Getting from here to there after
September 11 – Part 1
By B. C. Stangl
Beware the swizzle stick and the shish kabob
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
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
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
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
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
"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
"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
"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
[To be continued.]
B. C. Stangl is a retired San Francisco and Honolulu
radio executive. © 2002 B. C. Stangl.