Friday, September 9, 2011

Trainee

I just got through the security inspection at San Francisco International Airport. In the words of Arlo Guthrie, “I was inspected, detected, neglected and selected.” It all started out so nicely. As Alla and I stood in the regular line, the lady at the super-fast line ran out of people to process and she invited us even though we are flying economy class and aren’t members of any Federal jump-to-the-head-of-the-line program. She sent us on to the standard inspection stations, but ahead of all the folks in the regular line. So far, so good.

Of course I know the drill. I took out my laptop, removed my shoes and emptied my pockets. I didn’t remove my belt because, as usual, I wore my nylon belt with the plastic buckle. Ordinarily, airport inspectors recognize that it’s not a threat and they let me keep it on. Today’s inspector, at the backscatter x-ray machine, felt that my little strip of cloth would ruin his detailed anatomical picture and he made me remove it. When I emerged from the far side of the x-ray machine the inspector drew my attention to the video screen and told me I could see my results. Curious, I waited. All I got to see, however, was that the screen turned green and said “OK.”

Unfortunately, however, “OK” did not mean I was free to go. The moment I turned away from the monitor another fellow held my suitcase aloft and asked me if he could look inside. Maybe he didn’t even ask. We both knew that he could do whatever he wanted. And then, just to add to the farce, a third inspector came along and asked if she could look inside my rucksack. Yes, fine. Look at everything. At least they didn’t want to look a second time at my computer or my shoes.

The suitcase guy turned out to be a trainee, and his teacher stood beside him as he ran through his program. First he told me not to touch any of my stuff until he had finished, and then he inspected my suitcase from all sides. I thought he couldn’t find the zipper and I finally pointed out that the main zipper was facing him. He said he knew that, but he had to start with a visual inspection.

Next he asked me if I had anything sharp or dangerous inside. This question scared me a little bit because the last time one of these guys asked me I said no and then they found a huge knife I’d forgotten in a side pocket on my previous (non-flying) vacation. In that case, the inspector told me that I’d committed the offense of lying to a Federal agent, but his boss decided not to press charges. I felt sure that I’d put my pocket knife into my checked baggage, but still didn’t feel altogether comfortable answering no this time.

Once the trainee deemed my suitcase safe enough to open, he unzipped the cover and started taking things out, dumping them into a little plastic tray. I didn’t care much about the stuff in the top layers, because the nicely-folded things lay closer to the bottom. He filled the tray, loosely, with underwear, swim suits, FiveFingers shoes (“Oh,” the boss said. “I want to get a pair of these. Very nice!”), water bottles and other little stuff. They spent extra time inspecting a package of three CR2032 batteries I had bought for a dollar each. Seeing the price tag, they told me I’d found a fantastic bargain.

Finally the tray was full but the inspector was not satisfied. “What are you looking for?” I asked.

“Metal,” he answered.

I allowed as how I had an umbrella on the bottom, but that didn’t impress him. Meanwhile, the other inspector rooted through my rucksack and produced the little zipper bag I fill with chargers and cables for my electronic stuff. She ran the rucksack and chargers back through the x-ray separately and decided they were safe. By this time the trainee had dug almost to the bottom of my suitcase, piling my nicely-folded slacks in the ever-growing heap in his little plastic bin. He found my military-style belt with the metal buckle. “Oh,” he mused, “maybe that was it.” He decided to run everything through the x-ray again. I objected that my teetering pile of clothes would surely collapse as it entered or exited the x-ray machine’s heavy door flaps, so he scooped up the top layer and dumped it unceremoniously into a second tray.

Not surprisingly, everything checked out OK once they knew that they were worrying about an ordinary belt buckle. He gave me back all of my stuff in a state of high disarray and asked me if I needed any additional help. I declined with a smile. “No, thank you,” I said. “You’ve helped me enough already.”

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