Airports security staff up close and personal

     Optic editor Jesse Gallegos is sweating next week’s flight to Louisville for training with the newspaper’s parent organization, Landmark Inc.
     An admitted aerophobe, Gallegos is not looking forward to the layover at Dallas-Fort Worth airport. He will need to clear security. In light of heightened measures in the aftermath of 9-11 , we thought it best to convince him that joking about carrying a bomb is no laughing matter. I know.

     Even before 9-11, I almost became convinced I had the word “terrorist” tattooed on both arms. When it comes to drawing suspicion at a security terminal, not even a Dallas Cowboy cheerleader attracts so much attention. What is it about the way I look and dress that sets off alarms, literally and figuratively?
     I used to believe I blended in well and that my demeanor would indicate I was one of the good guys who doesn’t routinely tote weapons of mass destruction.
     Several years ago, on a car trip to Palomas, a Mexican border town, we learned that getting into Mexico was easy; coming back was more complicated.
     Seeing no guards on the American side, my wife and I started back across, only to be stopped by three guards who emerged from the U.S. customs building. The authorities reminded us of our duty to “check back in,” and sent us on our way.
     My family and I agreed the procedure for returning was relatively painless but nevertheless wondered whether there’s something about our demeanor that signals border agents. Was it the confident gait? Was it my walking shorts, sandals and camera? What would I have to do to be detained in Mexico? I say “I” because, well, I am ethnically “one of them.”
     Why do we stand out once we cross into that three-block area of Palomas, with its dozens of pharmacies aimed at underselling American firms? The people we observed in that tiny town are reminiscent of Americans of an earlier age: the women wear dresses; the men wear long pants and leather shoes, certainly not shorts or sandals.
     If, we wondered, a Mexican tried to sneak across the border, would that person need to “act more like an American,” affecting our speech patterns, dressing and walking like us?
     Armed with the confidence that our bearing tells a lot about who we are, we were obviously surprised to discover later that I was the object of attention no matter where we went.
     Landing in Houston after two weeks in Belize, I was singled out for a search, and this was in the pre-9-11 epoch. Of the thousands of people arriving at Houston, I was aware of no one else being asked to remove his belt, shoes, eye-glasses, watch and anything else metallic.
     I tried to explain that my “buns of steel” were responsible for setting off the alarm, but either the staff had heard that one before, or found it impossible to believe.
     During a couple of flights from Seattle, after 9-11, my terrorist-like mien apparently alerted security for another close examination. Yeah, I know the routine: please spread your arms, remove your belt and shoes, let us run this sensor over your body. Thank you. Have a nice day.
     This month, a flight from St. Louis featured more of the same. As I was receiving my ticket, the agent underlined a bar code which, I surmise, gave me the privilege of being searched anew. We hear that searches are purely random. But if so, what are the chances I’d hit the jackpot every time? Is it like the person who gets caught cheating on his income taxes and is forever hounded by audits?
     As I emptied my possessions in the tiny basket and prepared to be explored, I wondered why once again I had been so honored. Nobody in my family got to share the fun. Did officials ask my wife to remove her shoes? Did my son, who travels with a laptop and a host of electronic gadgets, get to join in the jollity? No.
     Signs at airports warn that joking about security matters can have serious consequences. I recall having read about an American basketball player who, on returning from Hawaii, announced, just joking, that his teammate was carrying a bomb. That was well before the World Trade Center catastrophe, and it delayed the flight, as it should.
     Upon landing a year ago in Miami, after a month of study in Spain, I again took center stage at security as a crew of two ran a vacuum-cleaner-type device over my body. For as close at they got, I kind of expected them to trim my hair, give me a manicure or perhaps blow in my ear.
     It was there, as possibly the only person being searched, that one of our traveling companions, a man in his 50s, yelled, “Hey, Art, where did you hide the gun?”
     I’m sure every member of the Highlands tour expected for all of us to have our flight delayed, for after all, it’s no laughing matter. Mercifully, the staff in Miami apparently saw my classmate’s comment as a crude attempt at a joke, and finished processing me.
     All right, so I’m a magnet for security officials with those funny little things and beep. This information may not be any help for our editor, but if he is dubbed for closer inspection, I advise him to tell them, “My co-worker, a mild-mannered man in his 60s, has been searched about a dozen times, and you haven’t ever found anything on him.”
     And if that doesn’t work, Jesse Gallegos is free to use my name. Surely someone at one of the airports ought to know my name by now.

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