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“It’s Not an Adventure until Something Goes Wrong.”

Yvon Chouinard

              Legendary climber, environmentalist and founder of Patagonia

Part I: Prelude

Last week I was in Pomona to judge the LA International Wine Competition, a great event that allows me to see a lot of friends in the business and to meet and network with new contacts. I was also able to judge with good friend Paul Wagner of Balzac Communications in Napa, Laely Heron of Heron Wines in San Francisco, and Chris Braun of Moselland. Day two’s program started with 20 New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs (several gold medals and very high overall quality) and a dozen imminently forgettable Chardonnays over $15. From there the program continued with 60 Pinots under $30 from the molto variable 2010 vintage. Many of the wines tasted like Zinfandel or Syrah blends. I really can’t imagine why. The day ended on a strange note (B#) with a Venusian vinous program consisting of wines from Greece, Turkey, Georgia (the other Georgia), and Japan. Needless to say it was a veritable smorgasbord, sort of like an endless hallway where every opened doorway revealed an evil clown, mutant creature, or strange random event.

The best part was that we finished before lunch and even managed to knock out the 18 wines scheduled for the next morning by early afternoon. That meant, meine freunden, that I could change my flight and get home early leaving me with the entire next day at home before heading out again to Aspen for the upcoming Master’s Exam. And that’s a wonderful thing. A quick call to United and $75 later (bless them for their change fees), I was all set to go on a 6:52 PM flight back home that evening. Life was good indeed.

Paul and I got to the fabulous Ontario airport in loads of time only to have my iPhone call me twice in short order to let me know that my flight was delayed and finally a third time to inform me that my flight was cancelled. That was the bad news. The good news was that I had already been rebooked on a morning flight back to SFO–on Saturday morning as in two days later. Ahem.

What follows was, as Inigo Montoya in the Princess Bride once said, “It’s too long. Let me sum up.”

· We stood in line at the United Counter.

· Mother Teresa, disguised as a United employee, plucked Paul and me out of line.

· We were whisked to a distant kiosk formerly operated by Continental before the “merger.”

· No real options to get home that night existed as far as Ontario was concerned.

· Mother Teresa instead booked us on a 9:15 flight out of LAX.

· We were quickly hustled outside to the shuttle area where Paul, two other vagabonds from the same flight and I caught a cab to LAX.

· A scenic journey through the “Inland Empire” and greater LA area followed.

· I’m really glad I don’t live there.

· We arrived at LAX an hour later just before 7:45, in plenty of time to get a bite to eat before boarding our flight.

· The cab fare was over $140 and generously subsidized by United.

· We got into the security line for the second time that day.

Part II: Largo Dementia

Now the fun begins. I put everything in the bins and prepared to get irradiated for the second time in less than four hours. Funny, all the pilots refuse to do this. Do they know something we don’t? Should we be doing this?Are we safer now for it? Does that mean that previous security measures were inadequate? Forgive my going off on a tangent here. Onward.

My backpack and personal items make the perilous trek through the x-ray machine but my small suitcase does not. There is a hold up. A large TSA man with a larger head and no neck is glued to the monitor. He’s apparently spotted something suspicious. At this point I’m standing on the other end of the x-ray conveyor belt with a woman whose belongings are either in front of or behind my suitcase. We’re not sure if it’s her suitcase or mine that’s the problem. What we do know is that this is taking a long time and my new friend really has to pee. Bad. But she can’t go without her suitcase which is still in the dark and cozy confines of the x-ray machine.

Now more TSA specialists are gathering to scrutinize the monitor. At any one time there are an average of five of them peering at the screen with intense focus and concentration. At one time there are actually nine TSA people in the immediate vicinity all looking at the monitor at what turns out to be MY suitcase.

Goodness, I’m thinking, I really don’t believe there’s anything remotely dangerous in there. Maybe it’s the copy of the October 1977 Playboy with the interview with Barbara Streisand I took along to read on the trip. At that time she was almost sexy and this might pose some kind of threat. Who knew?She’s got a great voice, though.

Twenty or so minutes go by. The TSA people have long since shut down our line and the only other open line is backing up big time with dozens of people looking at my new friend and me like we’re going to be cuffed and taken away at any moment. She is, not surprisingly, about to wet herself. Several times we ask one of the TSA people to just remove the object of concern and go through its contents. “No can do, sir/mam,” we’re told in response. “We can’t touch the bags. We’re waiting for the “inspectors.” Cue Beevis and Butthead chuckling sounds internally.  No, make that externally.

