Across the Pond 2


(Written Feb. 12…again!)  I’m sitting in Washington Dulles International Airport.  Flew a Lufthansa Boeing 777 across the pond, and it was one of the most comfortable flights I have taken.

Unlike my trip to Italy, on this trip the plane was only half full, so instead of being packed in next to four other men larger than me, I had an empty seat between myself and the lady at the window.  It was nice going to sleep this time around and NOT finding myself pulled into orbit around a considerably larger celestial body in the seat next to me.

Watched “Doctor Strange” and “Suicide Squad” on the flight home.  Nice bookend that; I watched “Suicide Squad” on the flight over.  As a storyteller, I like being able to find parallelisms in life events.

It is 21:06 here on the U.S. East Coast.  My body is still seven hours ahead, so, for me, it’s 04:00 in the morning.  I’m running on fog, jet lag, sheer determination, and one HELL of a powerful chai tea latte from “Starbucks.”

I really LOVE the TSA.  Look, I’m in the Navy; I have been working in and for a federal bureaucracy for nearly 20 years.  Also, I respect the TSA’s mission.  I really DON’T want people with bombs from getting on my airplane or into my country.  And, like everywhere you go, an organization is only as good as the people you encounter in that moment.  So far my TSA interactions have generally been OK, if not a barrel of monkeys.

And then I returned to the U.S. tonight.

I go through customs, pick up my bag and re-check it, and then, of course, have to go through security again.  Fine and good, so far.

At security I get in line and, since there is no Pre-Check line here, take off my shoes and jacket and hat. But I’m a photojournalist who also has sleep apnea and carries my CPAP machine with me in one case and my camera gear, laptop, and all in my backpack.

To sum it it, I need four, count them, FOUR trays when I am unable to go through TSA Pre-Check.  One for shoes, jacket, hat, phone, wallet, and travel documents that I don’t hand to the TSA agents themselves (my passport and boarding pass they take and check, which makes sense).  A second for my CPAP machine bag and components.  A third tray carries my laptop.  A fourth tray is finally pressed into
service for my backpack, camera gear, wires, drives, etc.

I don’t mean to require so much, but them’s the hazards of being a photojournalist in a digital age.  I don’t just have to carry a camera; I have to carry an entire digital photo lab with me.

So, anyway, I get through the scanner with no problem.  I go to collect my two tons of gear, and that’s where the fun starts.

I get handed my passport, but no boarding pass.  When I ask for it, a small scramble ensues but no one can find it.  Somewhere between me handing over my passport and boarding pass, entering the scanner, being scanned, and exiting the scanner, my boarding pass took a hike.

Ok, so a trip to the United customer service counter is now in my future.

Then the hilarity ensues.  I go to get my two tons of gear and start putting my shoes on.  Behind me a sharp voice carves an incisively annoying incision across my eardrums. I’m told by a very abrupt, courtesy-challenged agent to carry my stuff to the back table and clear the area because I’m holding up the line.

I looked at this woman in disbelief.  First off, the hold up began because they lost my boarding pass.  As I looked at her, it dawned on me that I was the only person whose passport and boarding pass the TSA agents took at the scanner.  Again, this is a no-harm, no-foul comment.  If I were the TSA, I’d do random checks on random document to ensure the bad guys are kept guessing.  But the fact remains her compatriots began the holdup by losing my boarding pass.

Secondly, how in the name of John Q. Arbuckle is ANYONE supposed to get FOUR trays of gear to the back table by themselves?!

Perhaps I was simply too tired to be submissively complaint to an authoritative voice in a uniform.   Or perhaps at 45 years old and 20 years in the Navy I’ve developed a spine despite my best efforts to remain anonymously cowardly.

In either case, I stared at this woman in mid-shoe (my right foot was in the air with my shoe halfway on), and I asked her if she was kidding.

Probably not the best thing to do, but, come on…the illogic of the situation was obvious.

She said, very curtly, that, no, she wasn’t kidding and I needd to move.  NOW.
I replied (politely but firmly) I would move as soon as I had my shoes on and my four trays of gear packed up properly and cleared…unless SHE wanted to assist me carrying my gear to the aforementioned back table.  After all, I physically could NOT move it all at once UNLESS I packed it all back up properly.

She REALLY didn’t like that, but I kind of had her.  The longer she yelled at me, the longer the line was held up.  And, as even she could see, I really did have FOUR trays of gear to get together (pretty obvious when every other traveler was getting their stuff from trays OTHER than my four).

She huffed and stalked off.

Welcome home, right?

I wear a uniform; I know the ramifications for an entire service when one person in that uniform acts up.  As I said, my past interactions with TSA have been efficient, if not fun.  But I also know how this one agent’s piss-poor attitude will make the whole service look to other travelers.  Let’s be fair here:  90% of TSA agents are decent people trying to do a decent job.  They do NOT deserve to be painted with the brush this one woman brought on them.

Except for her, every agent I ran into tonight was polite and professional–and very apologetic about losing my boarding pass and inconveniencing me.  I am sorry they have to work with her; but perhaps tonight was just a bad night for her.  We all have days like that.

So I sit here writing this because in retrospect it is just really, really funny.  Lost boarding pass AND the agent from the 9th level of Hades’ house.

United’s customer service counter then put the tin hat of humorous absurdity on this.  I handed the lady my military ID to prove who I was so she could print a new boarding pass.  After 10 minutes of searching in the system she said (VERY apologetically) that she could find no ticket under the last name “NATHANAEL.”


I stifled a laugh and pointed out to her that military ID’s list the person’s name in last-name-first, first-name-last order.

She went red.  Absolutely candy apple red.

Thirty seconds later I had a new boarding pass and she was laughing so hard she had tears coming out of her eyes.  She told me she could NOT believe she pulled that stunt considering how many military people she sees here in Washington, D.C.
I landed early from Europe, at about 19:45 Eastern Standard Time.  All this went down in the FIRST HOUR I was back in the United States.

And I thought navigating the Italy’s bus system was an adventure!

So not I’m off to forage for food.  I’m hungry.  But first to post this from the airport.

As a journalist, I have to tell an accurate story.  But as a good journalist, I have to also point out the larger context.  TSA is not evil.  I know the horror stories that make the news; if any of those are true, they should be investigated and offending agents disciplined just like we do with Navy Sailors who violate our rules.

But…think about how many millions of interactions happen with TSA every day. These are so seamless and professional you never hear about them.  For me, this is the first time I ever have had a TSA experience that wasn’t salutatory.  So, let’s shake our heads and laugh at this particular moment, but NOT condemn the lot.

Let’s show some respect to those in the TSA who are working hard so we can sleep safely in our beds.

I miss Italy.

Next stop–the Tidewater area…and BED!!!!

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