last summer my children played a made up game they called Flying Lessons. My son would lift the girls in his arms as high as possible, spin them around, let them go, and whatever happened next was their problem. They loved it, no one got hurt, nothing got broken (that I knew of) and they laughed themselves silly. Our flight to San Antonio to visit relatives this week reminded me of the game, only the stakes were a bit higher.
We stumbled into the Kansas City International Airport at 5:00 a.m., bleary-eyed and as cranky as everyone else. It was a madhouse, even that early, with people racing across the ticketing area, pushing and pulling overloaded suitcases and duffel bags. Ticket agents shouted “next!” over the din of fussing babies, tussling siblings, and griping adults. There was a constant crush of bodies moving to the next point of interest. Our family got separated briefly when an impatient man pushed in front of my children, who were trying to follow my husband to the ticket counter. That was when reality hit: no one else cares if my children get lost in this airport.
We were to go through TSA Precheck, an accelerated checkpoint for anyone with a Known Passenger Number, including military and dependents with DOD ID numbers and their children under age thirteen. This year our whole family would be eligible, if for only one last time! An unpleasant airport employee stopped us at the Precheck line and harassed me because my DOD number had failed to print on my ticket. Refusing to even look at my military ID, she told me I didn’t have an eligible ID for Precheck, and I must go through regular security. She spoke to me as though I had done something unseemly. In no mood to be trifled with, I called her bluff: “I called Southwest two days ago and requested that my number be printed on this ticket.”
“But you don’t have an ID!” she insisted, still looking at me as though I had crawled out of a gutter next to a neon encapsulated whorehouse.
“Yes I do, it’s right here! This is my DOD number.” I attempted to point it out.
“I’m not going to stand here and argue with you” she snarled, “Go with your family, and see what they have to say at Precheck!”
The TSA officer didn’t give me any static; I didn’t see him even check for a DOD number! I wanted to go back to the nasty old lady and contemptuously stick out my tongue at her. But deciding to be humble in my victory, I continued onward. The Precheck looked easy, too easy, so we must have done something wrong — too many somethings — because we presented as “potentially threatening” and a tall tan middle aged man with his TSA shirt tucked in tight shouted “RANDOM CHECK!” before half my family made it through the machine. My son had a mostly empty water bottle in his back back, so it was ripped open to reveal other dangers to the nation’s safety. Like Beanie Babies, packs of gum, and a book about werewolves. Yes, very dangerous indeed!
And then there was Annie, my eight year old daughter, who was swabbed for bomb residue. My eight year old daughter. Bomb residue. Total nonsense. It’s hard enough getting my irate husband through security checks. He gets searched. EVERY. DAMN. TIME. Don’t tell me it’s random. Imagine the level of Zen I had to achieve by that point just to usher my angry, now burgeoning-on-threatening family to a wall to squat in the overfull terminal. I walked my youngest daughter to the Starbucks to get Husband some coffee. While standing in the slowly snaking line, I posted “Dear TSA, I think you suck” on my Facebook status and silently fumed over x-ray machines and bomb residue swabs. By the time we got back with the coffee (just in time to board the plane) everyone had calmed down enough to enjoy the flight.
My children insisted on each bringing a big fuzzy fleece blanket on the flight. I told them, “You can bring a blanket, but you have to carry it, and as hot as it is here in Kansas, add ten degrees. That will be the temperature in Texas.” When we settled into our seats, and I was sending up a prayer of thanks that we had made it safely onto the plane with no catastrophic mishaps, it occurred to me that the blankets were security items. Sources of warmth, easily transportable, and reminiscent of home, what better items for the kids to bring along on a trip full of unknowns? Much like Arthur Dent’s highly functional towel in ‘Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy‘, they served a purpose beyond that of a mere fuzzy blanket.
We all require specific security items for a successful flight. I brought my favorite flannel shirt and a small bottle of peppermint oil. The shirt became an impromptu pillow; the peppermint oil kept airsickness at bay. The peppermint oil came in a glass bottle, so I was relieved that it was not “found out” and taken away by TSA. During our long layover in Dallas I watched people and tried to figure out their security items. One man sat reading a book with Japanese writing on the cover. He pulled what looked like a passport from a small knapsack and scrutinized a paper tucked inside. A handsome but smarmy man in a gray suit (clearly his item) leaned against a wall conspicuously and made intense duck faces, as if auditioning for a modeling job. Many very well dressed women clutched at large Tory Burch handbags protectively and sipped Starbucks drinks. I tried to imagine if they had anything more interesting in their bags than what I had in mine. Probably not.
It’s sad that we — our bodies, items, and lives — must be thoroughly searched and picked over in order to fly. Sitting in an airport terminal playing a guessing game that involves people-watching and being mildly nosy towards perfect strangers is one thing. It’s quite another to have your personal life publicly violated by a team of ethically dubious busy bodies in police-y looking uniforms.
Allowing the kids to have their security blankets made the flights — and the entire trip — more pleasant. Still so innocent and clueless about how big and bad the world can be, they need a way to wrap up in something that feels safe when strange things are happening around them. I think about the game they played last summer. Now the girls are too big for my son to spin them around and send them flying across the room. Now they are big enough to go out into the real world and face real problems, like pushy, rude adults who could care less if their actions cause children to get lost in an enormous airport. Or insensitive TSA officers who rip into personal belongings and treat military families like potential terror threats. It’s not easy to watch my kids grow up, but it is a necessary part of life. One thing we can do is provide them with tools to cope with stressful situations and teach them how to reach for those security items that give them the confidence they need to come out of even the most unpleasant situations with minimal bumps and bruises.
Don’t Panic and Carry a Towel (or Blanket)!