Chapter 1 – Mammal Penises
If I had the wings of an angel I would never again have to take a commercial airplane flight in the United States. Don’t get me wrong, from the time I flew on my first commercial flight in 1956, when we eloped to South Carolina, I delighted in taking frequent trips via jetliners. During the past three decades, I often flew on three of more cross-country flights a year, as well as to four and a half different continents. Airplane flights per se, were until recent years, more than bearable.
However, in recent times, the frequent and often bizarre events I’ve been subjected to by Homeland Security/TSA, preceding the boarding of various flights have convinced me to drive my car. Most of the time, the door to door time is shorter by automobile, and is certainly cheaper. Surely, over the years of the TSA’s reign, one has hoped in vain for their acquisition of a great deal of common sense, decent manners, as well as the ability to both look and listen.
Of the dozen or so run-in’s I’ve had with Homeland Security, the details of several categories of run-ins come to mind: penis bones, meteorites and iron filings, personal teeth, and the infamous stolen camera which resulted in my being designated an official “suspicious character” by TSA.
For years now, I seldom take luggage, preferring to put everything into my carry-on. If I transport unique objects for grandchildren, other relatives, or friends, I approach the surveillance area with trepidation and used to try to ward off trouble. “First of all, before you send my bag through,” I would begin to tell the inspector at the screen, “I am bringing scientific materials with me. They’re at the very top of the bag, just under the zipper. May I take them out of their tissue paper to show you? I’m a teacher, you know.”
At this point, split second timing is critical between a smooth transition and unmitigated disaster. If the inspector ignores me, sends the luggage through, and growls, “Just pass through. Don’t keep people waiting.” it’s too late, and I am embroiled in yet another difficult rite of passage.
On rare occasions, before the x-ray can do its job, I am asked, “And what do you have?”
The answers vary depending on what I am carrying. On several different trips I have told them I am carrying one or more opossum, otter, weasel, raccoon, or dolphin penis bones. This information draws a blank look, followed by a surreptitious press of the alert button by the officer. I must look like a terrorist.
If I haven’t been able to verbally alert the officer, the pieces are immediately spotted on the screen. As I mentioned: they are atop everything else because I know the objects will be inspected. Consequently, the button press is not surreptitious, and I am loudly told, and in no uncertain terms, “Step back, stay there, and keep your hands at your sides.”
In the early days, I would try to explain anyway, and was summarily threatened with strip search “If you aren’t quiet, lady.” Being called “lady” instead of “ma’am” is a strong signal to me to shut up. Knowledge of the American vernacular is often helpful. After several trips, I stopped trying to explain. Sometimes, a crowd of three or four inspectors gathered round the screen and carried on low conversations. Occasionally a supervisor was called.
The people behind me were waved to other entry points. Too often, the barred gate clanged down behind me. Immediately, backup appeared on either side of me while my suitcase was gingerly opened and dumped. I don’t know about any of you, but having armed guards standing on either side of me, each resting his hand on his revolver in an unbuttoned holster gives me the chills.
Eventually, surrounded by a half dozen inspectors, I was always able to explain my science treasures, such as mammal penis bones, and how they were being given as gifts to grandchildren or friends. Then I was permitted to continue on my way.
Chapter Two – Meteorites and Iron Filings
Now, penis bones are neither large nor heavy. On the other hand, twenty pounds of extremely magnetic meteorites show up as glaring, threatening objects in the electronic surveillance. So do a five pound iron filings with several nickel/cadmium magnets in a Ziplock bag. “Be careful, they’re heavy,” I warned. “If you dump them out, you may crack the table.” Crash! The noise makes everyone jump, and strong hands are laid on my shoulders. I wearily explain what they are looking at. I point out the labels from the museum in the bags.
“Please, get a supervisor.” I beg.
Finally, all is straightened out, the inspectors play happily with the magnets and iron filings. They heft the meteorites and marvel at the strong magnetic pull. Then, I was sent on my way to embark on the plane.
After the magnetic situation, the inspectors in Phoenix knew and remembered me and travel became easier. Some of them actually came to the museum to look at our displays. Since I flew several times a year, life became so much easier.
Chapter 3 -Teething Pains
The electronic inspection rods are sensitive to metal, I shouldn’t have been surprised with the brouhahas caused by my dental appliances and gold caps. Until equipment became attuned to objects like my partial lower dental plate, I learned to carry it in a Ziplock bag and hand it to the inspector. However, a few years ago, the dental situation became a minor national incident.
In my lifetime, my adventures with dentists had began in my early youth. Thanks to a family dentist from Austria, whose name I have long forgotten, but who I called Herr Doktor Butchercreep a lifetime of dental neglect and bad habits was ingrained in my soul.
That attitude eventually changed about in 1999, thanks to my angelic dentist: Edward Pardo, DDS. He is a kind, gentle soul who is reassuring, incredibly skilled, caring, and a general all-around sweetheart loved by his patients and staff.
By the time I had met him in Phoenix, my mouth condition was, shall we say, interesting, and I badly needed upper crowns. Alas! Without dental insurance, the cost was prohibitive.
