What made airport security in Minneapolis search me last week when I was trying to fly back to Atlanta, I still can’t figure. Maybe they were picking passengers at random. Maybe they thought I was a particularly wily terrorist who had mastered the art of disguising himself as a sleep-deprived, middle-aged, white bozo in cargo shorts who’d partied too hard at his son’s wedding. Maybe they thought the big red “C” on my Colbert Report baseball cap stood for Communist. Whatever the cause, it didn’t help that I am nearly deaf these days.
They were on to me from the moment I showed my Georgia driver’s license and got my boarding pass scribbled on. A guard spoke to me and motioned with his hands palm up. I said “I’m sorry, sir, I can’t hear.” He re-emphasized the gesture emphatically, the hand-signal equivalent of yelling. I said, “I’m sorry, I don’t know what you want me to do.” I suggested he talk to my traveling companion, my stepdaughter, Downie. “She can translate,” I said. He ignored me and made the gesture again. I gestured back with what I would call my “I’m clueless” shrug. He grabbed me by both wrists and turned my palms up. Then he wiped each with some sort of napkin-pad and motioned for me to move on.
I’m thinking, “Well, that’s the famous ‘Minnesota nice’ for ya, them Norskies makin’ sure I don’t catch a flu bug or something.”
We proceed to the conveyor belt, where I dump my sneakers, car keys and loose change into a bin and put my carry-on bag behind it. The guard at the walk-through scanner looks annoyed when I tell him I can’t understand his words, but he lets me through. Then, as I go to collect my stuff, a grim-faced guard, a woman, says something unintelligible. My stepdaughter jumps in quickly this time: “He’s deaf, ma’am.” And then, to me, she mouths: “She asked if she can search your bag.”
I shrug. Sure. Fine. No problem.
The woman puts on plastic gloves and uses another of those wipes to rub around down inside my bag. Then she tests what’s on the wipe in a computerized machine that blinks and gives a read-out. Downie and I are standing there rolling our eyes at each other. Other travelers are looking at us funny. I am wondering what on Earth caught their attention. I am about to say, “If there’s white powder, it’s Gold Bond,” when it hits me. I have a small can of shoe polish in the bag. I neglected to put in my baggie of liquids.
The woman soon pulls out the little can, which is unfortunately wrapped up in the cloth I use to apply it. The shoe polish color is oxblood, so when she pulls the cloth out, it looks like it may contain a severed finger or a bloody eyeball.
She gingerly carries it over to the X-ray, holding it at arm’s length. She runs it through, and after much deliberation, she and two other guards determine that, yes, it is a can of shoe polish. And I am thinking, “You know, you could have just asked.”
Next, they run my carry-on through X-ray again, presumably to be safe, and they get agitated all over. She puts my bag back on the table and rummages through it, pulling out my red boxers, a couple of my singer-wife’s CDs, my toothbrush and the arch supports from my wedding shoes.
Finally, frowning, she carefully lifts a object out of suitcase that from a distance looks like it’s got wires. And I go, “Aha!”
It’s a bolo tie, black and silver with a blue stone inset, that my father-in-law made for me.
What it obviously is, however, the guard doesn’t seem to get. Or maybe she’s just following protocol. She unwraps the tissue I had put around the stone to protect it, and then, very delicately, as though it’s a snake that might bite her, she takes the bolo to the X-ray. After much deliberation, they confirm that it is indeed jewelry. She puts it back in the bag and sets the bag, which now looks like raccoons have gone through it looking for grubs, on a table. She motions to me. I indicate, again, that I am nearly deaf. She leans over and says loudly in my ear, “You’re done.”
No “thank you for your patience,” no “sorry,” no sign of embarrassment. She just walks away.
I packed up, and Downie and I headed for our gate. Since we got no explanation, I can only guess how it might have looked to them: that the can of something semi-solid and the bolo’s leather strings with metal tips were the makings of an explosive device.
Flying back to Atlanta, where the same “bomb fixings” had sailed through security without a word a few days earlier, I contemplated what a strange and inconsistent activity keeping us safe from underwear and shoe bombers is. And I realized I had been taught two valuable lessons about modern air travel:
- Shine your shoes before you leave home.
- If you have a dangerous bolo in your possession, don’t pack it, wear it.