Passing Through Security

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.








What Could Cost Biden a Second Term

There is still a lot of water that will flow under the bridge before November 5, 2024. The presidential race could change, but right now it is starting to look bad for Joe Biden. I am a Biden supporter and will remain so. I think that overall, he has been a great president, given the hand he was dealt. But he finds himself between a rock and a hard place, which could make him a one term president, and it is not the MAGAs and Trump fanatics that will hammer the nail in the coffin. It will be the progressives and the younger voters, who normally vote for a Democrat. The two issues that put him at risk are Israel’s War on Hamas in Gaza and immigration.

First, the situation in Gaza. It is nearly impossible for a sensitive person to watch the evening news night after night without flinching when seeing  young children crying out for parents whom they will never see again, when hearing women crying and screaming in despair, when watching the total destruction of apartment buildings and hospitals, and the long lines of people marching to the south, which was supposed to be a safe haven, but now is in the line of fire and unrelenting bombing. “Only” about twenty thousand Palestinians have been declared dead so far, eighty percent being women and children. Netanyahu so far has refused to allow sufficient aid, supplies, food, and medicine to get into Gaza to avert a looming humanitarian crisis of Biblical proportions. He is adamantly opposed to a lengthy ceasefire, truce, or negotiations to end the war. For this to happen Hamas must be “completely destroyed.” But the cost of killing every Hamas fighter and supporter could mean killing every Palestinian living in Gaza.

U.N. healthcare workers warn that time is running out. Unless there is a ceasefire and the needed medical and nutritional assistance are allowed to get to those in dire need, in addition to the deaths by bombs and ammunition, we can expect cholera, dysentery and other deadly diseases along with mass starvation.

It may also mean the end of Joe Biden’s hope to be a second term president. As much as most Democrats despise Trump and all he stands for, many on the progressive side will stay home and so will a lot of younger Democratic voters who tend to favor the Palestinian cause over the Israel’s. Biden needs those votes to win. Many will not be able to pull the lever in the voting booth for someone on whose watch this catastrophe happened. They will not be able to vote for someone whose country cast the single veto for a ceasefire in the U.N. Security Council. They will not be able to vote for someone whose government continues to send billions of dollars every year to support  Israel’s war effort.

Make no mistake: Joe Biden is not a bad person. He is not “evil” or responsible for this war. He is stuck between taking a stand on one of two alternative, irreconcilable choices. Were he to take a hard line against Israel’s excessive overreaction, he would lose many of the votes of Democrats who support Israel over the Palestinians; and there a lot of them—almost the same percentage as support Palestine. But if he is unable to get Netanyahu to back off, he loses many in the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. There is no question that he is trying to walk a middle ground and trying to get Israel to come to the negotiating table but so far with very little to show for it. If the war is not over and if massive aid does not flow into Gaza well in advance of the election, Biden will be in real trouble.

The other issue is immigration. The Republicans are using border security and deportation of illegal immigrants to get concessions to allow other critical laws to pass Congress. Today on the news I learned that Biden has hinted he may be willing to make concessions regarding asylum as a reason to allow people to enter the country and in sending back illegal immigrants. I do not know how this will end up, but if it means significant rounding up of immigrants and “dreamers,” it will mean another slap in the face of many progressives. Biden cannot make too many concessions to hard line, right wingers without alienating his base. Many will stay home.

Poor guy. He is caught in the middle of the Great Alienation that our country is experiencing. We progressives and MAGAs rarely speak to each other. We do not understand one another. We do not see the other side. Yet the stakes in 2024 have never been higher. The Times published a lead article today, December 19, showing Trump continues a two-point lead over Biden overall. The number of all voters who disapprove of the way Biden is handling the Gaza War is an astonishing 57% compared to only 33% who approve. Some 46% say Trump would do a better job handling the Israeli-Palestinian conflict compared to 38% for Biden. Almost half (47%) of all  voters favor Israel in the conflict compared to only 20% for the Palestinians.  (Democrats are split—31% for Israel, 34% for Palestine.) However, the numbers are reversed with younger (under 30) voters—only 20% for Israel compared to 46% for Palestine.

The thought of another Trump presidency is a nightmare. And if Trump does win, the United States may end up as another casualty of the Israel Palestine War in Gaza.


