by Peter Heide
It had been a long week. Our church’s 2003 national youth gathering in Atlanta, Ga., had come to an end. The world was still on alert following 9/11 two years earlier, and the auditorium where we gathered, built for the 1996 Olympics, was a reminder of the security issues surrounding that event. So, it was not surprising that security was tight when 25,000 young people and their advisors showed up for a four-day conference. This included security guards in the Marriott-Atlanta because there were so many minor guests in the hotel.
The night before we were to leave, two young men decided to drop firecrackers down the center atrium from the 17th floor, putting everyone on high alert. It sounded like an automatic weapon, but it was only 16 Black Cats. The police did not arrest the two because no one was hurt, but the youth got a high-priced trip home at their parents’ expense and warned not to come back to Georgia. Everyone’s nerves were on edge. We were over-stimulated and over-tired.
The next day I shepherded my six young people into the airport, and, after checking our bags, we headed toward TSA. Just before sending my carry-on through the scanner, I remembered that my pocketknife was in my Dopp kit, which was packed inside my carry-on. I had forgotten to put the knife in my suitcase. It had been a long-time companion and I was going to miss it, but I knew that TSA would now confiscate it. I was too tired to care.
While there, bells started ringing like someone had hit the jackpot. Then two officers asked me to step aside. “Was this my bag?”
“Please come with us.”
Each of the officers took one of my arms and started walking me across the hall. I turned to my young people and said, “Don’t worry. I’ll be back soon.” In the meantime, I thought, “This seems a bit much for a pocketknife.”
My escorts were polite but firm as they led me to a room with a table and a few chairs. I was asked to face the wall and put my hands on it and then to spread my feet shoulder wide.
After being frisked, the officers asked me why I was in Atlanta. Where had I been? Where was I going? What business did I have in Chicago?
I told them that I was a pastor in the Lutheran church; I was in Atlanta for the youth gathering; and I was taking my young people home. I was preaching in Hanover Park on Sunday, and I was looking forward to a few hours of sleep on the flight home because of a disturbance during the night.
They asked where I had stayed. I told them. The officers asked how well I knew the young men who had thrown the firecrackers. Had I given the firecrackers to them earlier in the evening before they had thrown them into the atrium? I told them that I didn’t know the young men. I wouldn’t have had any interaction with them except that I was on hall duty several floors below.
They asked me about my politics. Did I have any issues with the government or the airline I was flying on?
I said, “I’m sorry, but it’s a mistake.” (Thinking it was just a pocketknife.) Then one officer asked, “Why are you carrying explosives in your carry-on?”
“What? What are you talking about? I have no explosives.”
“It appears that you are misrepresenting yourself,” said the other officer. “From our scan of your bag, we suspect that you are carrying what could be a pipe bomb and several blocks of plastic explosive as well as a triggering mechanism.”
“I have no idea what you are talking about!” I was really getting scared.
After several more very uncomfortable minutes (almost a half-hour that felt like a lifetime), a new ATF agent entered the room and asked me to explain the items in my carry-on. I looked with amazement at my APH Handi-cassette recorder, three cassette talking books, and my cane.
Even though my eyesight was pretty good at that time, my night vision was very marginal, and I used my cane for safety and security. Because of my eye condition, my eye muscles did not track well, so I needed talking books. And the APH Handi-cassette? Well, it was small, it was light-weight, and even with the underwater sounds, it made reading faster.
It took another five minutes to explain, but I finally made the plane my young people were on, and we all made it to Chicago without my cane blowing up. Still, I couldn’t believe that they didn’t know what a white cane was, and that they didn’t trust the imprinted label that said “Property of the United States Government” on the mailing cases of the books.
At home that night, as I unpacked my bags, I opened my Dopp kit. I found my pocketknife on top of my pill case. Apparently, they were so concerned about my explosives that they failed to notice my long-time friend.