I waited two and a half hours to go through security at the Denver airport. The people were amazingly patient. In front of me, a woman with a baby and a hyperactive 3-year-old kept a miraculous aura of calm about her. There was an exhibit of vintage toys in glass cases and the kid just couldn't understand why he couldn't play with them. Various members of one family left on missions to find a shortcut, but returned to the line unsuccessful each time. A breezy young professional woman with a very good haircut told a slightly rumpled guy with a heavy laptop that she hadn't packed anything on purpose so that she might go quickly through security. That was a joke! The rumpled guy said, speaking of jokes, that he'd heard that Osama bin Laden had been captured, given a sex-change operation, and turned back to the Taliban. An Alan Alda look-alike in front of the woman with the kids turned around, laughed, and said that he'd already read that on the Internet. The 3-year-old took off like a rocket and was brought back from about a mile by a smiling matronly woman.
And so we inched ever closer, with jokes, incipient romances, and kids being quickly socialized. As we neared the security gates, people began to anxiously inventory their belongings. A big sign said: "Take your laptop out of the case. Take off your shoes if they've set off machines before." Several of the men began unlacing their steel-toed boots. The women started taking off their jewelry. The breezy professional wondered, as she took off a heavy gold neckpiece, what would happen if someone had metal in their bodies. The Alan Alda look-alike said that his son had been in a motorcycle accident and had a 12-inch-steel rod in his thigh and a steel jaw. He set off alarms all the time and had to be strip-searched and X-rayed in a separate room. The rumpled laptop guy said, "The Six Million Dollar Man doesn't stand a chance."
We got close enough now to see the action. Three National Guardsmen flanked both gates. Two MPs with pistols stood on the other side. About four military types with black berets were lined behind them, holding the biggest guns I've ever seen. All of them were watching the flustered employees going nervously through everybody's bags. These were the same employees that had always manned security, but now they were being watched over by three different branches of the armed services. I'd have been pretty nervous, too. I just prayed that some maniac wouldn't start going bonkers. The firepower was pretty awesome. The rumpled guy said, "In my opinion, they should use psychics instead of soldiers. Seeing what's in peoples' heads would be a lot more efficient than scaring them to death." The breezy woman slipped him her card.
At the gate, after laying everything metallic on the conveyor, I passed through and congratulated myself for being made entirely of flesh and bones. On the other side, there were random searches. The woman with the good haircut got lucky: two large employees took her purse apart, scanned her from head to toe, and reluctantly let her go. Then it was my turn: they checked my duffel bag, looked carefully at all my sweaters, and gave the travel-size toothpaste a little squeeze. One of them took out my poetry book and flipped the pages. On the other hand, they didn't touch my alarm clock or my cell phone. Now, if I was a bad guy, where would I put my weapons? In a clock or in a poetry book?
I encountered my line-friends on the other side. We looked at each other. Shook our heads. We'd made it. The 3-year-old went by at great speed. We never had to see each other again. We rushed off to our planes. We were all late. I thought about my line-mates and actually missed them. I have been trained to wait in lines during my commie childhood. But where did these folks who had rarely had to wait for anything very long get their forbearance? I am writing this in praise of you, my line-mates, even as I try not to scream about the airline industry, which is making the general nightmare worse.