By Gretchen Wehmhoff

Joe and I recently traveled Outside. We are experienced travelers and pack so we can get through TSA smoothly. On this trip we entered a security line where the no nonsense officer was starting her shift.  

“Electronics larger than cell phones in the bin, shoes on the belt. CPAP breathing machines, nebulizers in the bin.”

I reached into my electronics pocket, knowing the Kindle, iPad and computer would come out neatly stacked with one hand. My old iPod accidentally came out with them, so I just dropped it in the bin as well to save time.

“That’s not larger than a cell phone,” she snapped.

“Shall I not put it there?”

“Is it bigger than a cell phone?” She looked at me like I was an idiot.  Maybe I am.

I tossed it back in my bag and started digging around. I thought I’d packed my nebulizer … but it wasn’t there. By now I have slowed the line and irritated the agent.

I moved on to the body scan. That agent wasn’t patient.

“Move your legs apart. Further apart.” 

I complied and stepped through.  

“See her,” he ordered.

A quiet woman with a smile checked my back and told me to have a good trip. Gathering my things, I hobbled over to a bench to put my shoes on, repack my bag and wait for Joe.

Joe was detained. The agents huddled over his backpack. Eventually he was released. The culprit was a jar of canned salmon with a tablespoon of liquid. 

I’m old enough to remember life before Columbine and 9/11. I traveled with my family as a child, to and from college in Denver and on multiple trips around the country and Europe before the 1990s. Those were the days where DC-10s flew the pipeliner from Fairbanks to Houston, stopping in Anchorage, Seattle and Denver. Airfares were the same, no matter the airline and planes were empty enough that I could stretch out over three seats for a nap. Everyone could send you off at the gate and you would be met with smiling faces at the other gate. Now, of course, you need a boarding pass to get through.

As experienced as I am, I’m pretty sure my problems with airport security could just be a bad habit I never really shook. Like the time I cleaned my high school locker out into my purse after graduation. Later, the next day, I took my parents to the airport to fly to my brother’s graduation in Tacoma. The security person stopped the line as my purse went through the x-ray.  She motioned for the airport police. My 18-year-old mind was clueless.

“Oh, just keep it. I’ll pick it up on the way back.”

My parents weren’t so sure as the police officer pulled my metal Dick Tracy cap gun out of the bag. I was a theater kid … it  had been a prop.

They let me go with Mom and Dad to the gate, but my cap gun and purse had to wait for me to come back through. 

I learned my lesson about checking the contents of my bag. I’m not sure I learned my lesson about pushing authoritative limits. 

The University of Denver was a quarter system university, allowing me to come home for over a month from Thanksgiving through the New Year. During the fall of my junior year, I obtained a terrapin. Let’s just call it my turtle. His name was Buddie. No feathers, no fur. A perfect pet for someone with allergies. Five years later I would determine Buddie was female. She and I took plenty of adventures together – the first was a trip home for Thanksgiving 1980.

I found a shoe box, poked some holes in the side and filled it with a layer of corn litter for the trip. My friend, John, a chef at the hotel where I worked part time, took me to the airport. He hailed from Massachusetts, accent and East Coast habits included.  

I’m telling this story anticipating enough time has passed that statutes of limitations can protect me.

We walked to the security checkpoint and I placed my purse (sans any stray cap guns) on the belt then handed my box to the agent. I wasn’t sure about those machines. If it would mess up film, what would it do to my turtle?

“What’s this?” she asked, eyebrows raised, leaning away from me.

“It’s a turtle. I think you should hand check it. I don’t want her cooked in the x-ray machine” 

The agent held the box cautiously with both hands and, without opening it,  walked over to a tall judicial pedestal where a uniformed officer oversaw the area.

“What’s that?” he asked, with little interest.

“It’s a turtle,” she responded, waiting for his opinion.

He gave her a slightly annoyed look and waved us on. 

She wasn’t so sure.

“I think we should call the concourse supervisor.”

We waited as she called for backup. I asked John if he would watch Buddie for me if things went south.

“I don’t want no “toitle” in my house,” he said.

Eventually an older man and a sidekick, both in suits, arrived wearing single white radio earbuds. After a brief discussion with the agent, the supervisor turned to me with clear authority.

“Ma’am. You need to check this turtle before you get on the plane.”

I started to panic, then began a story with twists and risky consequences.  I knew, I was sure, I was convinced that Buddie would freeze to death on the way to Alaska in the belly of the jet, I argued.

“I’m sorry, Ma’am. You still need to check it,” he said with no mercy.

“Well, could you please go ahead and ask them to get me to the front of the line?  It was really long and I’ll miss my flight,” I pleaded.

“Yes, of course,” and he and the sidekick headed back towards the check-in counters.

Turning to John I announced loudly, so everyone, including the supervisor could hear, “I’ll be right back. I need to go to the bathroom.”

I grabbed my bags and headed towards the restrooms in the opposite direction of the supervisor. John followed. When I exited the bathroom, I handed him the turtle box. He almost dropped it until he realized the turtle wasn’t in it.

“Where’s the “toitle? I don’t want to take the “toitle,” he insisted.

I held up my ski jacket, now resting over my arm, and showed him the new bulge in the front pocket.

We walked to the gate where most of the passengers had already boarded. The gate agent stopped me.

“Miss. We’ve been asked to check all boxes going onto flights in this area.”

I was actually a wanted person. Imagine the radio message: “Young woman, five feet tall accompanied by a man trying to smuggle a turtle in a box onto a plane. Examine all boxes before boarding any passengers.”

I handed him the empty box. He was the first person to actually open it.

“What is this?”

“Well, it was holding my turtle, but I was told to check it. She’ll probably die. I’m not happy,” I lied with all sincerity, shaking my jacket gently to keep Buddy from crawling out.

He looked at me, then re-examined the empty box.

“Here, let’s seal this up.” He wrapped three loops of thin masking tape around the empty shoe box and returned it to me.

I hugged John, who was still processing the past ten minutes, and stepped onto the ramp. I found my seat, placed the box in the overhead compartment and stuffed my coat under the seat in front of me. 

I was seated between two well-dressed men headed for Seattle. We exchanged greetings as we started to take off. As the nose of the plane tipped up, I heard my shoe box slide down the bin above me, alerting me to look at the seat in front of me just in time to use my foot to stop Buddie from sliding to the back of the plane.

“Is that a turtle?” asked one of the men.

“Yes. I’m not supposed to have it on the plane,” I winced, holding my secret in their hands.

Both men thought that was crazy. What was wrong with a turtle?  

Buddie became the talk of the row. Flight attendants dropped by with extra lettuce and the men took turns holding her. 

The turtle flight to Alaska was a successful mission. Getting back to Denver would require some thought. I’d have to change planes and concourses in Seattle, which, at the time, meant going through another security checkpoint. The answer was simple.

I’d need a bigger coat.