With his long oilskin coat and weather beaten wide-brimmed hat, he didn't look like the average sleep-deprived business type or nervously excited tourist. If I had to guess, I'd say he was a ranch hand, maybe a foreman on one of the massive cattle outfits that still dot western North America. As such, a horse, ATV and four-wheel-drive pickup would be his preferred methods of conveyance. But something had obviously come up that required his immediate presence in the big city and he was, like the rest of us, being herded into ever more restrictive spaces as we joined the airborne masses.
As he strode up to the gatekeeper of the security area, he took a long pull from a well-worn stainless steel travel mug. "You can't take that inside with you," the uniformed security guy informed him, pleasantly but firmly. "It's just coffee," protested our early-morning traveler as eyes rolled in unison in the mercifully short line behind him. "You can't take liquids through security," said the guard, a little more firmly this time, obviously unused to pushback from any among the passive shuffle of passengers he dutifully checks for boarding passes each day.
Our miscreant shrugged in kind of bemused disbelief. There was no belligerence, just incredulity. He took another pull and sauntered with no hint of embarrassment or recalcitrance to the nearest trash can, dumped the contents of the cup, and resumed his place in line, which, incidentally, was right in front of me. Now visibly liquidless and with a valid boarding pass, his initial screening was complete and he was sent to the next phase of this mindless exercise that many of us now complete without so much as a passing thought.
It became clear that my fellow traveler had never been through this when he reached the stainless steel table full of white plastic bins, turned to me and said: "Ok, so now what?"
I had plenty of time before my flight and offered to let the two guys behind me go ahead while I conducted a course in Travel Security 101 to our mountain man. Relief flashed in their eyes and they pushed their bins toward the rollers.
"Ok, take off your coat, your belt and your boots and put them in a bin. Do you have a laptop?" Well, his eyes widened a bit, further creasing is weathered face but he said that no, he didn't have a computer and filled the bin as directed.
"Do you have any toothpaste or deodorant or anything like that?" I enquired. I thought I caught a flash of irritation there and it quickly became obvious that our lesson was over. "I'm coming back tonight. I don't need any of that," he said before following the lead of the guy in front of him and pushing toward the X-ray machine.
If I'm correct and this was his first time as a modern air traveler, then you can understand his demeanor. In about 30 seconds he'd been forced to dump out a perfectly good cup of coffee, the quality of which he'd demonstrated by drinking it, and told by a complete stranger to partially undress. He was then queried about his personal hygiene requirements. I got the impression I was lucky to escape with the final baleful look he gave me.
"Have it your way," I thought to myself as we headed for third step of the security dance. The security lady who pushes your stuff into the X-ray machine (I wonder what the official name for that job is) repeated my liquids question and a few others and motioned him toward the metal detector. Well, of course it lit up like a Christmas tree and he was sent back through to empty his pockets. As you might expect, there was a good quality Leatherman on the key ring in his pocket.
"You can't take that through," the X-ray pusher lady said. "It's just a utility knife," he replied with a tone that suggested that if he intended to do someone some damage it would not be his instrument of choice. But he was in control of himself and gruffly but politely asked what his options were. When told he would either have to surrender the $100 tool or go back outside to put it in his vehicle he offered another suggestion. "Can't you just hang onto it for me for awhile? I'll pick it up tonight," he said to head shakes and eye rolling all around.
But wait a minute. Aren't tiny courtesies like this freely offered just about anywhere else in society?
"Well, what about the airline? Can they keep it for me?" There was actually a smattering of laughter at that suggestion.
This was no cup of coffee, however, and he wasn't about to part with a perfectly good Leatherman for the sake of some mindless rules. "I guess I'll take it back to the truck," he shrugged and began getting dressed. Being the ever helpful (if sometimes clueless) type that I am, I asked him when his flight left and it turned out to be the same flight I was boarding. It left in about 40 minutes from that point.
"You don't have time," I said. "We're boarding in 10 minutes." He'd had enough of me by then and turned to the pusher lady and said: "Tell the airline I had to go out to my truck and I'll be back in a few minutes." More laughter and he was back through the growing line and out the door.
I continued to the gate and had time to review a couple of files on my computer before the pre-board and general boarding calls were made. We all seem to get to the airport in plenty of time to wait a half hour before actually getting on the plane but as I've discovered the hard way it can be time well spent if things go wrong.
Anyhow, I'm never in any rush to stand in the long line that forms at the gate counter so I kept working until it was about two-thirds of the way through and started shutting down my computer. There was no sign of the Marlboro Man until I put on my jacket and moved toward the now-almost-non-existent line. He walked casually to the gate and stepped in front of me in line just as the attendant was getting ready to make the final call. Sometimes I can't help myself and I offered one last piece of advice. "You'll need your driver's license." I said. He dug for it and had it in hand just in time for the fake-smiling agent to take it.
"Quite the process, isn't it," I said as we headed for the jetway.
"They sure make it a lot harder than it needs to be," he replied. "By the way," he said, looking down the long hallway toward the aircraft entrance. "I don't suppose there's any place to have a cigarette down there."
We've all been behind the clueless dimwits who delay the security lines with their shampoo bottles and nail scissors but this wasn't like that. After decades of blindly accepting an increasingly intrusive and blatantly silly security regime at airports, I got to see the process through the eyes of someone who could see it for what it is. He no doubt regaled his buddies back on the range with numerous examples of why they're better off up there.
As we head into the big travel season, I have to wonder if he's not right about that.