I have a dirty little secret. I consider myself a safe traveler, and an all-around good, law-abiding citizen. That's mostly true, except for this one incident. My deepest shame. My criminal experience. Join me now in this very special episode of “Law and Order: Airport Security and Customs Devision.”
December, 2009. I'm on layover in Amsterdam, having just finished an 8-hour flight from Entebbe, waiting for an 8-hour flight to Detroit. I've been sick all day, so my purse is full of plastic bags, just in case. My carry-on is packed with souvenirs – a woven basket, slingshot for my step-brothers, fabric prints and carved figurines. It's been a long two weeks, and I am ready to be home for the holidays.
There are a LOT of people on this flight, and the line through the security checkpoint is long. There are four customs agents to process passengers, though, so the line moves quickly. I've traveled internationally before. I breeze through their questions. I'm thinking about Thanksgiving when I send my items through the x-ray machine – my mother does a great brined turkey, and she promised she would save some for me.
The young woman monitoring the x-ray machine lays a hand on my carry-on.
“Is this your bag?” I nod, she frowns. “There is a problem. We will have to take a closer look.” I'm confused. I wrack my brain, trying to think of what could possibly look dangerous. I did pick up a wire sculpture for my step-father. Maybe the metal tripped something. That must be it – a simple misunderstanding. No harm, no foul.
She passes my bag along to the next agent, who gingerly paws through my souvenirs. “There are two items in this bag,” he says to me with a raised eyebrow, “that are illegal in this country.” I stare, horrified, as the agent reaches into my bag and pulls out...
(In retrospect, obviously. Had I been anywhere near my right mind when I packed, those suckers would have gone right into my checked bags. But I feel I should point out that that same bag went through two security checkpoints in Uganda without any problems. Not that that excuses it – I really should have known better. I just want to put that out there.)
“This is considered a weapon here,” he says. “This could kill someone.” The woman in line behind me is aghast. I am pretending not to notice. “We will have to contact the police, and they will have to make a report. They will probably just take them, but you may have to pay a fine.” He walks off, speaking Dutch into his walkie-talkie. I hope that, whatever they do, they do it quickly. There's still a line to get through the checkpoint, but it's getting shorter by the second, and everyone is staring at me. I'm sure they realize I'm too short to be a good terrorist, but their eyes. They judge me.
They leave another agent behind to watch me, probably to make sure I don't stage a coup with a peashooter. He's cute, in a homely European way, and he keeps trying to make small talk while I'm busy trying to hide behind a window.
“You see, slingshots are illegal here.”
“Yes. I am now well aware of that.”
“If you used a big rock or a piece of glass, you could hurt someone very badly.”
“I won't do it again, I promise.”
“Why do you even have them?”
“They're gifts. For my step-brothers.”
“You'd give them to children?” He's absolutely shocked, like I said I planned to fill their Christmas stockings with switchblades and dirty needles. But what could I say to him? That no one in America uses a slingshot unless you're an unsupervised child in a movie set before 1935? That they'll probably end up collecting dust under the bed while the boys in question play Rock Band?
Everyone has boarded by the time the police officers arrive. The plane sits on the tarmac, full of people waiting to get home. If I know people on airplanes, they're probably foaming at the mouth at the delay.
Two giant women in uniform stand over my shoulder. One of them takes a slingshot and stretches it out as far as she can make it.
“This is a good quality product,” she says, fingering the rubber. “Most times, they just fall apart if you pull on them, but you could kill someone with this.” I know. I know! Never mind my poor hand-eye coordination, or my generally pacifist nature, or my overall lack of suitable ammunition. “You can't take these with you. We will have to confiscate them.” Fine. I don't care anymore. Everyone on the plane is waiting for me, and no less than five members of Airport Security think I'm a slingshot-wielding killer. Do whatever you have to do.
The other officer must be able to sense my shame, because she quietly takes my name, where I live, where I got the slingshots, and how much I paid for them without making any sort of reference to my criminally disturbed mind. “We'll have to file a report,” she says, which I expected. “It's not anything serious, but if you ever come back through here, you're name will be on record.” Which probably means I'll be randomly selected for the full security treatment more often than before, but I'm not worried about that now. I'm more interested in the officer zipping up my carry-on (sans slingshots) and racing down to the plane, making sure I look appropriately chastened when the flight attendant gives me the stink-eye.
My walk of shame down the aisle is a brisk one. The aghast woman from before and I absolutely do not make eye contact when I pass.
So that's it. My international incident. I'm on the books. If I ever try to stir up trouble in an Amsterdam airport, they will be on me like white on a Dutchman. So readers, beware! Don't be the dumbass who tries to bring slingshots on an airplane - it will bring only tears.