosalla left the Warner Hardware job after two years to be on the maintenance team at the IDS tower that was being built, and he worked there a couple of years. It was where he met Linda, who was maintenance dispatcher at the IDS tower, and the two wed in 1973.

After the IDS maintenance job, Knossala went to work for Mosler Safe Co. for 22 years. Banks and business had lock combinations that needed changing, safes to be repaired and pneumatic systems to be installed at the bank drive-up lanes, Knosalla said.

His main job at first was cracking open safes, meaning opening safes that others couldn’t, a lot of that due to people losing combinations.

The first thing the safecracker does is go to the site and determine that a safe couldn’t be opened in the normal way, he said. If the safecracker establishes that, then they bring in their safe-cracking equipment such as big drills to bore a hole into the safe.

The safe-cracking job had him driving throughout the five-state region of the Dakotas, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa. Some of Knosalla’s work for Mosler was at Red Owl grocery stores, but most of it was at banks. Each of the bank safe jobs took about four hours. He said that once he had drilled a hole to open the safe, he had to weld the hole shut. Knosalla says he opened more than 100 safes.

His most memorable safe-cracking job was at a bank in Sisseton, S.D. He said he was called there after bank employees and technicians had tried for three days to open the bank’s refrigerator-sized safe.

Knosalla said that when he arrived, he walked over to the safe, grabbed the dial and turned it to where it was supposed to be, pulled the handle on the safe, and the door opened.

Knosalla said the bank president’s eyes grew as big as saucers and he asked Knosalla, “How’d you do that?” and that Knosalla replied, “You called for an expert and that’s what you got.”

Knosalla said the door on the safe had a delayed-time mechanism for opening and that a person has to wait 15 minutes after a certain point for it to open.

Another safe-cracking job he recalled was at an Octopus-style car wash where the safe was in the floor and full of water. Knosalla said that no one had been able to pull the safe door open because of the water suction, but that he was able to by first hitting the safe with a hammer.

Some of the safes he opened were the old cannonball style, named so because they were round, with 1-foot-thick metal. The space on the inside was only about the diameter of a football, so those safes couldn’t hold much, Knosalla said.

The cannon ball safes were pretty old and made of manganese and so they were tough to break open, Knosalla added. Once banks had their cannon ball safes sawed open, they often decided not to reuse them, Knosalla noted.

But Knosalla also said that no one safe was more difficult skill-wise to open than another. His job also included installing new safes in banks, which he said was not an easy job because each safe weighed about 1,000 pounds. He also relocated safety deposit boxes from one location to another with police escort.

He was laid off from that the Mosler Safe job about 18 years ago.

“Unbeknownst to us, the company was having difficulties,” he said. Mosler went bankrupt in 2001.

Knosalla next worked as a janitor for Milaca Public Schools for a year and then took a job installing ad-projection equipment in movie theaters for 10 years. Through that job he traveled across the United States. One of the job sites was on Alaska’s Kodiak Island, and his wife accompanied him on the trip. His lay off from that job was the result of advancing technology, Knosalla said. He explained that new technology allowed movie film distributors to send the ad images electronically to the theaters. By the time that job ended, Knosalla was 63 and decided to go into retirement, which he said lasted five to six years. He said he enjoyed that time in which he was “busy every minute,” hiking a lot in state parks, and fishing and hunting around the United States.

Knosalla said he decided to exit retirement and take the Timber Trails driving job because he felt he should do something. “I was in good health and you can’t hike, hunt and fish every day and I wanted to give back to society,” he explained.

Knosalla said that Timber Trails has been good to him. Public transit is one thing he says he doesn’t mind paying taxes to support because he believes it does a lot of good for people.

Knosalla said he has had a pretty good life so far with the jobs he has had and being able to travel. From those experiences he offers this advice about pursuing dreams such as traveling: “If you want to do it, do it now while you are able because things happen. Waiting until tomorrow might not always be the best way, and take the kids … to do whatever strikes your fancy. They grow mighty quick.”

Knosalla said he looks in the mirror in the morning and ask himself, “How did I get this old?” and that he feels much younger mentally. Perhaps some of that is from exercising his mind, he said, adding, “I read a lot, almost every night before I go to bed.”