Welcome to… a different world.

11 09 2011

The second Tuesday in September started innocuous enough. I was in the British countryside, west of London, along with about 20 colleagues, attending a course on working in hostile environments and battlefield first aid. Too many newspeople had perished while covering wars past, and the company I worked for thought it a wise investment to train its journalists in basic survival so that in the future more would come home from those environments unscathed.

Just in case.

Because the next war was bound to break out, sometime, somewhere.

An excerpt from the list of topics to be covered.

We learned things like: What kind of damage automatic weapons can do to cars, oil drums and humans; How to spot a sniper, and a tripwire; How to make a water filter using only materials found in nature; What an armed ambush feels like, and how to survive a kidnapping; Why a camera lens can sometimes look like a shoulder-held rocket-propelled-grenade at distance.

The course was a week long and I had decided to tack on a vacation to New York City and points north immediately thereafter. So I booked my flight from Heathrow to JFK on United Airlines for the following Saturday.

On that week’s Tuesday afternoon we were out in the woods, standing in mud up to our ankles. The assigned task was to practice negotiation skills. Our teachers had dressed up as hostile natives hell-bent on hindering our work at least, or murdering us for our expensive equipment. The overcast sky broke to a fine English drizzle and during a pause in the action a few of us took shelter in one of the vehicles. That was when the first SMS came from New York.

It was so absurd that we thought it was some kind of joke.

“What a brilliant idea,” one of my colleagues said. “But impossible.”

Four filthy, cynical journalists sitting in a Land Rover in the middle of a field in the middle of nowhere, 3,000 miles from New York City, could not believe the audacity of flying a plane into the World Trade Center.

While calmly picking clumps of mud out of the treads of my hiking boots with a twig, I scoffed that no aviation routes even go anywhere near Manhattan… so that must have been some dumb pilot. Or just a tragic accident.

We turned on the car’s radio to see if the BBC had the story, and heard that a second airliner had just slammed into the second building.

Ah. No accident. No dumb pilot.

And suddenly our hostile environment training did not seem so theoretical anymore.

Four days later, I sat in one of the first aircraft permitted to re-enter U.S. airspace from abroad. Upon landing at JFK, a flight attendant announced our arrival over the intercom. Ten years later, I still get a lump in throat and my eyes tear up when I think of it.

“Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to….. The United States of America.”

The entire cabin erupted in cheers and tears. We were on home soil, and we were safe.

As the plane taxied off the runway to its parking position, a white plume of smoke continued to rise from Ground Zero into the cobalt blue sky. Lower Manhattan was still burning.

It was September 15th, 2001 –  and the world as we knew it was history.


A cloud of smoke where the towers used to be.

A piece of a steel skeleton.

The destruction through the window of a city bus.

Guard duty at Ground Zero.

The impromptu memorial at Union Square.

NOTE: All photos are my own, taken on September 16th and 17th, 2001.

Christmas fun at airport security

10 12 2010

Have you ever wondered how much time is wasted in airport terminals? Passengers have to get there hours before take-off, and think of the lost productivity as folks just sit around in departure areas or stand in some line. Long gone are the days of an efficient, first class travel experience – unless of course you belong to the 0.01 percent of the population that has access to a private jet.

This little Citation would fit my needs if not my budget.

And honestly… there is really only so much people-watching you can do as you wait. The food in the lounges all seems to taste the same after a while, and getting a free spritz of overpriced perfume in the duty-free store is just about the highlight of any airport transit experience.

So where do you find entertainment while killing time in the terminal? Airport security of course! A never-ending source of amusement and irritation that defies any logic beyond randomly and indiscriminately imposing gratuitous hostility on the innocent. And all completely free of charge!

Though here in Europe we don’t have the TSA to command us around and sexually molest us during a pat-down, we do have the next best thing: Foul-tempered, disrespectful, German-speaking security officers progressively losing their nerves.

Take an incident in Nürnberg last Tuesday morning, 6am. Cranky, underpaid modern-day Nazis channel penned-in passengers through an obstacle course of electronic detection equipment like a herd of drugged cattle. An added bonus was the early morning breath of a flak-jacketed and armed tough-guy pseudo-cop dangerously invading my space.

After spotting something of interest on the X-ray, the junior security chick demanded I empty every corner of my carry-on, including a bag of dirty socks underwear, and then threatened to confiscate it (the carry-on, not the underwear) if I didn’t do exactly what she told me in the order in which she told it to me.

Apparently I look like someone who would smuggle C4 in used lingerie.

The offending item was a set of rare coins, carefully bubble-wrapped and worth roughly three times her monthly salary. I told her to keep her paws off it – as every wise, overprotective numismatist would. That’s when she called over Mr. Flakjacket to bark the directive a little louder, as if I didn’t hear the first time.

I slowly, s-l-o-w-l-y repacked my ransacked bag, as if I had all the time in the world, thus creating a bottleneck at the security checkpoint. That’s the part of this process I enjoy most – tossing a little sand into the machinery and watching the ensuing human and system meltdowns.

Where are YOU headed this Christmas?

So as we prepare for the annual Christmas ritual of wasting precious life time in endless airport security lines, it’s important to remember that every paying traveler has rights too. Just because some arrogant person in a silly uniform makes you undress in front of him/her (jacket, sweater, scarf, vest, belt, shoes, silver jewelry, hair clip, keys, coins, MP3 players, cell phones, Kindles, I-pads, laptops, toiletries) doesn’t mean s/he has a carte blanche to harrass you – and I firmly believe s/he needs to be told that rather directly.

Once you clear the body scanner and have settled in to the two square feet of airplane you will inhabit for the next one, two or 13 hours, there’s nothing left to do but toss back that first stiff drink.

And pity the poor suckers who missed the flight because some overzealous security-type mistook the fat guy in the red suit (with his pet reindeer and a bag of toys) for a terrorist.