In which I am flagged as a potential terrorist.

thI’m writing this from Sky Harbor in Phoenix, which touts itself as the “friendliest” airport. Certainly this is true of its TSA agents, one of whom got to second base with me without even buying me dinner.

Of course, she was just doing her job. An alarm sounded when I went through security. A quick glance at the monitor showed the word “explosives.”

A couple of agents moved in with a gait that was both casual and swift, if that makes any sense. It was a “hey, everything’s fine” crossed with “holy crap, that woman might be packing.”

Hint: I wasn’t.

But rules are rules, so I had to go through several levels of safety checks.

First, an agent swabbed my hands. That should do it, I figured. Explosives? Really?

Nope. Another agent removed all my belongings from the conveyor and used a Teflon strip coated with some kind of magic explosives-detecting solution. Meanwhile, I stood there beet-red with embarrassment – and keeping my hands where the agents could see them.

Widening my stance

The agent asked if I’d used any lotions or creams today. Well, yeah: some Cetaphil on my face and a little Aveeno on my hands. He explained that any product containing glycerin can trigger a false positive. You know, as in nitroglycerin.

I don’t know what those Teflon strips whispered in his ear, but I expect it was “Keep an eye on that one.” That’s because I was sent to the dreaded third level of security: the Special Patdown.

The two female agents who attended to me were polite and professional but let’s face it: They probably wanted to do the patdown about as much as I wanted to receive it. (See “second base,” above.) I stood where they told me to stand, lifted my arms when asked, widened my stance on request.

More to the point, I kept my mouth shut. What good would ranting have done? They probably hear enough of that all day long. Besides, I didn’t want to fail the attitude test – for all I know, cavity searches are optional add-ons.

No matter what you think of the TSA (and apparently plenty of us don’t think much of that agency) the agents did their jobs as quickly and courteously as they could. Yes, I’m a geeky mid-50s Caucasian woman. But any race, any age and either sex can deliver mayhem. The experience reinforced my personal belief that all middle-aged women are terrorists – or could be.

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  1. That sucks!I’ve had to travel internationally a few times in the past year and I think pat downs are the norms in other countries. The machine always pops up that they need to check my arms. Of course, there is nothing there, I just have fat arms.

  2. I’m quite familiar with the pat down as I almost always request it over a trip through the irradiator. My thyroid is already not working very well, so I don’t need any more radiation exposure.

    • Is the radiation from the detector different from that received while flying? I say this because we do receive a good chunk more radiation when flying than in the airport detector, so if you’re wanting to avoid extra radiation, it might be prudent not to fly.

      • I need to purchase one of those lead collars because I try to shield my thyroid, but not flying.

        • Practical Parsimony, I don’t think they’d let you wear a lead thyroid shield through the security checkpoint. But if want to wear one while flying, I’m sure that no one would stop you.

      • Leah, I’m not sure, but here’s the thing: I have CHOICE to not get irradiated by the machine. If I need to get to Houston for a work conference, my company will fly me, but if I say “I can’t fly” then that means I can’t do my job and I may be dismissed. Also, if I want to visit a friend in California, it’s not feasible to drive or take a train. But, again, it’s my CHOICE to be exposed to the radiation in a plane. There are signs near all the airport security checkpoints that say you can opt out of the machine for any reason. Some people have to do it because they have metal in their bodies, for example. I prefer to limit my radiation exposure to times when it cannot be avoided: medical x-rays/scans that are necessary for diagnostic purposes and flights to get to/from a distant place. Other than that, I decline the extra radiation.

  3. Melissa F

    My first thought would be wow, this is terrible and what a pain in the …, how embarrassing and so on. But, then I would think that its good they are doing there job and taking things seriously because you never know who or when the real deal will show up. It is way better to be safe than sorry, although I feel for you. I am just glad to know you are getting on a plane that has been thoroughly checked ahead of time for things of this nature. Have a safe trip Donna.

  4. Note to self–banish all glycerin before flying.

  5. Ro in San Diego

    It’s so hard to keep the wise cracks from spewing out, but I’m proud that you were able to maintain your composure. Wishing you and your family some healing in the near future. You’ve all been through so much in this new year.

