Tuesday, September 20, 2011
AM I SAFER TEN YEARS LATER?
For many years I had refused to fly since 9/11, but awhile back I twisted my ankle while fighting a forest fire in Washington State and had to fly home instead of driving back later with the rest of the 20-man crew.
Into the airport I went. I was still wearing my salt-stained yellow-and-green Nomex firefighter uniform because I had no “civvy” clothes with me. My ticket had been purchased by the Federal government. I had my Federal employee scannable Smart Pass identification. This was insufficient, so I also had to show my driver’s license, National Guard military ID, passport, birth certificate, DNA sample, retina scan, and a note from the local sheriff. While fumbling around with all this paperwork, my NRA membership card fell out of my wallet. Much to my naive surprise, the TSA agent said I fit a “terrorist profile” and needed an “enhanced” search.
As I entered the scanner, which had a sign on top that said, “Arbeit macht frei", I couldn’t help but notice the fellow behind me in the cattle chute. He was a thirty-ish fellow of Middle-Eastern origin, wearing a turban from which was coming an odd ticking noise. He was sweating profusely and his eyes were darting furtively about. For identification, he showed the TSA thug an underwear label and a blank cashier’s check from the Bank of Somalia.
“Okey-dokey, g’wan through, bub” said the skinny, officious little TSA agent, sniffing and hiking up his pants.
“What about that guy?” I asked the TSA agent, nodding at Turban Man.
“We can’t use race, country of origin, religion, appearance, lack of identification or weaponry as criteria in our terrorist profiles,” he replied. "Unless, of course, you're a male WASP."
I was herded into a small room where I had to disrobe completely. For some reason, they had to search my bunghole twice. I can’t figure out how that squirrely little agent with the bad lisp was able to do that with one of his hands on each of my shoulders, but I complied like a good little sheeple.
My small revenge was that I had been living in a firefighter spike camp in the mountains for several days without a shower. When this little blue-haired female 60-plus-year old TSA agent examined my boots for explosives, the stench sent her reeling backwards, knocking down a partition and revealing my nakedness to a few dozen passengers. Several agents jumped on me and pummeled me with billy clubs while another hustled my boots away to check them for Nuclear, Biological, Chemical weapons.
When the boots came back, carried with a set of long tongs by an agent in a protective space suit, the head TSA agent came out and said, “Tough shit for the inconvenience.” Then he cited me for indecent exposure.
Having finally crossed the River Styx, I saw that, since I had reported to the airport five hours early as instructed, I still had a good three minutes to catch my flight. I hadn’t eaten since the previous evening, so I decided to grab a sub sandwich at one of the airport kiosks.
Behind the counter, a Middle-Eastern guy in his mid-twenties, displaying an airport security pass around his neck asked, “What you fuggin' want, imperialist Yankee pig-dog infidel?”
So I wasted a couple of minutes talking louder and louder in short phrases and then in single words, pointing and gesturing at the overhead menu signs, until I was able to order a deli ham and bacon sub, on white bread. After a long wait, my sub arrived, carried with a set of long tongs by another young man of Arabic-descent in a protective space suit. The guy at the counter spat on the sandwich before handing it over to me. Then we had to haggle over the price for awhile before he would accept the amount listed on the menu, and even then he kept on insisting on being paid in Saudi Riyal rather than American Dollars.
The sub was, of course, completely inedible, the bacon raw, the bread limp and wet, and the condiments unidentifiable. On the fireline, I had eaten a pine beetle on a bet, so when I say it was inedible, it was in-friggin’-edible. I tossed it into the trash can after one bite.
Now rushing to my departure gate, a janitor, in his late 20’s and of Middle-Eastern descent, looking furtively back over his shoulder as he exited from a door marked: SECURE AREA: NO ADMITTANCE, unexpectedly pushed his mop bucket out into the corridor ahead of me. I tripped over the bucket, from which protruded a mop handle and what looked suspiciously like the wood-sleeved barrel of an RPG-7 rocket launcher. The janitor hastily gathered the objects while screaming curses at me in Arabic, making sure he kept hold of his airport security pass before scuttling away.
As I arrived at the departure gate, I was the last person in line. Up ahead, in the middle, I could see two thirty-ish men of Middle Eastern descent, sweating profusely in the air conditioning and glancing nervously all around, being waved on through. When I got to the counter, the airline employee said she was sorry but that I fit their terrorist profile list and would have to go with the nice Customs and Immigration officer looming nearby. Oh boy. I was subject to another body cavity search.
This, of course, caused me to miss my flight. With a heavy sigh, I purchased a paperback book at a nearby kiosk to kill time while I waited for the next flight, six hours later. The novel made for tedious reading. The highly unlikely plot was something about Nazis hiding underground since 1945 smuggling an atom bomb into the U.S. and detonating it under the United Nations’ Islamic Peace Conference.
Growing bored with the paperback tripe, I gazed out the window. It was a hot August day, so I wondered why the baggage handlers, who appeared to be men in their late 20’s and of Middle Eastern descent, were wearing ski masks in addition to their airport security passes. I dozed off.
I was awakened by a plainclothes agent who identified himself as a Federal Air Marshall. He said that another Federal agency, despite my injury, had requested I return to my firefighting crew ASAP. A huge new forest fire had unexpectedly erupted in the mountains, already threatening two small communities and closing the Interstate. Something about a plane crash.
As I stood up, I winced in pain. In addition to the sprained ankle, I now had to walk carefully as my junk was bruised and battered from repeated searching. As I made to head out, the Federal agent explained that I fit their terrorist profile and he would have to subject me to another body cavity search before allowing me to exit the airport.
Days later, when the fire was finally contained, my employing agency offered to upgrade me to First Class if I wished to fly back home. I declined. Despite the sprained ankle and swollen balls, I started hobbling down the highway with my thumb out.
It took me three days to get home. Even though the guy in the primer-gray old van with no windows who picked me up, a man who punctuated his sentences by waving a meat cleaver and kept asking me if I liked fava beans and Chianti, made me a wee bit uneasy, I still felt much more secure than I had with the Homeland Security forces at the airport