Travel Advisory

The media loves to report on how porous airport security really is, but I can tell you firsthand that if you take an army regulation ammunition box, slap a skull and crossbones sticker on the side of it and fill this box with wires, batteries and electronic devices, your will get a reaction out of the Department of Homeland Security.

It certainly wasn’t my intention to bring operations at the Long Beach airport to a screeching halt at 9:00 p.m on a summer Sunday. I was looking forward to my return to New York after two weeks on the West coast, enjoying such delights as camping on the beach, touring with a rock band and watching old movies in cemeteries while eating big picnic dinners. Full of belly and nearly empty of bank account, I packed my belongings carefully in their various containers. I packed my arsenal of beauty products in their little zip-up kit. I packed my collection of black, white and camouflage clothing in my backpack. I packed my books and papers in my satchel. I packed my batteries, chargers, wires, iPod, digital voice recorder and camera in the fantastic heavy-duty metal ammunition box I bought for $7.95 in an army surplus store in Oregon. I closed the box with a satisfying screech and clank and admired how nicely the promotional sticker from the tour I had just been on–a red-on-white skull and crossbones–looked decorating the outside, how neatly all my electronic devices fit inside, how well-protected they would be during all my future journeys, now that I had my fantastic new box.

At the airport security check-in, I felt paranoid and guilty, as I often do in the presence of uniformed officials. When I didn’t beep walking through the metal detector and escaped the wand and pat-down, I was surprised. Usually I forget to take off my belt or empty my pockets of change and am separated from the herd and made to stand on the little footprints, like a criminal in a ballroom dancing class. I am always certain they are going to detect the drugs in the fatty linings of my cells or the violent anti-government fantasies in my mind and take me away to a little room and do something unpleasant to me, or just make me wait for a long time under a buzzing fluorescent light with no reading material.

I waited on the other side for my stuff to come through the conveyor belt, trying to think innocent thoughts. After a few moments, I realized that my stuff was not appearing on the conveyer belt like a happy little parade of things I own marching back to greet me. In fact, the conveyor belt was stopped and a small crowd was gathering around the screen. “Pam,” said the woman quietly. “Get Tom.” There was some walkie-talkie conversation, and a man in a different uniform came over and considered the screen. “Get Bob,” said Tom. A man in still another uniform came over. “You see that?” said Tom. “Uh-huh,” said Bob.

His voice was grim. It was moments like these he trained for, possibly even read airline safety trade publications for. Moments like these that compelled him to polish his badge and keep his innersoles fresh, his gaze steady, his mind sharp and his unmentionables powdered and dry.

Tom squinted at the screen and pursed his lips. Motionless, shoeless and defenseless, I began to sweat.

“It’s an iPod!” I wanted to say. “It’s a cell phone charger!” But I said nothing. There were posters everywhere that said, “Joking about a bomb in your luggage is a federal offense.” What if they took any attempt to explain the contents of my box to be some form of self-incrimination? What if they got one of those robots and took away my fantastic new box and all the things inside it and blew it up on the tarmac? What if there were traces of actual ammunition on the ammunition box and they found them and called me terrorist and took me to Guantanamo Bay? I’d never read the New Yorker again. I’d hang myself in my cell when I got tired of teaching the other inmates algebra, another casualty of the empire.

“It’s an ammunition box,” I heard Bob say. Or was it Tom? Someone came over with a little wand. They swabbed the box on all sides and put the wand in a machine. The machine beeped frantically. What was the machine detecting? What if it detected everything? It was probably an Everything Detector, and the box was probably covered in traces of all kinds of nastiness–some of it mine, some of it the nastiness of the NATO soldier who once kept his M80 shells in there. They were going to charge me with possession of gunpowder and about a dozen different illegal substances I had probably exhaled on the box while rooting for my extra camera battery. There was gunpowder on my box! And drugs on my gunpowder!

Everyone seemed excited about the beeping machine, but it remained unclear what exactly its beeping had revealed. Then there was an uncomfortable pause. “So, who’s gonna open it?” asked one of the securers of our homeland. “I’ll open it,” said Tom. Or was it Bob? He fumbled with the clasp, the very strength of which was the reason I had bought this drug- and gunpowder-smeared box to begin with. Or rather, bought this gunpowder-smeared box and smeared it with drugs. Obviously, Tom wasn’t a military man himself, and dubiously qualified to open this box or defend our homeland. Did I detect a nervous trembling seeping through the precision of his procedure? His meaty fingers scrabbled at the lid.

I wanted to help, but I kept quiet. Everyone in line was looking at me. My shoes hadn’t come out of the machine yet. I stood there barefoot, in a fluffy black tulle skirt, a rather filthy t-shirt, my army green baseball cap and protective aviator glasses. I tried not to look deranged.

Even though I knew there was nothing dangerous in the box, all the activity surrounding it had created some suspense. When it was revealed that the box was filled with several hundred dollars worth of small sound recording and playing devices, I breathed a sigh of relief along with the better part of the Long Beach Airport security staff. As the officials pulled each object from the box, they shook their heads and said, “ohhhhhhh,” a little revelation with each part of my electronic arsenal. It turned out it was the four-pack of AAA batteries that had particularly alarmed them. In order to keep my cables from tangling, I had wrapped them around things–an unopened package of batteries, my iPod, my camera, never imagining that this configuration of objects might resemble a small bomb. I had inadvertently proved the airport staff’s ability to identify four little cylinders all lined up and surrounded by wire and several unidentified electronic devices and react accordingly.

“You might not want to fly with that thing again,” said one of the security guys as I repacked my box and hustled away.

“Believe me, I won’t,” I replied. I walked over to the waiting area in a daze of relief and fear and promptly smashed my shin into a metal pole. Not wanting to attract any more attention, I swallowed my curses and whimpers. The pain felt good. I was free.

One Response to “Travel Advisory”
  1. Mike O'Reilly says:

    That is the finest piece of work I have read in months. Absolutely hilarious. Thanks.

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