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December 2, 2009

An Airport, a Vet and a Catch-22

http://www.jewishjournal.com/gina_nahai/article/an_airport_a_vet_and_a_catch-22_20091202

Did you know that, if you’re a member of the United States armed forces, a war injury could be considered a self-inflicted wound? Say you’re serving a second term in Iraq, and you get shot at by the enemy, and you come back to the States in bits and pieces, and try to get on a plane, a Delta flight, say, from LAX, on Nov. 13, 2009. Say you’re under the impression, based upon some policy guidelines conveyed to you by an airline representative on the phone, that the airline makes special allowances for passengers with physical injuries, and so you get to the airport early and go to the Delta counter only to be told by the little man with the round, bald head that you are not, in fact, one of the injured.

“But I am,” the young man at the Delta counter next to me keeps saying to the bald guy. “Here’s all the documentation you need.”

The Delta guy doesn’t need documentation.

“You may be injured, Sir, but your injury isn’t covered by our policy.”

The young man looks perplexed.

“I’m a vet,” he says. “I was injured in Iraq.”

“I understand,” the Delta guy murmurs. “Our policy doesn’t cover self-inflicted wounds.”

“Self-inflicted?” the vet’s voice rises a few notches. “I was shot at.”

The Delta guy is impassive.

“We have an all-volunteer army, right?” he asks. “So you joined voluntarily, right? That means you wouldn’t have been injured if you hadn’t volunteered, right? That means your injury was self-inflicted.”

I look at the woman who’s sharing the counter with the Delta guy. She’s supposed to be helping me with my ticket. She’s been tapping on her keyboard for the last 10 minutes.

“Is he kidding?” I ask her. She shakes her head without looking up.

“A war injury is self-inflicted?”

She taps.

“What if he got hurt in a terrorist attack in the U.S.? Would that also be self-inflicted?”

She lights up like an electrocuted cat, glares at me with eyes wide open. 

“DO NOT SAY THAT WORD!”

You know. “Terrorist.” It’s one of those words we throw around all the time without retribution, but that make us unsafe if they’re uttered on an airplane or in an airport. They’re especially dangerous, it seems, on a plane managed and maintained by the geniuses who came up with the war injury qualification, in an airport that looks and feels and functions just a few degrees below that of any Third World country (I’ve seen quite a few airports in my time, even Haiti’s on the cusp of a military coup, and every last one of them is safer, more attractive and better organized than LAX) but I don’t have time to dwell on that right now because my flight to New York is in two hours, and the security line, under the capable direction of the folks at the TSA, snakes around a dozen times inside the Delta terminal and extends out the door, two blocks down the sidewalk, and promises a good hour-and-a-half wait before I get to where I can take my shoes off (how come we don’t have to do that in Ben-Gurion Airport, by the way? Could it be that terrorists flying out of Tel Aviv don’t know how to put bombs in their shoes? Or that the Israelis have better scanning devices?) and walk through the metal detectors that can catch a belt buckle but that have been known to overlook all kinds of guns and knives as recently as last year.

I look at my watch, look at the security line again and, thinking I’m at a major airport in a major American city, decide there must be a better way to do this — get searched and get to the flight — so I abandon the vet and the bald guy and the woman at the keyboard and go in search of a solution to my own problem. I don’t find a human being who’s willing to talk to me, but I discover something better: a second security line that runs parallel to the one with the 10,000 people in it, only this one is completely empty. No passengers, no bags, only a guy in a TSA uniform who’s waiting to check IDs, a couple of others at the X-ray machine, and a woman with a voice and a manner better suited to herding cattle on a slaughterhouse assembly line. Her job, it seems, is to keep the empty line empty.

“The line is to the right!” she screams every three seconds to no one in particular. I go up to her anyway, point out that the line on the right is rather long, and ask what the empty one is for.

“It’s reserved,” she says.

I notice four X-ray machines; two are being used for the right hand line; the other two are idle. I don’t want to be overly obnoxious here, so I change tactics, tell the cattle boss my flight’s in two hours and ask if she thinks I’ll make it after I’ve stood in the line on the right.

“Probably not,” she says.

OK.

“Would it be possible to call the gate, then, and tell them you’ve got passengers in line so they don’t bounce me off the flight because they’re overbooked, or give my seat to a stand-by?”

“Nope.”

“Why not?” I ask.

“We don’t have phones.”

“You don’t have phones?”

“Not since we merged with Northwest.”

Two major airlines, a major airport, no phones.

Brought to you by the kind people we entrust with our lives while in the air. These people, who don’t have the wits to do the math on X-ray machines, have the gall to cheat our own soldiers out of some tiny privilege by bending their own words out of shape, can’t figure out how to use another airline’s phone system and (I’ve since learned) electronic data.

I know this woman hates me, and so does everyone else in this airport, but as a person who was born and raised in a Third World country, I know better than to trust every head that sticks out of the collar of a uniform as capable of thinking and reason.

“What’s the line reserved for?” I ask.

“The crew.”

“Are they here?”

“They already went through.”

“So why can’t the rest of us use the line, then, if the crew’s already done with it?”

“It’s still reserved.”

For?

“Handicapped. In case.”

Shall I ask why the handicapped, in case they happen to show up and qualify, can’t be rushed to the head of the line as soon as they arrive? While the rest of us use the line in their absence?

I go outside, walk two and a half blocks now to the end of the line, and surrender to fate. Just then, the Iraq vet comes down the sidewalk and stands behind me. His injury, being self-inflicted and all, doesn’t make him eligible to use the empty line either. l

Gina Nahai is an author and a professor of creative writing at USC. Her latest novel is “Caspian Rain” (MacAdam Cage, 2007). Her column appears monthly in The Journal.

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