Then in 2001, thanks to daughter Barbara’s negotiations with the Austrian government, I was granted a restitution pension from them. It was a several year wait, but the pension carried a cash amount of back benefits that would cover the dental work.
Excitedly, I told Dr. Pardo about it and said, “I said you’d be the very first person I’m going to call when the money comes through. And then you will work your magic in my mouth, and I’ll be able to smile openly again.” Dr. Pardo was as excited as I was. The inevitable happy ending gave me a mouth full of teeth again. Because of various medical reasons, the crowns were gold with porcelain coverings.
But this is ME. So you know there has to be a Liztale after the happy ending.
The Christmas season arrived, and I flew to New Jersey to be with Barbara and Zachary, as well as to see some dear friends.
For once, I didn’t take the red eye, but flew at a normal time. My carry-on luggage had Christmas presents in it, and I happily approached the security gate with the rest of the crowd.
I walked through, and …
BRINGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGG RINGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGG. BUZZ.
I almost had a heart attack. There was nothing that could set off the alarm. NOTHING.
“Will you please step backwards?” said the officer.
Flustered and stammering as he asked me some questions, I replied. “I’m shocked. I have no idea what could have set it off.”
“Are you wearing a metal boned bra?” he inquired.
“Do you have metal implants in your limbs?”
“Are you wearing a metal belt?”
“Do you have keys or change in your pockets?”
I started to tear over. What was going on?
He asked me to come through again. BRINGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGG RINGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGG. BUZZ.
“Will you step backwards?” said the officer. I noted the please was missing.
Much to my deep embarrassment he closed the gate access, and a supervisor stepped up.
Everyone was staring at me. Some glared because I had dammed the flow of passengers.
I was humiliated. They checked out my body with the wands. As they went around my head … yup! BRINGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGG RINGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGG. BUZZ.
Suddenly the light went on in my brain.
Tears falling fast and furious, I said, “Wait! I know. I know!” They looked at me.
“A month ago, I had gold crowns put into my mouth. The whole upper mouth!”
They looked at each other. Then the officer came through the gate and approached me with the wand.
“Open your mouth, please.”
He stuck the electronic rod into my mouth …BRINGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGG RINGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGG. BUZZ.
He said, “Keep your mouth open, please.” Then he looked in and up. “Do they come out?”
“No, they’re crowns. They’re permanent.”
“Well you know, ma’am, you’re kind of heavy set.” Understatement. “Let’s try another approach. Hold your arms out to either side. Then turn, keep your arms up and kinda slowly slither through sideways.”
I did. Quiet.
“He patted me on the back. You’re going to have problems getting through security coming home. Make sure you warn them in advance. In the meantime, we’ll send an alert through to Philadelphia to somewhat adjust the sensitivity of the sensors.”
I tearfully thanked him. He awkwardly patted me on the shoulder, trying so hard not to laugh out loud. Then he said, “Wait,” and walked to the far end of the security area. In a few moments, he came back with tissues, which he handed me without a word.
I thanked him, blew my nose, and wiped my eyes. We shook hands, looked at each other and began to laugh. Then we hugged each other and wished each other a Merry Christmas.
Humiliated, I went off to catch my plane.
The gate was reopened, and passengers began to flow through. Everyone looked closely at me.
When I got to my plane gate, I looked back. The officer was still smiling broadly.
The trip home was without incident. I alerted the powers that be at Philadelphia Airport. He was a man of his word and had sent the alert through. When I got home I called Dr. Pardo and told him it was all HIS fault.
On a more serious note, I was only officially declared a possible menace once by TSA/Homeland Security. It was a frightening experience. Thanks to the immediate and angry intervention of (AZ) Senators McCain and Kyl, as well as the mayor of Phoenix; combined with outrage expressed by Southwest Airlines, this restriction was rescinded twenty four hours after I found out about it. More about the adventure follows below.
Chapter 4 – Oma Liz: International Terrorist
I’ve been on Homeland Security’s suspect list twice.
Over a six month time period in 2006, I visited both China and Australia, each for three weeks. The first trip, to China, went without incident. Well, I only had two carry-on bags with me, and Chinese Security made me check both of them. But that was minor.
Six months later, after an uneventful round trip to Australia, I returned via Los Angeles and checked into the Welcome To The United States inspection line. The officer looked at my papers, and I was unexpectedly propelled into the horror of having TSA security say, “You may not enter the United States.” I literally lost my breath, and looked at the inspector in total shock.
“Bring your pocketbook and identification passport and follow me. I’ll take your luggage in this cart.” The officer shut down his line and escorted me to a secure area. “Now, do you know why you are on this” – waving sheet of paper at me – “this list?” After a thirteen hour flight, I had to urinate badly. So I folded my hands in a prayerful attitude and whined, “I have to pee. NOW.”
