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Bon Voyage : 'I Felt Beneath the Seat and Ran My Hand Along Every Crevice and Fold. Suddenly I Froze.'

June 22, 1986|LINDA BLACK | Linda Black is a Santa Monica writer.

I was scared to fly home, and I admitted this to my friends who'd come to say goodby the night before I was to return to Los Angeles from London. Terrorism made me dread my flight. Everyone tried to calm me by quoting statistics, citing the law of averages and reminding me that more people are killed on the freeways than in terrorist attacks. I knew they meant well but they weren't helping.

My mood did not improve when I started to pack my luggage. In between stuffing dresses, boots, sweaters and souvenirs into my suitcases, one of my friends, a man with a senior position in government, took me aside and gave me the "official" directions to ensure a safe trip home. No one knows exactly what this man does because he never directly answers questions about his job. All I know is that he always has meetings with people in organizations designated only by initials and that I receive post cards from him bearing exotic postmarks. I half listened to what he was saying--I was busy figuring out whether my clothes had expanded or my suitcases had shrunk during my two-week stay.

I didn't want my good friend Yadja to take me to the airport the next day because I thought it was too dangerous. She insisted, brushing aside my pleas by reminding me that she had survived the London blitz, Mau Mau uprisings in Africa and driving through Piccadilly Circus every day. Arriving at the airport, I dragged my suitcases from the trunk of her car.

"Be careful of who you stand next to at the airport." The words boomed in my head, the voice of my friend with the mysterious government job, his advice lodged in my memory. Surprised, yet somehow pleased, I called a porter for my luggage and gave Yadja a farewell embrace.

"Do not stand next to the police for safety. They are the first hit." I told the porter the name of my airline and followed him through the labyrinth of machine-gun-armed police.

"Stand in the check-in line farthest from the entry." I was on automatic pilot and I obeyed, giving the porter instructions to take me to the fourth line, the longest line of all. Nobody made a move to stand in one of the other, much shorter lines. No one, including me.

"Position your luggage between the doorway and yourself. At the slightest sight of trouble, dive behind your bags." The porter put my bags down and I glanced at them. They looked like children's toys. I slowly kicked them to the check-in conveyor belt, thinking: A lot of good these will do me; only my right leg will be saved.

"Do not go to the flight lounge right away. Read a book in the bathroom until you hear the last call for your flight." Having no book to hide in the bathroom with, after I cleared the X-ray and metal detector machines I walked toward the duty-free shop. My head swiveled from side to side as I watched everyone I passed. Any non-Western-looking person became a target for scrutiny. Did the Hindu women and children, the African grandmothers, have bombs hidden in their saris or kikois ? Did the Pakistani businessmen have guns stashed in their pockets? I hated discriminating, but I rationalized it as necessary for survival.

Before I reached the duty-free shop, I heard the last call for my flight--though we weren't scheduled to depart for more than an hour. I forgot about the book and hurried to the gate, where special agents were searching all carry-on bags, and got at the end of another very long line.

"Stay alert. Someone may give himself away at any time." I studied the other passengers. A swarthy, good-looking man, impeccably dressed in a three-piece suit, caught my eye. I dug a cigarette out from the abyss of my purse. Since most men take out the entire contents of their pockets when searching for a match or lighter, I asked him for a light and waited to examine what he had in his pockets. Would I catch him off guard and see a telltale piece of fuse or a remnant of plastique ? Two lint balls, a parking voucher and matches from a nearby hotel emerged--a welcome disappointment.

"Always check your seat thoroughly. Don't depend on the ground crews." Finally boarding the plane, I sat down and bent over, my head toward the floor. The man next to me offered me an airsickness bag. "No thank you, I'm not ill," I said. He watched me, fascinated, while I felt beneath the seat and ran my hand along every crevice and fold. Suddenly I froze. My hand felt a wire sticking out. I contorted my body for a better look and saw that the wire was connected to a metal box. My heart raced. I didn't know what to do.

"If you find anything suspicious, stay calm and immediately report it to the stewardess." I got up from my seat, my legs feeling like marmalade, and walked up to the nearest stewardess.

"Excuse me, there's a wire sticking out from my seat," I managed to stammer. The stewardess studied me for a millisecond and replied, "I'll come right over and have a look." We made our way through the crowded aisle.

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