Saturday, December 3, 2011

Concealed Weapons, Pierced Ears and Other Travails of Travel

Our recent weekend away included two trips through airport security: here in Boston's Logan Airport and a few days later as we departed from Columbus. Although she is a fairly frequent flyer, my tween daughter finds the new scanning booths extremely distressing.

I get it, really; I've had some security trauma myself. Several years ago, I was going down to New Orleans to speak at a marketing conference. This was soon after 9/11 and security procedures were stringent, passengers and crew very anxious. The man in front of me was confused about what to do with his shoes and where to put his laptop. Meanwhile, I had flown quite a bit in recent months and felt certain of myself. With a level of smugness that I'm embarrassed to admit to (you'll read why in a moment), I cavalierly swept my MacBook out of its case and placed it oh-so-carelessly in its own plastic tub. Wearing comfortable clogs and a cardigan, I slipped quickly out of my shoes and jacket, withdrew a neat zip-lock bag of liquids, gels and ointments (yes, Chapstick counts). Congratulating myself on my security savvy, I practically strutted through the metal detector.

When I took Greek Tragedy sophomore year of college, the professor encouraged us to pay close attention to the moment when the hero thought or behaved as though he or she was better than anyone else. Better even than ... the gods! That moment of "hubris" would be the hero's undoing.

Me, prancing through security like I was all that? "Hubris, hubris, hubris!"

Well, my self-satisfaction was quickly eclipsed by the booming voice of a security official. He opened my backpack and demanded, "And what were you going to do with ... THIS?" He pulled out a steak knife.

Anyone who knows me (straight A student, teacher's pet, perpetual rule-follower) can imagine my horror! Was it my knife? Yes. Was it concealed in my backpack? Yes. Did I know why or how it got there? Hell to the no!

In a whirling blur, I was pulled out of line. Ohmigod! I had to provide identification. Ohmigod! The knife blade was measured. Ohmigod! A trooper came over to question me. Oh-mi-god! I almost missed my flight, but was cleared to board minutes before departure. As soon as we were in the air, still shaking and utterly (and I was certain permanently) mortified, I ordered a bloody mary.

(For the record, I had a steak knife in my bag because I had brought a nice cinnamon coffee cake to a New England Direct Marketing Association meeting a month earlier. The facility where we had those meetings never had silverware. I didn't want to bring a butter knife because I'd hate to break up our flatware set; the steak knife was old and I didn't care if it got lost. This is the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. I realized it about ten minutes into my interrogation. And you know what? The security people didn't really care.)

Another airport incident happened when my daughter was six. Over our weekend away, she had gotten her ears pierced. This had proved to be much more painful and traumatic than she had expected. As I pulled my bag off the x-ray machine belt, I accidentally brushed the side of her head with my sleeve. Out popped the earring; down came the tears. But, we soon found the diminutive gold stud on the carpet, ordered water with ice, and I repierced the ear myself in the food court. She was very brave and sweet. (I felt very faint and queasy.)

Back to our recent trip. Once we had arranged our carry-ons, jackets, and shoes on the belt, the TSA employee asked my daughter's age and then gestured to the dreaded booth. She was self-conscious, worried, nervous. Mostly, she was pissed. I reassured her that whoever was looking at her image was far far away and far far too busy doing his or her job to pay much attention.

I truly believe that the bulk of the TSA staff is made up of professionals. They are doing an important — and utterly thankless, think about it — job. People, it's just a picture! I've had CT scans, mammograms, chest x-rays, and ultrasounds. Even at her age, my daughter has already had an abdominal x-ray. Where are those images and who has access to them? Should we assume that all medical personnel are perfect and that all airport personnel are perverts. That seems like a bit of misplaced confidence and prejudice.

The morals of my story? Cooperate with the airport people; they are there to protect you. Be careful with newly pierced ears; they are delicate and not impervious to a mother's flinging arm. Don't try to smuggle sharp kitchen utensils on your next flight; bad bad bad idea.

And, most important, always leave your hubris at home.

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