After another 10 to 15 minutes passes the two inspectors amble up totally clueless to the fact that there are now upwards of a hundred people in the other line backed up trying to make their flights. You know, there really is nothing like bringing a sense of urgency and focus to one’s job. One of the inspectors replaces the large TSA man at the head honcho control chair to get a better look at the contents of my suitcase. The other uses a PDA-like device to scan and magnify the image of the article of concern. Other TSA people gather around the pair and gaze at the images as if in a trance, murmuring in hushed voices.

Finally it is agreed that’s the best course of action is to remove my suitcase from the x-ray machine and to examine its contents; this after over 25 minutes of intense scrutiny by multiple highly trained TSA personnel. I really hope no one in the crew suffered a migraine over such an extremely challenging and stressful decision. Fortunately, at this point my new friend is allowed to retrieve her suitcase and races off pell-mell to the nearest women’s room.

I’m then asked to accompany the two inspectors to a side station. My suitcase is first swabbed for toxic substances. Then after plastic gloves are donned for personal protection, my suitcase is unceremoniously opened and Inspector A removes the contents including the copy of the October ’77 Playboy complete with the interview with Barbara Streisand. I’m disappointed to learn that she is not the object of interest. Still has a great voice, though.

Inspector A eventually isolates my toiletry kit and two packets of Starbucks coffee. He runs these through the x-ray machine again along with my suitcase. Both inspectors return with all the goods in hand still puzzled by something in my toiletry kit. They are clearly flummoxed. Finally, Inspector B pulls my toothbrush out of the toiletry kit. “This must be it,” he says ominously to inspector A. Inspector A then turns to me and asks with the utmost gravity,

Is this your toothbrush?

Dear reader I must tell you that at this point that single question almost made my brain fuse. Several things went very quickly through my mind:

a. My catholic upbringing as in always use good manners, especially in public.

b. The knowledge that these two morons could make damned sure I wouldn’t be getting home tonight if I uttered the wrong response.

c. The utter comic ineptness and pure spectacle of it all.

Rest assured that I did NOT say the following:

“Nope, it’s not mine.  I’m not really sure how it got there.  It must be someone else’s.”

–Or–

“Yes, you moron, it’s my toiletry kit from my suitcase that you’ve been mucking about with for the past half hour.”

Instead, I smiled politely and said, “Yes, it is.”

He responded by asking if I minded if he took it apart. I acquiesced eagerly saying:

“You can have it.  I’ll get another toothbrush. It’s from Walgreens. Really. I just need to get going.”

Having gotten the green light he gingerly, with plastic gloves doubtless adding needed traction, removed the bottom of the toothbrush with the battery immediately popping into his waiting fingers. He turned to Inspector B, held the battery aloft, and announced to everyone within at least 100 feet, “This is IT. This has got to be it.”

All the episodes of Monty Python flashed before my eyes simultaneously (throw in some episodes of Mr. Bean while you’re at it). Mystery having been solved he jammed the battery back into the toothbrush and asked if I wouldn’t mind repacking my suitcase. I was more than happy to accommodate his request and did just that before bolting from the security area lest he change his mind.

Coda

Paul patiently waited for me and watched the entire drama unfold with more than a smidgen of quiet amusement. We eventually did reach our gate but not before he steadied my nerves by generously treating me to dinner in the form of a 20 ounce Stella Artois and a pre-packed Cesar salad with chicken.  When it was time to board I saw my new friend from the security line and told her about the source of our delay. “Your f***ing toothbrush? You’re kidding me, right?” Needless to say, she was not amused.  I think her bladder was still miffed.

So what to make of all this? Don’t assume I’m bashing the TSA or their efforts to keep us safe in the air. I’m all for it. However, a little common sense and less blind protocol might be in order. After all, what were all those highly trained professionals doing staring at the image of my suitcase for such a long time? Is it really the rule that they can’t take something out of the machine and look at it without first calling headquarters? I don’t know about you but that doesn’t fill me with confidence if anything actually goes south. Regardless, I do want to note that for every incident like this, which I now find highly amusing after the fact, there are dozens of times where I go through airport security without a hitch and with just the usual amount of inconvenience. But it does make me wonder. And I’m getting rid of that toothbrush. Right NOW.

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