About Us

Contact Us

Friday, August 9, 2002

Friendly Skies

Getting from here to there after September 11 – Part 1

By B. C. Stangl

Beware the swizzle stick and the shish kabob stickers!

If only I hadn’t gone and bought that second home in the Sierra, if I hadn’t become so danged ambitious about customizing it just so, so that the cabin would begin to assume the qualities of my idea of the perfect getaway to complement my Hawai’i condo. If I hadn’t lingered in the frosty weather well past my Thanksgiving target date to return to the islands. If I hadn’t chosen a place so rural, so far out… If the best friend of the woman I had just begun seeing hadn’t found herself facing emergency surgery scheduled for the day before my flight… Then it wouldn’t have taken me nearly so long to discover America’s friendly skies in the wake of Mister bin Laden. And I got a double dose at that.

Dee was all set to take me to Oakland, California to drop me at the Airport Hilton for my early morning Aloha Airlines flight home. But when her buddy came down with this mysterious spinal growth that required surgery that day, I was forced to call an audible. Two taxis serve my Nevada hamlet; one only offers service to the lodge four miles away, and the other predicted his meter would read $400 plus, once he delivered me to Oakland International.

My audiblizing continued in the manner of the Raiders’ Rich Gannon. Then Dee called to tell me her pal’s mom had arrived to usher her daughter through her trauma so driving me to Reno-Tahoe International would be "no sweat." So it was that I would purchase my first ever ride on Herb’s Southwest Airlines.

Once, I was a busy Honolulu executive. My frequent mainland trips quickly taught me the beauty of FedExing my luggage and goods ahead so that I could avoid even the smell of baggage claim. This done, I had only my briefcase, Mac, and a change of underwear and shirt when she dropped me off precisely two hours before scheduled take-off. It was nineteen degrees curbside so my farewell was less than anguished.

As directed, I carried copies of my two itineraries close to my driver’s license as I headed for the gate to check in. Each airline had assured me that this E-ticket tack past the overflow lines at the ticket counters directly to the boarding gates with no checked luggage would be my big ticket. The two pages depicting my travel from Reno to Oakland, then on to Honolulu the next day, may have defeated the concept behind the E-tickets I had purchased online, but each carrier had curtly warned me to bring them with me.

The line at the ticket counter curled and curled again like a Venus knot top at the U. S. Open. I smiled to myself as I scooted around the masses toward gate B 11.

Hold on there, not so fast.

Nightmarish, I thought, my quest to navigate the sea of all these people backed up for a hundred yards, waiting to be processed through two separate X-ray machines. But that was to be just the beginning.

A friend had told me that all those armed-to-the-teeth National Guard personnel I would be scrutinized by in the next thirty hours in fact carry no bullets. I’ve no idea about the veracity of that claim, but I can certainly attest to how I would soon succumb to every trite mechanism that the FAA and Bush administration had devised almost overnight to "Keep America Moving." It’s my own belief that it’s all too clear that today’s terrorists have jumped to skyscraper heights of sophistication in an orbit well beyond today’s knee-jerk efforts to protect our "security and safety."

"Have your possessions been with you at all times? Has anyone given you or asked you, kissed you or panhandled you, has anyone unknowingly…?" ( If someone had unknowingly done something to me, how would I know?) Just the same, I have felt so much safer these past dozen years, knowing that by some code of ethics, all hijackers and terrorists are committed to answering those questions truthfully.

"Keep your ID out, you will need to show it at least two more times," one of the dozens of officials manning the controlled area cautioned me. I would actually be called on to show it five times. "Please take your laptop out and place it on one of the plastic trays available."

This was new, but so was the second set of X-ray machines just twenty feet away in this makeshift jetway security post, which each of us would be subjected to after a thorough search of our carry-ons. Just then, a mighty dilemma struck my foreign handler.



"Your scissors," translated the fellow next to her, "they’re okay because they are squared at the tips."

"Oh," I shrugged and moved along. But I was real happy because I have been carrying that gift from a long ago assistant in my briefcase for almost a decade. I soon reached B-11 and took my place – maybe 30th – in a stagnant line that stretched out from the gate counter.

Ten doe-eyed minutes later I realized this was the line for a flight to San Jose and my Oakland-bound plane wouldn’t even arrive for another hour. So I made my way along the concourse, and settled on a Bloody Mary and a Wall Street Journal to pass my time.

Inside the Journal, Robert Poole, director of transportation studies at the Reason Foundation in Los Angeles, informed me that federal authorities have in place a computer system that weighs a set of factors they won’t reveal, which helps them to red flag suspected terrorists and the like. And I always thought it was their “profile” system that consistently dragged me out of immigration lines when returning home from overseas, twice subjected to strip searches. Once, in Portland, Oregon when I was the first to deplane a Delta flight from Japan carrying almost 400 passengers, I was the very last person to emerge from customs. I walked the long cavernous lobby to re-unite with my seatmate, Buddy, who was grinning and swilling his second giant beer. The fact that Buddy had spent four years in a federal lockup for transporting a mountain of marijuana from Texas to Florida apparently did nothing to trigger the computers of our drugbust-hungry border officials.

Southwest opened its counter at the Oakland-bound gate and even though I was 48th in line, it was a line that was moved briskly along by two pleasant staffers. I assume I was 48th because after reviewing my itinerary and ID (#2), I was given a sticky, yellow, laminated boarding card so numbered and told to keep my ID handy. Instead of asking me those lame perfunctory questions, this was the first time, after so many years flying so many carriers, that I had ever seen them typed on a card attached to the counter. It was not the first time the fellow behind me had seen them. Before I could gather my possessions, he immediately greeted the counterman with "No, no," as he handed over his ticket and identification. Then, once we answered negatively to those foolproof questions, each passenger was given a slip of white paper to hand over when he or she presented his boarding pass. We were informed this was some kind of new government requirement – so much for our new paperless world – but there was no mention of it whatsoever on the next day’s flight.