The security people quickly called a guard, who escorted me to a doorless commode in a room behind a curtain. Then I was escorted back to my questioner. My luggage had already been opened and was sent through a special sensing unit. The officers then waved all sorts of electronic wands over, under, behind, and underneath every square inch of my body. He once again wanted to know why I had visited both “these particular” nations within a six month period. Eventually, they decided I was harmless, and I was permitted to repack my luggage and to enter the United States after a half hour of detailed questioning. My past record, of course, was on file and included the 2003 nightmare with Homeland Security/TSA. When I finally walked out onto the sidewalk at LA International, I was totally drained of energy, but I managed to get to the domestic terminal to catch my half-hour flight to Phoenix.
From the very beginnings of airline security by the TSA, the only American airline which insisted on treating its passengers as if they were sentient human beings, was, and still remains, Southwest Airlines. I have been a loyal customer for years. During that sad journey, I still remember how lovingly my daughter and I were treated when we flew from Phoenix to Baltimore to attend my mother-in-law’s funeral. It was shortly after the World Trade Center tragedy. At that time, other airlines had laid off thousands of workers because of the turmoil. Southwest employees volunteered to work without pay one day a week so no employee would be laid off. Unlike what either of us had heard – and often experienced – with the other airlines – the people at Southwest were their usual cheerful, helpful, humane selves. The other airlines seemed to blame the passengers, for the lack of business.
In 2003, Instead of taking Southwest Airlines, I travelled to Philadelphia on Northwest Airlines because their price was unbelievably low. At that time, Southwest had not yet arranged to stop in Philadelphia, across the river from my family. Unfortunately, I made the mistake of taking a regular piece of luggage. It would prove to be disastrous.
During my time there, Zach, my grandson, celebrated his fourth birthday and received his first bicycle with training wheels, which he gleefully pedaled around the yard and driveway. In the course of two weeks, I took many delightful photographs and videos with my new digital camera.
After three weeks, it was time to go home. So I arrived at the terminal, checked my luggage. In those days, we were not permitted to put locks on the suitcases. Touchdown in Phoenix was at ten o’clock at night. When I recovered my suitcase, it was unzipped, some clothing, shoes, and souvenirs were missing, everything was in disarray, and my camera and some costume jewelry were gone. NW customer service couldn’t help me and told me to come back in the morning.
I did go back, and I got the royal runaround. Archly, I was told there was nothing they could or would do. Furiously, I eventually found a supervisor, who was not apologetic, and said, “We cannot be responsible for passenger’s carelessness. You need to carry valuables on your person.”
Thus I embarked on a crusade to seek justice. The rest of my day was spent writing letters. These missives were sent to my two state senators, the mayors of Philadelphia and Phoenix, local and national radio news programs, and Northwest Airlines. Of course, the TSA received a letter, too. Included in each letter was a list showing who I had written to.
Within a week I received a form letter from both Northwest Airlines and the TSA. In essence, their lengthy form letters said, “Tough.”
Immediately, I made copies of these letters, and again, listing to whom they were sent, I mailed them out. I heard from the political figures almost immediately. They applied heavy pressure to the TSA
Within weeks, several official investigations were launched into the problem. Surprise! It turned out that there were over twenty thousand airport security personnel thefts reported in the past year. The worst airport was Philadelphia.
First to respond was NW. They sent me vouchers for three free round trips, and the president of the company sent a letter of abject apology. That week, all NW ticket agents and personnel were given a severe scolding.
Next, all passengers who had reported thefts received a letter from TSA saying we would be repaid the full retail price of the stolen property providing TSA had been notified at the time the thefts occurred. We were also told to sign an release and would never sue the agency for any reason involving the thefts. I agreed.
After I received my money, I sent thank you letters to everyone except TSA and NW.
However, the incident’s repercussions were not over. Six months later, I once again flew to Philadelphia– on a Southwest Airlines flight leaving at 11pm or so. During the morning of the day, I tried to get my computer-printed boarding pass. It was denied. I called up SW and asked for assistance. The female agent investigated and said, “You are blocked from getting a boarding pass, because you are considered a – ” Uncomfortable pause and slight cough on her part. “a person of suspicion, and you must come in person to pick up your ticket. TSA reserves the right to talk to you. Are you in trouble with the federal government or have a criminal record?”
I was stunned. Then I explained the past few months’ situation to her. “Don’t worry,” she said. “We will get this straightened out for you. Come to the counter at regular check-in time. We will raise hell. Did you say Senators Kyle and McCain know about this?”
“Yes, I have their correspondence to me right here.”
“I can’t give you advice, but I would call and leave a message at their offices. When are you getting up tomorrow morning?”
Thanking her profusely, I hung up. Then I called each of the two Senators’ administrative assistants.
Two hours later, the SW agent called me back. “It’s been settled. Your ticket has been released. You’re still on for the eleven o’clock flight. Southwest declared its displeasure with the situation.”
Within another hour, each of the administrative assistants of the two senators called and told me the same information. I was informed the TSA had been contacted and had immediately backed down. One of the women said, “TSA said it was a mistake. There’s another person with your name.”
So, now, whenever I travel, I prefer to drive. And, if I must fly, I fly with Southwest Airlines.