I wish somebody would invent a transporter, the kind those humorless drones on Startrek use. Or find a way to get to Puerto Rico by dog sled. These days, air travel makes me look longingly at Greyhound buses. It makes me look longingly at being dragged behind a motorcycle.
Now, let me tell you how it used to be to ride in an airplane. And no, I’m not imagining the past as a roseate time when everything was better and Elvis ruled the earth. Lots of things weren’t better. The advantages of polio were limited. Dentistry was at a Cambodian level. But air travel was lots pleasanter. How it worked:
You walked out and got on the airplane.
That was all.
No magnetometers, weird beeping gateways, x-ray machines, occasionally surly functionally illiterate third-world affirmative-action prison guards to fumble through your baggage, no nitrate sniffers, no putting your cell phone, change, belt buckle, and fillings in a little plastic basket.
I got to Dulles about three hours early for a flight to Puerto Rico and St. Maarten, knowing that these days anything can screw up, and carrying six hundred pounds of scuba gear and a duffel bag full of tee-shirts and a wet-suit top. Equipment is important in diving. It’s a buckle sport, like rock climbing or jumping out of airplanes. Women dive because they enjoy looking at fish. Men don’t care about fish. They just want to snap lots of complicated parts together.
Intimidating warnings echoed hollowly from the loudspeakers about being blown up. Like everybody else, I screen it out. I expect to be blown up, take it in my stride. Usually the announcements say, over and over, that if you park your car unattended for a nanosecond, it will be towed away and given to a bomb-disposal unit to be blown up. Oh well. It was just a BMW. Another one says don’t put your bags down and go to the john, or they’ll be given to the bomb-disposal unit and blown up.
Then there’s the one saying that disagreeable panhandling cultists are not sponsored by the airport. Why, I wondered, doesn’t the bomb-disposal unit take them out and blow them up? That would be useful. But no. The Supreme Court says we have to put up with the larcenous little snits, because they are Expressing Themselves.
How did we get here? To the Fear State, I mean? How many of us notice that we are here? (Maybe lots: I don’t claim exclusive recognition of the obvious.) We’re turning into an anti-terror society. I can’t go to my bank now without having my ID checked pointlessly by an inattentive minimum-wage rentaguard as I come in the door.
Next I waited forever in a long line of people resignedly kicking their baggage in front of them to get to the American counter. A bright eighth-grader could probably come up with a faster way to check people in, but never mind. The American lady was perfectly agreeable ? most people in airports are, actually ? and asked me had anyone given me anything to carry, etc. Translated, this meant, “Are you carrying a powerful bomb or a cleverly fabricated dispenser of nerve gas without knowing it?” Which of course made me think that if I wasn’t, somebody else must be. Oh good.
Off I went to the security gate, staggering under the six hundred pounds of scuba gear. You can’t check two grand of dive toys because they’ll be stolen. They’ll be stolen because (a) if morality were oil, this country would be a couple of quarts low, and (b) disciplining crooked baggage handlers would be ethnic discrimination. (Finns. Those wretches. They’ll steal anything. I’ll bet that’s what you were thinking.)
I was walking carefully in hopes that my pants wouldn’t actually fall off. I’m serious. My belt buckle always sets off the weird beeping gateway, so I had it in my bag, along with change, watch, and keys. Otherwise I’d have to stand with my arms out as if I had a crucifixion fetish while I got wanded down to see whether I had illegal nail clippers with me. (I picture myself grabbing a stew and hollering at the pilot, “Give me this bird, big boy, or so help me I’ll clip her nails.”)
Things could have been worse. If I’d had a metal plate in my skull, I’d have had to take it out.
The security folk have two new tricks at security gates. One is to make you take your shoes off so they can stick them in an explosives-sniffer or x-ray whazzit. I can’t exactly blame them. Some idiot did get on a plane with explosive shoes. OK. But I’m waiting for a woman to be caught with a bra full of Semtex, or a guy with an exploding jockstrap. (If I were a terrorist, personally I’d go with the nail clippers, but I’m squeamish.) After that, hooboy, we’ll have some really great searches. Stick around.
I was wearing tropical flipflops precisely to avoid being foot-searched: See? Just toes, no sticks of dynamite, no wires, timers, grenades. It didn’t work. They still tdeshod me and stuck the things in some unfortunate machine.
The other trick is random searches, which tends to mean me. Maybe it’s the Harley shirt. There is, after all, a clear pattern of Harley guys who drive airplanes into buildings.
Actually, I think it’s social consciousness.
Overwhelmingly the terrorists have been Mohammedan males, moody representatives of a dysfunctional civilization that peaked in the twelfth century and knows it. Now, since these loons are known to be very high risks for blowing things up, it might make sense to focus on them in searches.
Ah, but this would be profiling. It might offend terrorists. So we randomly search people we know not to be terrorists, thus avoiding profiling. See? It’s like losing your watch under a street light, but looking for it in a dark alley.
Finally I staggered aboard the great silver bird, by main force and awkwardness stuffed the six hundred pounds of scuba gear into an overhead bin, and sat in the cramped, compressive little seat with my feet in my pockets. The guy next to me pulled out a magazine and started reading about Jackie O’s life in the Kennedy family compound at Hyenas Port in Massachusetts.
Early Sixties. No terror state. You just walked out to the airplane and got on.