We all know we can’t bring knives, explosives or other weapons on airplanes. Even if we don’t intend to use them, other passengers might become alarmed. But how many of us have arrived at airport security to discover we have neglected to leave all our weapons at home? Too many of us. After 9/11, I remember the huge bins filled with confiscated toenail clippers. I lost a pair myself that way. Nowadays it’s large bottles of water, hair gel and creamy cheeses that cause passenger alarm, so they’re banned too. But I digress.
Last weekend on my way back home to Connecticut, I arrived at airport security convinced I was clean of all possible causes of passenger alarm. Ready to suffer mild irradiation to provide evidence I was clean, and calm my fellow passengers, I began undressing in line— belt off , jacket off, shoes off (I’m really not looking forward to the first “underwear bomber”), laptop out of bag, change out of pockets… and there it was. Instant recognition of the object and situation left my stomach queasy. I had forgotten to leave my grandfather’s pocketknife at home.
Now, it’s a special knife. I never met my grandfather, who died 11 years before I was born. Family stories about him are few and far between. So it’s through a few objects I keep him in mind, mainly this knife that I was given as a teenager. It’s a 1930’s stainless steel fishing knife made by Abercrombie and Fitch. It has always been a little rusty at the joints (steel pins hold it together), but it takes a keen edge and has proven handy on many occasions. It’s lovely design and connection with my grandfather made it a special object. I was not going to let it go without a fight—though not at any great cost, since I’ve got too much Scottish blood.
The security people would toss it (or take it) without a qualm. I couldn’t risk trying to hide it in my bag (or toss it above the metal detector as I walked through, catching it on the other side a la Kevin Kline in A Fish Called Wanda), since I figured the odds were towards losing it. But what to do?
I had a good hour before my flight, so I put my shoes, belt and jacket back on and retreated from security to explore options. I presented my dilemma to a Department of Homeland Defense fellow. While sympathetic, he had no solutions except to ask at my airlines. Armed with the knowledge that I could not possibly be the first, I approached the Southwest Airlines ticket counter attendant. She listened to me cooly then replied absent-mindedly in monotone legalese that they could not take responsibility for objects left at the airport blah blah blah. How could she not feel my pain? My only consolation was that she had to live with her own dead eyes.
The airport has no lockers to keep the knife. No post office to send the knife. Nothing. For a moment, I considered paying a taxi to drive my knife back to my place of work where a friend could get it, but the Scottish blood kicked in.
With half an hour before my flight, I came to terms that the knife was a goner. It wasn’t so hard: it’s just a thing, an object ultimately meaningless in itself. Its value was really in the family associations, which I had with or without the knife. A replacement knife would do the same job—reminding me of the knife that used to remind me of my grandfather.
And then it dawned on me. Hide it in the airport. If I hid it in the airport, I had a chance of recovering it. I could pick it up on my way back three days later. Sure, someone else could find it, but hiding it offered better odds than throwing it away. With 25 minutes before my flight, I started to look about for a good hiding place.
Airports are rather intentionally public places. There aren’t a lot of good nooks and crannies at Midway. I went outside to look there and found cops and maintenance workers standing around. It seemed a bad idea to obviously place something in a nook or cranny in front of a cop, so I went back inside and kept looking. Where could I put it? It grew into a complex problem. I couldn’t draw attention to myself when I placed it. I couldn’t put it somewhere that it would be found over several days. I would probably be watched on a security camera wherever it was.
Then I found the place. A ladder against a wall with a ledge up top. It seemed perfect. I looked left and right suspiciously to see if anyone was watching. Then climbed the ladder and tucked the knife out of sight. Then I climbed back down, looked left and right suspiciously again to see if anyone had seen me, just like in the movies. I knew how to act like a suspicious character.
At security, I undressed without a qualm, walked through without a beep, and dressed on the other side without a worry. I made the plane in good time.
It was on the plane that I thought back to the ladder. If someone had placed it there, they might use it there, and thereby find the knife. And when I got back, would the ladder still be there? My perfect plan began to unravel.
And the security camera footage would reveal a tall, 40-year-old white male, short blond hair climbing a ladder and putting something on top of a ledge, looking around suspiciously the whole time. Any dolt of a security guard, except in Hollywood, would investigate. The plan came undone. So I resigned myself to losing the knife and put thoughts towards getting home.
Three days later back in Midway airport, I had to check the spot. The ladder was gone, of course. So I put my bag down, looked suspiciously to the left and the right, then I clambered noisily up the wall. There, right where I left it, was my knife. I jumped back down with a broad grin on my face, stuffed the dangerous memento in my pocket and made my way to the taxi stand before a security guard watching the video footage waddled after me to ask tough questions.
Safe in the taxi, I fancied a career in the CIA. Surely I have the right stuff.
It was only a few days later that I considered another option. What if I had picked a random stranger leaving the airport, told him the story and given him the knife? Whether the stranger would keep the knife or send it to me was of less importance than creating an odd and beautiful connection. Instead of throwing it away and ending it, the gift would certainly have created an unusual memory for that person, whether he kept it or not. I enjoy telling peculiar stories. Such a moment would have created one for the stranger to tell.
Well, maybe I’ll forget the knife in my pocket again next weekend.