Reader alert: This true story contains some profanity and an adult situation.
On Christmas morning 2023 our dear friend, Naomi, drove Embry and me to BWI airport arriving at 7:45 for a flight to San Juan where we would meet our son, Andrew, and his wife, Karen, and our two grandchildren, Sadie and Parker, for a short holiday gathering. We were in plenty of time to make a 9:15 AM flight on Frontier Airlines, the cheapest airline Embry could find. The flight was listed to take off at 9:35, but for some reason Frontier made a big deal of completing all boarding by 9:15– “Absolutely no exceptions. If you are not on the plane by 9:15, you aren’t flying on Frontier.” Hey, no problem. Lines would not be all that long at eight in the morning on Christmas. Although the Frontier line was not short, it went fast, and we reached the Frontier baggage check counter at 8:05, checked one bag for the two of us for an exorbitant price, and headed to the security lines, which were also mercifully short. For some reason, the Frontier guy did not give us a boarding pass, commenting that “We do not do that anymore.”
On the way to the security checkpoint a nice young woman airport employee asked me if I would like a wheelchair. Oh, my goodness, I thought, do I really look that old? I thanked her for her thoughtfulness and refrained from saying, hey, I walk 15-20 miles a week, okay at a slow pace, but still decent for an 81-year-old, and yes, I have bad knees and balance issues, but I DO NOT NEED A WHEELCHAIR, thank you! Then in my mind I conceded: In three months I will turn 82. I am old.
We reached the security gate at 8:30, a full 45 minutes before the 9:15 boarding ultimatum, plenty of time. The security officer appeared young and inexperienced, but cordial. Under the new system at the International Terminal at BWI, all you need to do is look into a device that checks your eyes and you are in. You do not even need a boarding pass, only a ticket. How clever, I thought, sure speeds things up—until the security guard proclaimed that I would not be allowed to fly. Embry was already approved and headed toward the luggage check conveyor belt.
“Pardon me?” I replied.
“You are not flying,” he responded. “You did not pass security.”
This took about five minutes as he peered into his computer screen and fumbled around pressing keys. When I asked why I didn’t pass the eye scan security, he said he didn’t know, but I would have to return to the Frontier Airline desk and see if I “could work something out.” He said the problem was at their end. By this time Embry had returned realizing I was having trouble. I looked at my watch. It was now 8:45. We turned around and Embry charged back to the Frontier desk, where fortunately the line was now short. When I arrived slowly shuffling along behind her, the attendant had already given her boarding passes for both of us and assured her that this would get us through security.
We headed back. Embry was running. Where was the nice lady who could get me a wheelchair? However, since we still had over 25 minutes to make it, I was not panicking. I followed behind and calmly handed the guard the new boarding pass, looked into the eye checking device again, and started toward the bag screening area.
“Stop,” another security guard ordered, “You are not leaving security!”
I demanded to see his supervisor, a plump guy with white hair who turned his back and walked away, muttering, “I am his supervisor, and you are not leaving security.” Embry immediately charged back to Frontier; and by the time I arrived, the attendant was printing out yet another boarding pass for each of us, assuring us that this would definitely solve the problem. Back we went, this time avoiding the line and entering through the exit area as two cleaning ladies cheered us on. The clock was ticking. Only 15 minutes to go but still enough time to make it. Embry had already expressed her dismay and disbelief, asking, “Are you people nuts, do we look like terrorists?” I had been relatively quiet, cursing under my breath and scowling. I told Embry to head for the gate once she had her backpack and then try to block the entrance to the plane door until I arrived. At least one of us would make it to Puerto Rico. She had about eight minutes to make it.
By this time, I had become an issue. About a half dozen guards were gathered in a huddle, trying to figure out what to do with me. I demanded to know why I was not allowed through security. One of the guards informed me that I was a security risk because “I was not who I said I was.” When I asked the reason, he replied, “That is what the eye machine says.”
“Well, then who am I?”
“We don’t know and that’s the problem, but if the eye machine says you are a security risk because you aren’t who you say you are, then you aren’t flying. That is final. We have no choice.”
I pointed out that I had not one but two boarding passes.
“That does not mean anything anymore. The eye machine calls the shots.”
This is when I lost it and shouted, “Well then get a new fucking eye machine!”
“You are verbally assaulting a U.S. security officer and that is a federal crime, subject to fines and prison!” he replied sternly.
I glanced at my watch. It was 9:10. I had five minutes to make it.
I then charged toward the conveyor belt and placed my backpack on it. What did I have to lose? Miraculously, no one stopped me. The group of security personnel was still huddling and apparently someone with authority and common sense had showed up and decided to let me through. But time was now the issue. If the gate was not too far away, I could make it, plus I was sure Embry would press them to delay closing the door. That should work, at least for a few minutes.
I anxiously waited for the backpack to come through. Someone had pulled it off the conveyor belt and placed it on a table. Several employees were milling around and chatting, but no one was touching my backpack. After a couple of minutes passed, then another, I screamed out, “Will someone please look at my backpack? I am going to miss my plane!”
No one came to my rescue. I hollered out again, and someone who looked like he could be a supervisor walked over and explained that it was a shift change and everyone was on a five-minute break.
I lost it again. “What? Do you realize I have only a minute or two to make my flight and everyone is just standing around? I have flown hundreds of times and this is the most outrageous behavior I have ever seen.”
He sighed and directed one of the employees to examine the contents of the backpack. She walked slowly over to the table where the bag was and in slow motion opened the backpack and proceeded to throw a can of shaving cream and a can of sunscreen into the garbage. She then handed me the backpack, glaring, turned her back, and continued her break time conversation.
