A Wing and a Prayer

I flew this week. It was A-OK.

I flew from LaGuardia airport in New York to Chicago’s O’Hare and then back, and it was good.

In New York, scene of three air disasters in six weeks, everyone asks everyone else, “Have you flown yet?” They don’t have to say, “since Sept. 11.” Up till today the answer for me had been “No.” I had cancelled all business that required long-distance traveling and was happily at home, sitting with my son in the warm glow of the TV as I fielded calls from hardy souls who had, just days after Sept. 11, been up and flying to speeches in Miami and Massachusetts.

They all had tales, but the tales were always introduced with “Have you flown yet?,” which came to sound to my ears like the challenge the hard-bitten paratrooper makes of the rookie in the outfit: “You jump yet?”

“No, sir!”

“Well, come talk to me when you have, son.”

*   *   *

Finally duty called and a book tour beckoned, and there I was at LaGuardia breezing past the porters with my overnight carryon.

LaGuardia was calm, about half populated, and had an echoy quiet to it. It was Tuesday morning, and I had arrived two hours early as everyone told me was now necessary. But I only stood in line to check in for 15 minutes, and when a customer service rep at the counter told me I was in the wrong line, she let it go and gave me my ticket anyway. She was so courteous. I was grateful, and as she was the first human interaction I’d had since walking into the airport I asked for her name so I could put it in this article. Roberta Spinosa gave her name, and asked if this was my first flight. I said yes.

“Are you nervous?”

I said, “Yes. Is that kind of over, being nervous at the airport?”

She said, “Oh no, people are just starting to come back, believe me.”

Then I stood in line to get through security and found that some things have changed. You have to take off your coat now and put everything through the magnetometer, including your watch and earrings and rings. Remember the little white plastic container they used to give you to put change and bracelets and wallet and phone in? Now they give it to you but it has to go through the machine, and you watch it nervously until you get it in your hands again.

The line went slowly, but everyone seemed peaceful and accepting about it, and everyone joked and shrugged. I think they were thinking, as I was: This is good, this makes me feel safer. And if you can’t have real safety, the appearance of safety, the illusion of it, is better than nothing.

Anyway, it worked for me.

I did not experience the intrusive and wacky searches that people, especially women, keep reporting—the little nail clipper taken from the makeup case, the tweezers seized as if they were daggers. I did see some people getting wanded, and I was wanded too, at O’Hare, on my way home. There seemed no reason for it, no logic to it; I think it was random.

My coat and bags and wallet and jewelry were traveling through the magnetometer when suddenly a young woman security screener was arguing with another woman security guard over the exact nature of a shadowed portion of my overnight bag. In the X-ray it looked like something exotic to the first woman. The second insisted it was just a hanger. I backed her up. They argued some more, and then the second woman took the bag from the machine, opened it, found the hanger and shouted to the first woman, “See? Hanger!” The first woman looked away angrily.

Then I guess because I was there they gave me a thorough wanding. One has the impression the security people well know that they are wanding, searching and holding up people who—how to put it?—do not appear to be part of a conspiracy to attack America.

But they have to show they are not profiling anyone, so they inspect grandma as closely as a 25-year-old man. But somehow it doesn’t seem obnoxious; it seems OK. When I was wanded, the wand made its crazy beep sounds in odd places like the back of my head, where I keep the explosives, and we laughed as the security woman frisked my neck and patted her hands against my hair to find the gun.

*   *   *

I did not experience the level of intrusion a friend of mine who is a reporter has. She is on planes a lot because she travels both for work and to see her family; she has an elderly mother on one end of the continent and a daughter just starting out in business on the other. Because my friend works in TV her face is well known, and the minute security people see her inching closer to the magnetometer they think: Huh, I bet she’s doing an investigative piece on faulty security at airports. She’s probably got a gun on her that she’s trying to get through. Well, I’ll give her a search she won’t forget!

This poor woman almost gets thrown against the wall and given a full cavity search every time she travels; her bags are searched inch by inch, she is wanded top to bottom, her nail clippers are taken, her jewelry inspected.

When she told me about it, we started to laugh. She has been profiled. She is a victim of Flying While Famous.