Nearing the End of 2023: Sobering Thoughts

Some say that as 2023 nears its merciful end, it may turn out to be a pivotal year. AI has now become a fledging reality with all sorts of warning bells going off that eventually it could do us in. Trump has shown his cards of neo fascism and is currently ahead in the polls, despite his 91 indictments. The Russian/Ukrainian War is at a tragic standstill with widespread death and destruction showing no signs of ending. Even more alarming, the Israeli/Gaza War is moving toward what could turn out to be one of the worst humanitarian crises in world history. And then there is climate change and global warming. Oh, my goodness!  

Could the planet be headed toward catastrophes beyond our imagination? What does all this mean? Here is a look at the big picture:

You may have read some of my recent blog posts which traced the history of the universe starting with the Big Bang, which happened some 18.6 billion years ago. While the focus was on the evolution of religion–these were based on a forum I lead at All Souls Episcopal Church– I believe that some of the information is relevant for our world today in putting our times into perspective.

Our sun, planet and solar system have been around for about 4.5 billion years, and cellular life on the planet for about 4.0 billion years. Animal life came much later and human-type life very much later, “only” about 2.0 million years ago. We Homo sapiens arrived very late, only about 200,000 years ago. Religious belief and practice only a few thousand years ago. What caught my attention was that since life started on the planet there have been five mass extinctions when over 80% of all plant and animal life were wiped out each time. In one mass extinction over 95% of plants and animals disappeared. These mass extinctions have tended to happen around every 130-150 million years, about the time that has elapsed since the last mass extinction. Scientists tell us that we are now entering the sixth mass extinction, so far limited to animals and insects pretty low on the food chain due mainly to us humans eliminating natural habitats of animals and plants.

The question of our time is this: Will we humans be part of the sixth mass extinction? Think about how fast life on the planet is changing and how this change is accelerating before our eyes. Hundreds of thousands of years passed when the total human population on Earth remained under several million when we humans struggled to survive in the middle of the food chain. Then we slowly began climbing our way up to the top. Our relatively large brains allowed us to communicate, to imagine things that did not yet exist, to make tools and form communities, and gradually to learn how to grow crops, build towns and cities, and change the landscape of the planet. The world population has now surpassed eight billion, most of the growth happening over the past 300 years. How many people can be sustained on the planet? The current thinking is that with better food and agricultural technology maybe 10 million. Some believe we are already there. All scientists agree that there is a limit. Plus, inequality on this planet persists with poor nations and poor people outnumbering those who are well off. Can these imbalances last forever? And there has never been a time when wars were totally absent. What will happen as weapons become even more lethal and ubiquitous?

In Dubai this week, scientists and politicians are gathered to discuss the future of the planet in the era of global warming. Most people now acknowledge that climate change is happening. There is cautious optimism that we can address global warming if the world comes together and acts decisively, but we are not there yet. We are way behind in achieving the goals of the Paris protocols. Will this be what ultimately does us in or will it be something we do to ourselves? After all, more and more nations are producing nuclear arsenals. It would only take one major miscalculation or mistake to start a war that would have the potential to wipe out life as we know it. And where will artificial intelligence take us? If you ask ChatGPT how to make a nuclear bomb, how long will it take to get an answer?

So here is an indisputable fact: the likelihood of Homo sapiens being around two billion years from now when our sun will begin growing into a red giant before it shrinks into a white dwarf is zero. Two billion? How about two thousand years at the speed we are going? Two hundred? Whatever the number is, all life on the planet Earth will continue to change and eventually will come to an end. There is slim chance—actually, no chance– that we humans will be part of life on Earth forever. The question is when will our time on the planet come to an end. What is sobering about the times we live in now is that it seems that many of the ingredients are in place for that time to be a lot sooner than we humans would like or expect.

And before the planet Earth is consumed by our sun when it expands into a red giant, if experience is any indicator, at least five more mass extinctions can be expected.

This is where science and religion intersect. Very early in the era of Homo sapiens, early humans figured out that there must be something responsible for life on Earth that was real but beyond our human capacity to figure out. We humans named this mystical force “God,” but what that word means varies from religion to religion and from person to person. Some religions, like the Abrahamic religions, see God as the creator of the universe and everything in it and who is accessible via prayer and ritual. Other religions like Hinduism, Buddhism and Taoism see God as Being itself, ineffable and beyond human understanding or comprehension but nevertheless still very real and vital. We humans are fundamentally a religious species. Some 85% of the world’s population is estimated to fall into one of the various religious categories. Each religion tries in its own way to make sense of the meaning of life. At the end of the day, however, there is no definitive meaning regarding life on Earth and our place in it. It is, as they say, beyond our pay grade. All we can do is celebrate our existence, honor the mystical force that is behind it, and be thankful for the short time we have been allotted on this incredibly beautiful planet. Our time now—the 20th and 21st Centuries—may turn out to be the golden age for our species.



