In an uncertain world, I am all for safety, and if that means a Transportation Security Administration officer at the Portland, Oregon, airport is going to run his hands around what he tactfully called my “waistband” before moving to a more congested anatomical region, listen, pal, OK by me.
Traveling is not one of my great interests to begin with.
I would rank packing five days’ worth of random wardrobe choices — too few or too many never can be accurately anticipated — into a lopsided suitcase and navigating frantic crowds at Kennedy or LaGuardia pretty much in the same league with bare-knuckle cage fighting and dancing the electric slide without benefit of a jumbo margarita.
The problem was my belt buckle, and, yes, I should have known.
Since it has become standard procedure to partly disrobe before boarding a plane (jacket off, shoes in the plastic container; wristwatch, too; belt, of course), I have tried to develop a strategy.
Before entering the security line, I place wallet, cellphone, change, breath mints, pens, paper clips, watch, keys and belt in my backpack. I untie shoes. I try — really hard — not to lose my driver’s license, or airline ticket, or both, between the time that I present them at the first TSA stop and the triumphant moment when I reclaim belongings like a prisoner who has served his sentence.
On a return trip from visiting relatives on the West Coast before Christmas, I lost concentration. It could have been anything — sight of the Pacific, a big burrito at lunchtime, the rock slide tying up traffic, the incessant Oregonian niceness of everyone — but one way or the other I was distracted, not up to snuff. Accordingly, I forgot to remove the belt.
Somewhere, an alert went out. I was a marked man.
Don’t be silly, I wanted to say but, prudently, did not. I am 75. I wear corduroys and fleece-lined flannel shirts. Though I never gave permission, my grandchildren call me Pop-Pop, and, before long, I suppose, the two great-grandchildren will follow suit. The most radical publication I read is Cooking Light magazine. I take cholesterol pills and afternoon naps. I am militant only about the price of parking at Mets games. Really? Me?
“Sir,” said the TSA agent, “I will have to do a more thorough search.”
I nodded and the officer told me what to expect, as might a doctor preparing a patient for the more rigorous stages of an examination.
Being informed by a stranger in blue rubber gloves that he would be exploring my midsection and that, further, a quick, external survey of more private parts would follow — “back of the hands,” noted the fellow reassuringly — made me first wish I hadn’t devoured the burrito, and, then, that my wife, Wink, and I had traveled by Greyhound.
The TSA man was remarkably adept, the procedure swift and as dignified as something of this sort can be. I did not giggle idiotically when the agent felt my stomach, nor whimper when he began the backhand phase of the exercise. At the end, he swabbed my hands with a little strip the size of a Band-Aid and placed it under a scanner. A wiggly line appeared on a screen.
“You’re fine,” the agent announced.
I did not feel fine, to tell the truth.
“Crazy!” I exclaimed to Wink, who had uneventfully passed inspection. “I will never do this again.”
“There, there, it’s all over now,” Wink said, as if I had just endured a chiropractic adjustment. “Put your shoes back on, and don’t forget your belt.”
“No, that’s it,” I said. “No more flying. No more security lines. For what? They don’t even feed you on planes anymore and the seats could stop blood flow. I’m done. I’m not the traveling type, anyway.”
“Have you forgotten Key West?” Wink said with a smile I have come to recognize.
We don’t take many vacations, but for a few days each winter, we head to what locals call the Conch Republic. I like it there — music, oysters, balmy nights — and so did Hemingway and Harry Truman, and, a while later, Jimmy Buffett.
I growled a bit more as I pulled on my belt, fetched cellphone, change, wallet, pens and paper clips.
But, as mentioned, I am not complaining. Vigilant federal agents, please take note.
The proficient, courteous TSA guy was only doing his job. I’m all for him, and his co-workers and their mission. I will submit willingly and without comment should I, again, strike authorities as a potential threat. Search away. Pat me down. It is my duty as a citizen, and tribal elder, to cooperate.
Besides, oh boy, it’s almost time for Key West.