The Accidental Terrorist
Somewhere in the Zurich Airport, in a grey file cabinet, there is a folder with my photo in it. It is my passport photo and that folder tells the story of a life gone wrong. But, the story doesn’t begin with that folder. It begins in Fort Sill, Oklahoma. The story only ends at the Zurich Airport. Flughafen Zurich. Ground Zero.
I was born at Fort Sill Army Base, in Lawton, Oklahoma. Twenty five years later, I took a trip…
My husband of one year and I enjoyed the occasional theatrical outing. On that particular Sunday afternoon in 1986 we chose to partake of the humorous tale of a family on a disastrous trip abroad (National Lampoon’s European Vacation). We were inspired, as is the hope of many filmmakers, and as we left the theater, conversation buzzed with ideas of passports and visas and exotic locales where, we were led to believe, everyone spoke English.
After hours of deliberation, the decision was made. We would in fact take our own European trip. We were young, we had money and although neither of us said the words aloud, we were sexy. And if all those VH1 videos were to be believed, Europe equaled Sexy.
We purchased a Fodor’s guide to Europe and studied it for hours. Countries were weeded out like dandelions from a milkmaid’s garden. England – weird food. France – well, French people. Yugoslavia – mmm, too many polish sausage? Don’t get the wrong idea. I am not, nor never have been a country elitist. I would never condemn an entire country because the accent is just too fake (Australia) or the cartoons too...suggestive (Japan). Our weird sense of vigilante travel choices was simply fueled by rumors and innuendos of those we knew who had traveled abroad. Namely one guy who went to Italy every year to teach. He went there in 1993 and has never been seen or heard from again.
At last, despite the odd list of pros and cons hanging on the refrigerator, we settled on Switzerland. It was beautiful. There was skiing. The people were said to tolerate Americans. It was also decided that my husband’s friend and former roommate would accompany us on our trip. As my skiing abilities were severely limited by terminal clumsiness, he would be Rob’s ski partner. And, well, I still felt a little guilty for making him move out once Rob and I was married.
It should be pointed out the this friend – Boot – as he was affectionately called, stood six feet tall and sported blondish brown curly hair to his shoulders. He wore a mustache, a three day beard and a floppy suede hat. Think Denise Hopper in Easy Rider. Yet somehow, his passport picture made him look distinguished and wealthy where as mine looked like a PLO understudy just waiting for Patty Hurst to get board with the whole gun wielding bank robbery stuff.
Horrible passport and new wardrobe in hand, I set off with my husband and our friend for the adventure of a lifetime. We speculated on the hotel, the food, the availability of polka music. We were not disappointed.
We arrived in Switzerland via Paris on a TWA commuter plane staffed by middle management. Thank you flight attendant strike. Our ground transport to Grindlewald was a beat up bus driven by a delightful man who spoke impeccable English and kept a constant stream of polka music playing as he drove our fellow travelers to their various destinations on the Bernese-Oberland trip. Koby pointed out various land marks as he made stops at Interlochen and Gstaad. He seemed to enjoy our company. He offered his assistance should we ever need anything. Well, until he dropped us back at the airport. Help me Koby. Oh help me. How could you and your raucous polka tapes desert me in my hour of need? You were my only hope.
Our travel agent booked us at the Sunstar-Adler, a beautiful resort at the base of the Jungfrau region of the Alps. From our room, we could see the Eiger. We heard avalanches and saw skydivers parachute between its rocky points. Boot’s single room overlooked the alley. Koby dropped us off late on Friday evening. We were tired and starving. After a quick tour by the desk clerk, we dropped our bags and headed towards the only restaurant in the place.
The first indication of trouble began with the maitre’d. He took one look at the wrinkled Americans – two men and one woman traveling in god knows what sort of arrangement – and his eyes began to roll. They rolled as we asked for explanations of the prix fix menu; they rolled when I made a discreet face at the mention of sweetbreads. They practically spun from their sockets when Boot cut his entry with the side of his fork. It was not until, on my insistence that we actually dress for dinner on Saturday night, which he finally gave a nearly imperceptible nod of acceptance. I thought I had done the right thing. What I had actually done was set up my reputation for deception.
We enjoyed our week of skiing and site seeing. We made it a point to try to fit in where ever we were. We ordered smoked salmon even though it was served cold and gave the appearance of never even being introduced to any actual cooking. We drank Perrier even though there were bits of sludge floating in the bottom of the pear shaped green bottle. I offered my best “guten tag” and “danke” as I shopped.