“Finally,” I sighed, grabbed my backpack, and started to shuffle as fast as I could toward the gate. If only I had accepted the nice lady’s wheelchair offer. A security guard grabbed me. “You can’t leave security until you go through the scanner.”
“What? I have already been through the scanner!”
“But you had your shoes on.”
“I am 81 years old, for God’s sake!”
“Yes, but the eye machine has determined you are a high security risk. You are not who you say you are. And you must go to the back of the line. And this time you must take your shoes off.”
I tugged at my shoes and broke into the line. I was so nervous at this point that it took several tries to get the correct scanner image. Finally, the guard waved me through. I looked at my watch. It was 9:20. Embry could block the door from closing, but only for only a few minutes.
I was doomed.
Finally good luck! It turned out that Gate Five was the first gate and only a few steps away; and as I arrived panting, there was Embry along with a bunch of other passengers waiting to board. The 9:15 boarding mandate was not enforced after all. The plane took off at 9:35 as scheduled, we arrived in San Juan on time, and had a great time staying in an Airbnb in the rain forest with the family. Happy ending. But still the mystery of why I am not who I say I am remains unsolved.
Four days later we said our goodbyes and arrived at the airport well in advance of our flight back to BWI—over two hours to clear a very long security line and make it to the gate. The only glitch was that since the machines at Frontier were not working, we did not have a paper ticket or a paper boarding pass. There might be a problem getting through security. Also, the Frontier Airline attendant said because our checked bag was six pounds over the limit, we would have to pay another $75. Embry grabbed the large suitcase and began dumping out items on the floor and stuffing them into our backpacks. When the clerk looked puzzled, I replied, “She is Scotch-Irish. She can’t help it.” After about five minutes we had managed to reduce the weight by ten pounds and were on our way.
As expected, because we did not have a paper ticket and the tickets on Embry’s cellphone were too small for the computer to read, there was another delay. This time the security officer was nice and accommodating though it took about 10 minutes for us to clear, leaving a line of at least 50 agitated people, whom we had blocked behind us. I thanked the guard enthusiastically and told him how great it was to be dealing with a real person rather than an eye machine.
“The eye machines suck,” he said, “they are a disaster.”
We had made it! Embry breezed through the scanner, and I was next. The first glitch was that because I was required to take off my belt, I had to hold onto my pants to keep them from falling down. When directed by the security guard to raise my hands, down they went. The two teenage girls waiting behind me giggled. With great effort I managed to pull my pants up and keep them from falling long enough to get through the scanner. Off to the gate. Plenty of time.
“Not so fast,” said the security guard. He then picked up his cell phone and called for a backup. I am hard of hearing, but I managed to hear him say in an anxious voice, “Security risk here! Got a guy with a gun in his jockstrap.”
He then turned to me and said that there was a problem. The scanner had identified an object in my groin area and labeled it a high security risk. He had to check it out. He then asked if I had ever had a urology exam. When I said yes, he said this would be similar but not as bad and that I would not be required to take off my pants.
“Excuse me,” I said in disbelief. “In order to board an airplane, I have to have a urology test right here in the airport? Are you serious?”
“I am dead serious, but it is not a urology exam. It is like a urology exam,” he replied in a cordial tone and a sheepish grin and then went back to the scanner. He returned with a large photo showing my body, hands held high, and a bright six inch, red square in the area starting just below my belt. “That red square is the way the scanner signals high security risk. I am required to check this out. It could be a weapon.”
“Not at my age, for God’s sake.”
By this time security backup had arrived with a pistol, which he had not taken out of the holster, though he kept his fingers on the handle. All this effort took several minutes, which meant more delays for the same people who had been standing in line when we were trying to enter security. Many were anxious to get to their gate before the doors closed and were not happy campers. I heard someone angrily groan and pointed to me, “It’s him again!”
I will not describe in detail the procedure to determine if anyone has a weapon hidden in his or her underwear. The entire procedure took less than five minutes. When someone showed up to take the guard’s place on the scanner, the people in line behind me started to filter in. But instead of running to their gate, however, most hung around to watch the “genital probe” procedure and to see if I was a terrorist or got arrested. The guard remained on his knees the entire time. I was standing. I tried to look up to the sky and not at any of the crowd but could not help hearing children ask, “Daddy, what are they doing to that old man?”
The most embarrassing moment came when the guard tightly wrapped his arms around me just below my waist and put his ear next to my zipper, I suppose listening to determine if there was a ticking bomb in my underwear. I glanced at what had become a rather large crowd of security personnel and passengers, most of whom by this time were gaping in disbelief. Some people smiled in puzzled amusement, but others, especially older women, turned their heads away. One person, Embry Howell, was laughing uncontrollably.
The security guard smiled apologetically and declared, “No weapons. You pass. Have a good flight.” Unlike the guards at BWI, he was polite and nonconfrontational the entire time. He was just doing his job.
While I was waiting for the guard to complete his inspection, I said to myself, “I gave up serious distance running over twenty years ago. The same for tennis. I gave up power walking five years ago. I gave up sailing one year ago. I think it is time to give up traveling that involves airplanes.” I have no explanation as to why I was declared to be someone I was not at BWI or why the scanner in San Juan showed that I was hiding a gun in my underwear. These mysteries will remain unsolved. But what will not remain unsolved is that today airport security has reached the point of absurdity. That is why Embry was laughing uncontrollably and why I joined her in the best belly laugh I have had in years.