10/11/02

The transition of travel since 9/11 is a story of
extremes. Those who fly on a regular basis have learned what to check and what you can carry on. In the first year there have been some inconsistencies in the criteria. The obvious items are not in question.
Following the Richard Reid incident, shoes are regularly pulled from
feet and passed through the x-ray machine. As the rules changed and the
personnel tried to adapt, certain things became strange.

I was flying out of a Southern Californian airport,
already having made sure that all my tools were far away in my
suitcase, even the dull drum key I carry for work there after a
screener spent nearly two minutes inspecting it three inches from the
end of his nose. I’m used to having all my pens checked and having to
take a sip from my water bottle before coming over to the other side.

I have worn a plain black fanny pack for many years
on the job and off. It’s a handy place for my wallet, my cell phone,
pens, tools, chewing gum and the various talismans I insist on having
with me at all times. Being able to reach into my pouch and handle the
polished piece of hematite worry stone, the silver dollar, the various
medallions or the small replica of Stonehenge brings me a grounding I
need from time to time. For many years carrying things in my pants
pockets was not an option, unless I wanted them melted down to basic
elemental form by the end of the day from the heat and sweat.

Another talisman I carry is the keychain that my
house keys, car keys and scan tags all hang off of. It was given to me
by my mother after a trip to my childhood summer home of Great
Cranberry Isle, Maine. From when I was five or six, the jewelry art of
the boats men has always been to my liking. The natural progression of
watching my Turks Head Knot bracelet change from bright white when it
was bought to the darker, funkier gray was a good way to gauge the
summer’s remaining days. I would wear mine as long as I could, even
prying it’s shrunken grip from my wrist for a stern washing and
bleaching.

My mother knowing my love for these simple things
got me this keychain, which is a simple small knot, called a Monkey’s
Paw. It is a round ball about an inch in diameter. Made of thin white
string, it is a reminder of a simpler time up there, on the water and
in the sun. I’ve had it for nearly twelve years.

As I passed through the security checkpoint, the
woman on the x-ray machine asked if she could search my fanny pack. I
said yeas and she proceeded to pull my keys out and inform me that I
could not go any further unless I removed my keychain.

I was instantly confused. I asked her why the
keychain was now considered unacceptable after nearly twelve years of
flying with it and nearly five months after 9/11. She informed me that
my keychain was classified as a weapon, was known as a “Billy Ball” and
had been considered such for quite some time. She gave me the choice of
surrendering it to her trash can, checking my carry on bag under the
plane with it inside or returning to the main terminal gift shop to
purchase an envelope and stamps to mail it to myself.

I didn’t want to throw it away; I sure didn’t want
to check my carry on bag (that’s why it’s a carry on), so I tried to be
understanding and returned to the gift shop where they were charging
three dollars for a simple white letter size envelope and $7.80 for
$3.40 worth of stamps. This triggered my righteous indignation circuit.
This usually is a problem.

I returned to the security checkpoint. I began to
try to reason with the young lady (who was the supervisor of a number
of older employees). I explained that it was a keepsake from my mother.
I explained that I had flown with it for twelve years and at least six
times since 9/11 including two international flights. I don’t think I
even got a blink out of her. Some other, deeper, more primal circuit
flipped inside my head.

“Ma’am, it’s a piece of string. If
I was to unwrap it and put it in my pocket, it would be a piece of
string,” I said.

“Sir, it’s considered a weapon,” she said.

I considered using it as one but realized it would
be totally inefficient and never do enough damage or cause enough fear.
It would be like trying to bludgeon someone with a stale mini muffin or
doughnut hole. I decided not to share this with her.

Even in this heightened state of security, I tried
to imagine a cold, calculating terrorist holding a full plane at bay
with a one-inch key fob made of string. Perhaps using the attached
jagged house key with my other hand… it seemed like a reach.

Reason was not going to work. Subterfuge was an
option as I could have carried it through the metal detector without a
peep but that didn’t come to mind. With all the communication skills I
gained through my upbringing, college and traveling the world, I went
with the next obvious choice: passive/ aggressive shame.

She could not see the warm summer days on the
seashore. She couldn’t see the love in my mother’s eyes. She couldn’t
see past the guidelines her boss had given her.

I suppose I could have checked my carry on bag and
risked breaking the delicate things it carried, limiting myself to one
book instead of six and eight CD’s instead of a hundred and forty. I
also could have spent the $10.80 to attempt to send it to myself at
home. In the end I surrendered it to her trashcan, hoping to make her
feel stupid (she didn’t) and trying to act grown up (I wasn’t).

As I usually do when these things put me into a
tizzy, I called my wife and she had a few logical common sense
suggestions. It was too late, I was down the concourse, my flight was
being called and the string key chain sat in a gray trash can with a
clear plastic liner with the other weapons, nail clippers, stale
Jujubes, and other bits of string.

The next day I heard on the news that the security
company she worked for was losing all of their airport contracts and
all the screeners were being fired. I felt vindicated for a few seconds
but in the end, I’m still sad that we now have to search our own bags
before we leave for the airport and that now we’ll never know what
they[base ‘]ll look for next.

A few years back I was traveling to Israel on
business and saw that our departure to the airport was nearly four
hours before the flight was to leave. Our bags were screened by a team
at our hotel early that morning and secured. We spent a half hour at a
security checkpoint a mile outside the terminal, individually we were
interviewed as we checked in, again at the x-ray machine, once at a
random check in the shopping area and a last time as we boarded the
plane. With all the problems they have had, they took very few
chances. Most American travelers and probably all of the American
companies would never stand for this, the inconvenience and the time
consumption. What we experience now is still so casual compared to
places that have experienced terror for the lifetime of their airport.

It’s too bad that we have to have security at the
airport. I’m glad we do though because humanity seems pretty
predictable. Perhaps we’ll all be restricted to not carrying any
personal belongings in the cabin or having Nerf or plush version of
office supplies. No hardback books. Only felt tip pens or crayons. Kind
of like county jail on suicide watch. Then in first class they’ll serve
a meal on china plates with real flatware including a knife. You can’t
ask certain people to be punished for being successful.

I’m going to carry a few things if I can back in
coach. Something to write with and write on for starters, as I seem to
write mostly in the air nowadays. A good paperback and the beautiful
bookmark my wife made for me; a bottle of water and a self addressed
stamped envelope in case the rules change. Some things are not worth
giving up and cannot be taken by security: your memories; your
connections to the ones you love; the experiences that make you who you
are. Material things by nature are transient. The ones that hold value
to you should be protected.

I felt bad about losing that key chain. I liked its
size and its style. I liked that it reminded me of Maine and my
Mom. But in the end, it’s just a thing. And like I told the woman
at the airport “It’s just a piece of string”.