Thursday, April 11, 2013

Adventures in Airport Security

And now for something completely different:

The other day we were flying home from Charlotte to Austin, after a rain-soaked, chilly week at Myrtle Beach with the kids (the fun of which would comprise an entire blog post).  As we were herded into the TSA checkpoint, emptying pockets and removing shoes and belts, I was hoping that I hadn’t forgotten some errant bottle of liquid buried in my carry-on bag.  It was similar to being fingerprinted by the Immigration and Naturalization Service all those years ago in conjunction with my daughter’s adoption: you know, of course, that there are no skeletons in your “closet” but you’re still irrationally afraid that something nefarious will turn up; that there is some nugget of your crazy college days floating around in the ether.  (Did someone take pictures that night?)

Then the feared question from the man in blue: “Is this your bag?” 

“Yes” … trying to act innocent, even though you know you are completely that, and wondering if there is some smidgen of guilt on your face.

Not too long ago I was in this same place.  I was pulled aside, and thought, “Oh hell, I forgot to pull out the bottle of shampoo.”  I told my better half, “It’s the shampoo, I know it.”  The TSA agent said, “No ma’am, it’s not shampoo,” and in that instant I remembered the two ultra-cool colored paring knives that we had bought at a high-end kitchen store the day previous.  You know, “Sur la Table”, or in my husband’s words, “the table store.” 

After our 2011 wedding in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, we were flying home.  The TSA agent questioned us, going down the checklist of forbidden items that might be in our checked luggage … any knives, explosives, HAIR SPRAY?  My husband and I looked at each other and groaned.  There was indeed a can of Aqua Net in my bag.  I opened it up and felt around until I found it, producing the illicit can, (and yes, I use Aqua Net, famous for freezing little old ladies’ hairdos for decades on end. What can I say, the stuff works).  The agent smirked and said, “No ma’am, I said BEAR SPRAY”.  You know, the Counter Assault Bear deterrent that contains capsaicin and shoots 12-30 feet in 7 seconds?  The one that warns: “Use with extreme caution, if not used properly it can disable the user, rather than the bear”?  Yes, that one.  We had both heard “hair spray”.  Maybe the guy was messing with us.  From that moment on my innocent Aqua Net forever became “bear spray”.  I suppose if it can save a hairstyle under Niagara Falls, it could keep a bear at bay.  (Or was that White Rain?)

So, back to the other day:  I was pulled aside, and they pulled out the dreaded wand with which they swabbed the inside of my computer case.  The agent put the sample into a machine, and all kinds of alarms started going off.  He called for a manager, and a swarm of four or five blue shirts descended on me.  A woman agent who reminded me a little of the Headmistress in the Roald Dahl book, “Matilda” (complete with sensible shoes and chin mole) told me she was going to pat me down.  And pat she did.  I mean, really patted.  I felt like I needed a cigarette when she was done. 

Meanwhile, I was thinking about the bag.  It was a new one, and I was using it for the first time.  I am pretty sure my husband is not into illegal drugs, but you never know everything about a person, do you?  (Kidding!)  These are the places where the mind goes when one is confronted with law enforcement on such an intimate level.  Did someone slip something into my bag when I wasn’t looking?  The film, Brokedown Palace suddenly was playing in the movie theater of my mind’s eye.  Remember Midnight Express?  At least I knew if I was going to prison it was only Charlotte, not Turkey.  Part of me, also, knew that I was scheduled to work the next day, something to which I was not looking forward.  How sick is it that it flashed through my head that I might get a day off if this situation went south?

They unpacked everything in my bag, and I swallowed hard every time they pulled something out.  I was cooperative and polite.  They were just doing their job.  I felt good knowing that they were being thorough and professional.  When people complain about the intrusiveness, don’t they realize that it is making them safer?  Would they rather the TSA be lackadaisical and sloppy?  I think not.  Ever wonder why the US posts signs warning about security standards in certain airports around the world?  Because some places aren't as careful, and a bribe can easily get an official to look the other way.  Would you feel safer there?  I don't think so.  Next time you feel frustrated by the long line at security, or uncomfortable being patted down, remember that these people are doing their best to keep YOU safe. It isn't their fault that a few extremists have made all this necessary.  It’s not out of the realm of possibility that the Bad Guy would use a child to smuggle a drugs or a weapon, is it?  Stooping low is their modus operandi.

Of course, my little story has a happy ending.  They found nothing.  Asked what it was I had tested positive for, they said that they didn’t know; the alarm was just for “something”.  Truth?  I may never know.  Maybe it was just a drill for a rookie TSA agent, and I was just the guinea pig.

I was reminded of another time in the early 1970s, when my family was traveling from Europe to the US.  We transited through JFK, at the height of the Cuba hijackings.  I was frisked pretty vigorously (I was eleven!) in a little cubicle.  Asked later that summer what my favorite part of the trip was, I replied, “Getting frisked at JFK!”  Ah, the innocence of youth!

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