Wednesday, November 05, 2008

The Security Blues

For my recent week-long trip to Amsterdam, with a night in NYC tacked on to each end, I determined that I would not check a bag. Sure, I had a couple "fancy clothes" business meetings, and I needed to take my jeans in order to exist in the manner to which I am accustomed. And a girl needs at least one extra pair of shoes to coordinate outfits, and her creams and potions, deodorant and charging cords, a laptop and camera, her data base and a few lip glosses, an inch-thick folder with business and tourist information, and okay, a couple clothing options. . . . But I am living proof that one CAN travel for nine days with 2 carry-on bags filled to the brim, and still clear security without a hassle.

At least on the way out of the country. (Feel the wind-up?)

In Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport, you don't pass through a full-blown security check-point until you enter your gate area. (Yes, they are set up with security measures at each gate!) All it takes to cruise the concourse is a boarding pass and your passport. Piece of cake. The whole facility is so filled with opportunities for pleasure and entertainment that it's easy to forget you still have Security Work to do before boarding. After all, here in the United States, we're used to having that behind us by the time we go browsing, or speed-racing--whichever suits the day's agenda.

Imagine the freedom to shop (bought me some excellent Dutch licorice), get a massage (20 minutes' worth, I did), browse a museum (which I didn't, but I could have), eat (bought a sandwich to take on the plane, which I never ate because OpenSkies served me two great meals) without first having to prove you're a safe, secure and compliant 3-1-1, liquid-and-gel-toting person!

Eventually, I dragged my way to my gate, which meant I'd finally arrived at the Gotcha! point of my long journey. No, they didn't "get me" with the questions, which were rigorous; thankfully I had the right answers. But the next step was like a double-gottcha since your bags pass through the X-ray machine about the same time as you do; like in the states, these elements are side by side. However, at Schiphol, the next folks don't pass through until both you and your stuff have cleared security.

But no problem-o, right? I had nothing to hide. I removed my jacket and put it in a bin. When I started to remove my shoes, I was told there was no need. "Try getting through with them on. If you buzz, then you can take them off." (WOW! Now there's a concept!) Shoes on, I removed my computer from my smaller bag and put it in a bin. With a great grunt and heft, I got both my bags up on the conveyor belt. Then, through the machine they signaled me to walk, and through the scanner my bags traveled.


"Remove your shoes, please." I passed through again without them.


And guess what else? The X-Ray readers were hot on the trail of a suspect something in my bag!

I shall herewith promise to never again complain about getting wanded at O'Hare, my home airport. At Schiphol, they used a wand, sure. But after I set off the wand, too, the female security person checked me out. Thoroughly. And that's all I'm going to say about that.

While she was checking me, the X-Ray man was communicating with another security person who now had my green bag in front of him, unzipped--stuff exploding out of it every which way. X-Ray man was pointing at his machine and verbally trying to describe exactly where in the bag the suspicious item resided, which was down in the bottom near a wheel.

Released from the pat-down person, I donned my shoes and jacket and stepped up to my suitcase, which I'd been requested to do. The Very Serious gentleman was attempting to slither his meaty hand down into the bottom side of my suitcase to locate whatever they were excited about, but his hand would not fit. My dirty socks, laid across the top like noodles since, what with the purchase of a few souvenirs, prohibited me from fitting them in any other way, were crawling out of the bag this way and that. I could not imagine what they were after--unless it was the USB mouse I use for my laptop. I remembered tucking it in that bag at the last minute. I asked if that could be it.

"No. We see that."

The X-Ray guy kept pointing at something on the machine, while the rest of the folks backed up behind me. Finally, I leaned around to look at the machine's X-ray to see if I could figure out what on earth they were searching for.

"Oh! That's my harmonica!"

Without smiling, the man at my suitcase asked me if I played. I explained that I was teaching myself, and mumbled something like, "You can file that where you will." Bag-search man did not look convinced or humored. About anything.

"You won't feel the harmonica with your bare hand," I finally said, noting his digging was fruitless. "It's wrapped up inside a hat."

He withdrew his hand, then stared at my bag and the predicament for a moment. "I'm not supposed to let you do this," he finally said, "but in this case, I think it would be best if you retrieve it, since you know exactly where to find what we're looking for."

After a quick prayer, I jimmied my hand down inside my suitcase, hoping to recognize the feel of my hat on the first try. Otherwise, I'd have to disassemble my whole bag. Not pretty.

AHA! Got it! I came up with the hat, unfolded it and presented my harmonica, which is one step up from a dollar store version. He took a quick look at it, then handed it back to me.

"QUIET, EVERYONE! QUIET!" he yelled throughout the entire gate area. (I am not exaggerating!) Then he stared at me. "Play."

Oh, Lordy.

In a panic, without first looking at it, I put the harmonica to my mouth. I didn't notice that I had the high "keys" to my left, which was all wrong, so when I attempted to play "You are my sunshine," it came out a chaotic, non-melodious, dog-toy squeaky mess instead of the bluesy rendition I've been working on. But apparently, it was good enough for security. Both men broke out in laughter and told me I could move on.

All that was left for me to do was to pick up my ego, repack my bag, and body slam it back into submission -- and tuck my harmonica away, where it belongs.


Anonymous said...

Charlene, that story is the best!
-- My husband always travels with a ukelele (the instrument that even the banjo laughs at)
-- He has been asked to play it at checkpoints all over the world.
-- Try to imagine the face of a security guard in Bejing as he breaks into a spirited rendition of “Teddy Bear’s Picnic”
-- Anyway, if you’re ever in need of a true laugh, check out his videos on youtube.
-- He goes by the name of drdrjazz
-- Meanwhile, keep sending stories!

Charlene Ann Baumbich said...

Dear ANON,
Thank you for sharing this terrific story! I'm glad to know I'm not alone. Who knew?! If anyone else out there has ever had to play music for security (or witnessed such an event), please chime in!

Darla Smith said...

Just wanted everyone to know how timely your travel laughs as well as twinklegrams(which it has been awhile, hint hint)are. As I said this morning it never fails when i need a laugh you are in my inbox with a grin, giggle or full blown laugh. Thanks again
Darla Smith

Charlene Ann Baumbich said...

Thank you for your wonderful encouragement! Laughter is indeed a powerful medicine. Fortunately, all I have to do to find it is to wake up and follow me around.

Donna C said...

Unless you really want to give more impromptu concerts in far-flung airports you may wish to reconsider your instrument of choice. Even though I don't travel by air I always carry a kazoo in my purse. It's plastic so it will not set off security alarms nor will it xray as some kind of weapon (certainly not a weapon of mass percussion). However, I am ready at a moment's notice to play along with others or perform solo anywhere I happen to be.

Marianne said...

What is it about this airport? I was traveling through Schiphol Airport on a return trip to Africa in 1989. My small African modern art sculpture caused consternation with the luggage checkers and I ended up having to stand quietly while they removed every piece of clothing from my bag to get to the offending art work. I might add each item removed from my luggage generated a snide comment from one agent to the next whereupon he would laugh and offer his opinion back, both laughing continuously. God only knows what was said. I was spared this humiliation as they only conversed in Dutch.