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Thursday, May 5, 2016

Air travel before 9/11 was a breeze

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Sometime during the summer of 2001, for no particular reason, I unplugged my television and have never turned it back on. I do not have a digital TV set, converter box, cable, satellite or whatever else has come along in the last 10 years.

I suppose I am one of five people in all of America who did not see, live, the second plane hit the south tower of the World Trade Center in New York City, that tragic September day in 2001. I did not see the terrified people dive to their deaths to escape the 107-story infernos.

I felt the impact nonetheless.

Reflecting on the 10 years since that day, I remembered pre-9/11 airline travel. Anyone who had not flown commercially before the terrorists used our own airplanes as bombs to blow up Americans, will probably not believe how complacent we all were about travel.

I flew quite often while I was in the Navy, at least once or twice a year. Since retiring a few years ago, I much prefer to keep my feet planted on the ground, and have flown only once since then.

The first time I boarded an airplane, I was barely 18 and leaving my home in De Pere, Wisc., for Orlando, Fla., for boot camp. Being the silly kid that I was, I figured I should spend the day at Lilly Lake with my friends one last time before leaving for the military.

As usual, I did not allow myself much time to get home and change from my wet swimming suit, cutoff jeans and halter top (hey, it was the 70s and I was cool). So, when my 1966 Dodge Coronet blew a bald tire halfway back from the lake, I was fortunate a vehicle soon happened by.

Less opportune for me, however, was that the kind passerby was my dad, who lectured me all the way to Austin Straubel Airport in Green Bay about my irresponsibility. I suppose the fact that I smelled like Strawberry Hill Boone's Farm wine didn't help.

Despite my protest, he would not, could not swing by our house so I could change into more appropriate clothes or grab the little bag I'd packed for my introduction to military service.

As planned, my recruiter met me at the airport with my travel tickets and military orders. If he thought anything peculiar about my attire, he didn't say so, at least not to me.

I doubt if I even had my driver's license with me. But nobody ever asked to see it back then anyway. Wisconsin driver's licenses at that time were printed on stiff paper and looked very much like Social Security cards, without even a photo.

Now, I did not do this, but I knew many of my era who used an eraser and pencil to make themselves a year older to con their way into dimly lit discos. In only a few second's time, the licensee could adjust his birth year from 1959 to 1958 or from 1961 to 1960.

But, that's another story. Back to air travel.

Once during my first enlistment, I flew all the way from San Diego, Calif., to upstate New York on a ticket sold to my sister's boyfriend, Guy Hagler. Not a single ticket-taker along the way questioned my unique first name. Of course, I was all prepared with a nonsense story about my name really being Guylinda and that I left my ID at home.

I never needed to tell the ludicrous tale.

It may also have been on that particular trip that my sister packed me a huge ham and cheddar cheese sandwich, I mean HUGE (my sister is a Neanderthal and cooks like Wilma Flintstone) sandwich wrapped in tinfoil for the midnight flight.

Ten years later, we have to dump out our shampoo before catching a flight. There is no way today I'd attempt to slip a foil-wrapped anything through an airport scanner.

Before one flight back to base after a two-week home leave, I mentioned to my mother how I missed her squirrel stew and fried rabbit when I was away from home. So, she grabbed a few frozen critters from the deepfreeze and sent me out the door. I stuffed the frozen game encased in Wonder Bread bags into my carry-on suitcase for the six-hour flight back to San Diego.

I put my bag in the overhead luggage compartment and settled in for a nap with visions of hassenpfeffer dancing around in my head. Oh, how I would outdo my Cajun friend from Shreveport, La., who brought back a mess of crawdads after his Christmas leave.

Somewhere over Utah, things went awry when the ice chunks on the outside of the bags began to melt, dripping through my carry-on bag onto the bald head of the passenger one seat in front of me.

He, too, may have been dozing when the first chilly drops hit his cranium. Instead of discreetly summoning a stewardess, he stood halfway in the aisle and said quite loudly, "The plane is leaking!"

Before a flight attendant could get there, I was already out of my seat, fumbling with the overhead compartment latch. By then, everyone around us had turned to see the commotion. I have never managed a good lie on such short notice, so, with a crimson face, I told the attendant what was in the bag.

And, you know what? Nobody, other than the man with the wet head, cared. The stewardess helped me wrap my wild game in something, probably a trash bag, and all was well.

I recall another flight, which was delayed at some point, making me almost miss a connecting flight. In my mad dash through the concourse, I left my tickets in the seat pocket on the previous plane. And, you got it -- they let me board the next plane without a ticket.

Again, that would never happen now. I'm not even sure someone can run through an airport with a suitcase in hand without being tackled by airport security, let alone get on a plane without a ticket or identification.

On my first flight after 9/11, I had not realized how things had changed. I was to fly from Bemidji, Minn., to South Korea for three weeks of Navy Reserve duty. The guy at the reserve center in charge of scheduling travel thought I lived in Brainerd, Minn., and booked my flight from there, the equivalent of confusing Springfield with St. Louis just because they start with the same letter.

After driving the extra three hours to the Brainerd airport, I thought I'd allowed myself plenty of check-in time by arriving an hour early, only to learn that international travel required passengers to be at the gate two hours before departure. That blunder earned me a face-to-face with my captain.

I admit travel now can be a nuisance, with all those scanners, and taking on and off of shoes, but I do feel more secure.

I wonder if there is an old man somewhere today telling his grandkids about the time squirrel juice dripped on his head in a DC-10.