Back in the Saddle

If you are wondering why there has been a six week delay in my usual, semiweekly blog posts, I have been, as they say, “under the weather.” I am prone to respiratory viruses; and after several weeks of battling this one–and fearful of possible pneumonia–I dragged myself to the Urgent Care Center at Kaiser Permanente, my Medicare Advantage health care provider.

 Kaiser’s Urgent Care Center in Washington is in the basement of an office building near Union Station. Hallways are painted a dreary brown, lighting is poor, and there is nothing on the walls or long corridors, not even a single painting or photograph. (However, the grim setting is not as bad as the Washington Hospital Center’s emergency room where I spent a few days and where doctors are often outnumbered by cops, and desperate patients, some in handcuffs, are lying on cots jammed together.) But it is bad enough. I have been there several times before when the waiting area had no space available, and the background “music” consisted of groans and moans. None of that for me. My plan was to arrive at 7:30 in the morning—in advance of the urgent care rush hour.

I was in luck. When I arrived a little after 7:30 there was only one person ahead of me, an African American man in his 20s, wearing a sweatsuit and humped over with his head in his hands, moaning. Within minutes the door opened, and my name was called. My plan had worked.

The doctor who examined me—a caring, African American woman in her fifties—did all the right things, ordering a slew of tests—blood, urine, chest x ray–and by 8:30 I was assigned to a small room separated from a bustling central area by a curtain. Within an hour of taking some 15 or 20 tests, the results were posted to my Kaiser account and available on my iPhone. My results seemed to be in the green zone. Most important I did not have pneumonia. I concluded that this was a good sign though I felt as bad as ever, wheezing, coughing, body aches, heavy congestion, and no energy. I settled in wearing my hospital gown and lying on an uncomfortable examination table. That was around 10:00. Very impressive to get the test results back so fast, I thought.

What was not so impressive was that I remained in that tiny room for five more hours with no human contact. I had skipped breakfast to be sure I made it to urgent care before the morning rush. No one had offered me anything to eat or drink, and by 3:00 pm, I took matters into my own hands, yelling “help” as loud as I could. It took two or three desperate shouts before one of the technicians stuck his head through the curtains and asked me what my problem was. I explained that I had been in urgent care since 7:30, had received test results on my iPhone at 10:00, and wanted to see a doctor. He said nothing and departed, but it only took another 30 minutes for the doctor to come in with an apology and honest answer that she had completely forgotten about me.

“But here is the good news,” she proclaimed, “You do not have pneumonia! Your tests are all negative, you are fine and can go home. In fact, you are the least sick person I have seen today.”

“Fabulous news,” I responded, wheezing, and coughing and wondering if I was not sick, how come I felt so bad. So I returned home, relieved that I did not have pneumonia. I flopped down on the bed after making myself a sandwich and drinking about a gallon of water and remained there for the next two days.

In a few days, however, I did start to feel better and was able to drive with Embry to North Carolina where we visited her brother and sister-in-law in Chapel Hill and then drove to the Outer Banks where we spent the long Thanksgiving weekend with our son, Andrew and Karen, his wife, and their kids, Sadie and Parker,  Karen’s brothers and parents, and our daughter, Jessica, and her daughter, Jo (Josie), and nieces and nephews on Karen’s side—17 people in all.

After a brief recovery from that trip, I feel fine now, and you can expect the posts to get going again.

In defense of Kaiser, I have to say that whatever this strange malady is—Embry calls it “the Joe-Crud”—no doctors have been able to figure it out. The symptoms started over 50 years ago and are more like what I have read about long-covid or chronic fatigue syndrome. I guessed it had something to do with Post-Polio Syndrome but the post-polio specialists at the National Rehab Hospital thought not. Whatever it is, it has always eventually gone away; and at the ripe old age of 81, I am just happy to be alive.

Stay tuned for the return of the blogs.