Thirds, or (t)herds, that’s how Southwest boards their open seating flights. Herds of passengers swarm the gate in a sort of snowcone effect, those with numbers 1 through 30 there, 31 through 60 here, and 61 through 90 there. Meanwhile, alongside the windows, three guys were setting up the kind of folding tables you usually only see brought out for the "little people" at Thanksgiving dinners.

The man taking our boarding passes looked nothing like an airline employee and everything like Charlton Heston dressed as a U. S. Marshall. In a billowing red jacket big enough to conceal an Uzi, he wordlessly and methodically took the yellow cards, filed them in a nearby slot, then okayed numbers 1 through 60 to come forward. I was impressed when he didn’t call for just numbers 31 through 60. Then, once I waded through the Jell-O throng, I figured I was probably right about being the 48th to board.

Nope. Hold on again, Bucko.

Marshall Heston hadn’t so much looked at me; he just recognized the name on my ID (#3), then told me to report to the card table crew. It wasn’t like I was Richard Reid, who had paid cash for his one-way ticket, but by necessity, mine was indeed a one-way flight. My buttoned-down luggage in no way resembled Reid’s knapsack, but I was wearing Nikes owing to all the walking I foresaw in my travels ahead.

One card table guy immediately requested to see my ID (#4). He was pretty amiable about it all, but the two guys behind the table virtually wrestled my two bags from me. Experienced at tendering laptops at traditional checks, I was leery of which way this one guy might ransack my Mac and its bag.

"I can unpack it!" he all but shrieked, close to livid that I would gingerly remove the G3 myself and cautiously set it atop its leather bag.

"Turn around please," ordered the first fella, and in my whirl I glimpsed man #3, the only one not wearing latex gloves, ransacking my briefcase like an opossum finding an overflow trashcan at dusk in Yosemite.

"How long are we going to maintain this façade of heightened security for the sake of political correctness?" asks one Mr. Tim Edwards of Chico, California in his letter to the Wall Street Journal.

"No, no. Put your arms up like this," the first man instructed. He was waving his electric baton like Paul Shaffer on Letterman. "Now put them like this," he commanded, so I must have looked like I did 45 years ago, playing airplane in the backyard.

A seasoned international traveler becomes quite skeptical of the various different "inspections" he encounters, so I guess habit forced me to steal glances at the two guys doing the big Charlie on my bags. Why the computer expert was now opening paper thin envelopes in my bag was curious, unless I somehow matched the profile of someone financing terrorism and did so in increments of barely $500.

"Empty your pockets of everything," commanded the orchestra conductor.

"Even coins?" I asked lamely.

"Coins are made of metal."

I emptied my left pocket first: Chapstick and a small dull knife about the same size, which my dad had given me fifteen years ago. I carried it everywhere… until then.

"This can’t go!" G3 almost screamed, kind of like he now had hard evidence on me that the gloves do fit.

I shrugged but I was resigned, if saddened. The bag terriers were slowing down like all the meat was off the bone when I looked over to see a young woman straight out of the 1960s, sandals, frizzed hair, tie-dyed skirt, and bulging backpack. She was the only other passenger to be singled out of that flight’s line.

"Mind if I pat you down?"

"No, are you kidding? It would be a grave and sad experience if I didn’t get the full Monty."

The two bag dogs almost growled.

"Okay, shoes." I thought the bandleader was parodying some Leslie Nielsen movie. " You know, it’s because of that dufus, recently." Immediately, I began to question how skilled a young guy who uses the word "dufus" was at guaranteeing my safety.

So off came the Nikes. I joked about how prudent it was that he was wearing his gloves. The two terriers, thorough investigation complete now, eyed me, seemingly convinced that I’d whispered some kind of code.

"Okay," he decided. Then, as I slipped my approved shoes back on, he said, "Just one more thing." I thought I was in a Columbo episode. "Turn your belt buckle over like this," and he flipped his over to show me just how. Today, I remain entirely clueless what our government ascertains by inspecting the flip side of a one-inch by one-eighth inch belt buckle.

"Why me?" I asked. The bag dogs virtually went on point, but the bandleader calmly said, "It wasn’t us, it was him," pointing back at the red coat.

I laced my approved shoes, gathered my certified no-terrorist-link bags, walked toward the jetway, then paused in front of Charlton, and asked him why he had singled me out of almost a hundred passengers. "Wasn’t me," he casually and calmly said after re-checking my ID (#5). "It was the computer."

I thanked him, then immediately thought of another letter to the Journal, from a doctor in Rochester. His 92-year-old grandfather was flying home to Ireland after his stateside holidays. " ‘He has been selected for a detailed search,’ was the word of the somewhat embarrassed clerk, as she blinked at her all-knowing, wise, uncompromising computer. Out of the wheelchair he came, as there would be no exceptions."

Somewhere over Lake Tahoe, stirring my Jack Daniels rocks, I wondered what otherworldly computer program could possibly link me with the good doctor’s grandpa and the flashback backpack woman. Then I really did draw attention to myself. When I noticed how tempered, pointed, and sharp was the red swizzle stick in my drink, I compared it to my dull one-inch knife or even box cutters, then roared with loud laughter.

[To be continued.]

B. C. Stangl is a retired San Francisco and Honolulu radio executive. © 2002 B. C. Stangl.