And shopped I did. I was in Switzerland after all. I was the first person in my immediate family to travel abroad and I was going to do the souvenirs up right. I purchased clocks and tiny cowbells with mountain flowers painted on them and I bought knives. Not those hoky Swiss Army knifes. Oh, no. We’re talkin’ fillet a bear the size of a Cutlass knifes with serial killer serration and huge metal sheaths. The perfect gift for a new son-in-law to give his father-in-law. The kind of knife that says “I love your daughter and trust you with this sharp object so please don’t kill me.”
Our trip was drawing to a close. We had learned many things in our great adventure. We learned that English people were also terrified of weird food. We learned that the French were pleasant and funny as they muscled in front of you on the ski lift. We learned that despite the accent Australians were phenomenal skiers. I however, did not learn the cardinal rule of modern day air travel. Not until it was too late.
Departure day arrived extremely early. The hotel delivered a wonderful breakfast of rolls and lunchmeats, coffee and cocoa. We ate and dressed and packed before hurrying to catch the polka bus back to Zurich with Koby. The return trip was somber as the passengers pondered their week of majestic Alpine splendor and lunch at a roadside truck stop. We arrived at the airport with minutes to spare.
The line at security was long but not nearly as complicated as it is today. Back then you just had to toss your carry-on onto to a conveyor belt and walk through the metal detector. Just give the attendant a quick “I’m an American, no trouble here,” smile and you were golden. Never mind those guards at the end of each line holding semi-automatic guns. They were just there for local color.
The three of us approached the security check in a babble of conversation. In what can only be described as divine intervention, our latent hippy friend and his beard and hat chose to go through a checkpoint farther down the line from ours. Rob went through first, tossing his bag on the belt and shushing through the metal detector. The guard looked bored. Another tourist with a bag full of Lindt Chocolate bars and a bunch of magazines.
It was my turn next. I tossed my beat up carry one onto the belt. The carry-on that made me feel like a world weary traveler. I proceeded through the detector and stopped at the end to wait for my bag. It was at that moment I knew I had been found out. I watched as the guard’s face went from mind numbing boredom to complete and udder horror. And I knew.
The cardinal rule of travel packing: Do Not, no matter how convenient you think it will be for customs, Do Not pack knives in your carry one bag. Especially knives that say “I plan to gut and commandeer this plane in the name of Ugly Americans everywhere”.
The colorful man with the submachine gun grabbed the bag with a flourish of German. His twin from the next line grabbed me. I was bombarded with words that I could not understand, yet I knew exactly what they were saying. I was being accused of attempting to take a plane of annoying, tired skiers hostage for what was assumed to be a king’s ransom of chocolate. My sad attempts at “guten tag” only seemed to anger them. I repeated in English, “I’m really that stupid. It was for customs” at least forty times. I even attempted a lame and desperate “el stupido” for any Spanish speaking members of the growing audience.
My new-ish husband was simultaneously horrified and delighted. He knew this could mean all sorts of legal trouble but he also knew he would have something to lord over me for the rest of my life. “Oh, I’ll take out the trash…please don’t torture me.” He made an attempt to explain again just how stupid I was; although I think his pantomime of me sticking a fork in a light socket was really unfair. Our friend Boot watched laughing from a distance. And we were worried about him getting stripped searched for potential smuggling. His hat had marijuana mule written all over it.
In the end, the guards decided that I did look that stupid and bagged the offending knives in a day-glo orange bag with warning labels all over it. The bag was sent to the checked bag area. But, this was not the end. Before the plane could leave the runway, every piece of luggage in the cargo hold was unloaded and set on the tarmac. All the passengers had to disembark the plane and physically identify their bags. It took nearly an hour. And did I mention that now it was raining?
I rode the next sixteen hours slumped in my seat trying not to hear the grumbling of our fellow travelers. The grumbling that became down right offensive when it was mentioned that we may not make our connecting flight in New York. The day-glo bag of cutlery was waiting for us when we arrived at St. Louis Lambert field.
Yes, somewhere in the Zurich Airport, in a grey file cabinet, there is a folder with my photo in it. It is my passport photo and that folder tells the story of a life gone wrong. And every now and then a guard with a semi-automatic weapon says “Hey, remember the time that stupid American packed her knives in the carry-on bag?”