  6. Cindy Brooks

    Glad to know about the glycerin! I’ll be checking ingredients. Watch the chocolate, too. I had heard it could trigger an explosive alert. We were in China in October when one of the ladies in our little group set off an alarm with her check-in bag. Holy hell broke loose until it was determined she was carrying some suspicious hot cocoa packets. I will say that the TSA people at Sky Harbor really are the nicest I’ve encountered anywhere. Last spring when we were there they were very friendly and worked hard to keep families together. They held up the rest of the line and made sure the kids and parent(s) were all together on the other side. I was impressed!

    • Donna Freedman

      The TSA agents were quite polite. In addition, the airport has people in bright purple jackets whose job it is to direct you where you need to go. Also free wi-fi, which is becoming more standard but which in some airports still costs money. (The free wi-fi is how I was able to post this piece before lining up for the plane.)
      Thanks for reading, and for leaving a comment.

  7. DebbieJean

    Good to know about the glycerin. I think the TSA does the best they can with trying to get everyone through screening. If we want this country to be secure we have to endure an occasional pat down. And I agree that we 50 something women are a “danger”! LOL!!

  8. Since the terrorists have won anyhow, I think we should have national “Best TSA” awards. I would vote Jacksonville, FL (my “home” airport — only two hours away). Have never flown Phoenix, though.

    Good for you, Donna, for keeping cool under pressure! It isn’t the TSA agents’ fault that flying has become more painful than pleasant.

    Please, let’s bring back REAL passenger rail!

    • Donna Freedman

      DF believes that the terrorists will win because….We can’t be bothered to return our own shopping carts. Whenever we go to the supermarket he’ll bring in two or three from the parking lot. How can we be vigilant against terrorism, he says, when we don’t seem to notice that we left our carts right where someone else wants to park?

  9. I totally don’t get TSA/security rage from so many people. They are not only just doing their jobs but they’re trying to keep us safe.

    A couple of years back I flew through Paris on my way to a cruise. In both directions I was patted down while my husband was not. I never figured it out but it always makes for a very good travel story.

    I tell people that French women find me very attractive.

    • People have security rage because there appears to be no consistency, very little training, and some of them are on power trips and treat those going through airport security like crap. Some, such as the lovely man in Burlington who told me, “Ma’am, you don’t have to take off your wedding ring; it won’t affect the scan,” are quite professional. Others like the little SS agent in Houston who felt the need to bully an elderly lady by yelling to raise her arms higher (the poor thing could barely walk), growl at a three-year-old and shove him out the way (a child who wanted to follow Daddy as he was pulled to the side), and yell at a pregnant woman who was holding up the line, are little Gestapo. There is no regulation on these thugs. Not to mention the amount of theft involved with the TSA. THAT’s why people dislike and distrust them.

      • Donna Freedman

        I understand that, but disliking/mistrusting an entire group of people based on the bad apples doesn’t seem fair to me. Plenty of agents just want to make a living and the pay is the best they can get (although the stress must be considerable).
        Me, I’d hate to go to work every day knowing that I’d be glared/snarled at by travelers whose previous experience with a bad agent left them frustrated and angry. As noted, the woman who had to do the “special patdown” did not look as though she were enjoying her job. But she had to do it anyway.
        Thanks for reading, and for leaving a comment.

  10. I tell my husband that smart terrorists would use someone like me (white, female, middle-aged, average-looking), so I’m glad that TSA agents are checking anyone they feel they need to rather than choosing based on race and gender.

  11. I love that you kept your sense of humor during an uncomfortable experience. Also, thank you for respecting that the TSA agents are just doing their job, and keeping us all safe as possible.

  12. Well, just when you thought you could quietly work your way back home, the universe had something else in mind! Who knew you could trigger false positives in such a way? And become the center of attention, to boot!! These experiences are exhausting when they happen but sure do awaken your senses.

  13. “A quick glance at the monitor showed the word “explosives.”-I’m sorry but I laughed until I cried at this one. I could see this happening to me. You poor thing but it makes for a hell of a good read.
    Note to self-NO LOTION when flying.
    All I could think of was Silence of the Lambs and “it rubs the lotion on itself.”

  14. I just wanted to let you know that my web browser is now telling me that this site presents a threat and tries to close my page down. I’m not sure if its because it says ‘terrorist’ or what, but anyways, I thought I’d let you know in case other readers are getting the same warning.


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