*   *   *

When I got past the security checkpoint in LaGuardia and walked toward the gate, I passed two U.S. Army reservists in fatigues and black berets slouching with M-16s and chatting with each other. They looked European, like NATO troops; they were both young guys from Long Island who had volunteered for duty after Sept. 11. I asked them if they’d seen anything interesting since they started patrolling. One, a tall young man with a black mustache, said no, “except for when the pilots and crew come through. They don’t like to be searched. They really let you know! Otherwise everyone is just easygoing.”

On the plane, a 737, I took my seat in coach and smiled at the person next to me, a young Chinese woman. She smiled and said hello. I went into my briefcase and got out my Blessed Faustina Chaplet card and opened it up. It has a picture of Jesus on the front. When my seatmate saw it she said, “This is your first time?” I nodded. She said, “My first time too, I’m a little nervous!” I said, “Me too.”

Soon a steward stood next to us and with graceful ballet movements acted out with points and gestures the safety instructions the stewardess up front was reading aloud. I had never seen anyone so gracefully act out the safety features, and I smiled and clapped when he was done. He leaned down and chatted with us, and I asked him what had changed for him since Sept 11. He told me the job had lost a little of its fun. “We used to be able, the crew, in the middle of a flight, we could gather sometimes in the galley and have coffee and talk. Now we just can’t. I have to have my eyes on the passengers at all times—I can’t turn my back.” He gave me a tough little look and leaned close to my ear. “And let me tell you, if anyone starts any trouble on my flight he is going down, I mean I will break his legs!”

I laughed and thanked him.

We took off. I almost always pray on planes and have a standard prayer: “Oh dear Lord please pick up this plane in your big hands and carry it safely through the air and place it down so gently in Fill-in-the-Blank. Thank you, Lord.” I thought those words and said them, and said more. And within 10 minutes of a smooth and eventless takeoff it was just like old times. I was sound asleep.

We landed gently, I did my work, went to interviews and a book signing and met delightful and warmhearted people, and came back Wednesday evening. Our takeoff was smooth and our flight was smooth and our landing was smooth right up until we were about 20 feet above the tarmac. Then the pilot pulled back and we went up and up and over a bit and circled the airport again. The pilot soon came on to tell us there was a little too much traffic on the runway, and he was going to give it some time to clear.

We landed safely. And I went happily home.

*   *   *

The extra security precautions seem to make people feel not worse but better. I got the sense a lot of people didn’t mind it so much that things have slowed down. And I wondered if some, like me, weren’t quietly relieved and made happy by the partial slowing down of America. Slower and safer sounds good to me.

It’s fine to see the young national guardsmen who wanted to do something to help be there, and be polite and friendly with everyone, and be able to potentially eyeball bad men and deter them from their path.

But I wonder. Since American civilians are the target or at least a major target in this war, why don’t we put one soldier or one Marine on each flight? We have enough soldiers and Marines, and most everyone would feel safer with one on board.

Second, my friend who is wanded within an inch of her life, the reporter, told me that on a recent flight the pilot sought her out to tell her what he was really afraid of. He didn’t fear bad men with paper cutters anymore. He was afraid that the next trouble would be the guy in seat 23-C, a guy who presses a remote control button which sets off a bomb in a bag in the hold. “That’s what I fear,” he told her, hoping she would do a piece on it.

It’s what I fear too. This week Transportation Secretary Norm Mineta said the U.S. isn’t able yet to search and have dogs sniff each and every bag that goes into the hold of a plane.

But why not have the armed forces do it? We have the means and the manpower and it would make everyone safer, which is part of their job.

We want to get people flying again, moving around America making deals and appearances and selling things and finding new things to sell. The airlines are still in financial trouble, and a lot of people need to be reassured that to fly is not to take a huge personal risk. It seems odd to me that the administration has not moved more forcefully in this matter. Heck, Harry Truman got so mad one day that he threatened to have soldier run the railways. And he almost did it. And he didn’t have a war on terrorism to give him fire.

*   *   *

As for me, I just felt better for having flown and witnessed the same old essential boringness of it. It was good to fall asleep somewhere over New Jersey as we headed west, an unread magazine open on my lap, just like the old days.