Two months ago my family flew to Wisconsin to visit my mother and sister. We entered Sea-Tac airport in an upbeat mood. We were wearing matching tie-dye T-shirts, thanks to my wife, who dyed them red, white and blue to look festive for the upcoming Independence Day.
After the first security check, a guard singled out my wife. A blue-uniformed woman gripped her carry-on and asked if she could go through the contents. Hadn't it just gone through the X-ray machine? With an embarrassed nod from my wife, the security guard carefully checked the items in her bag. Did the tie-dye shirt make her a target? Was it because she was Japanese? This was probably not the case, but the thought did occur to me. I didn't want to get angry, especially in front of my daughter Maya, so I rationalized that this was a random pick, a small bump in a journey back to my Wisconsin home.
Then, during our layover in Detroit, I was stopped this time. "Can you step this way?" said a uniformed man. They come at you so quickly you don't have time to think. At first I was glad because it no longer made my wife the terrorist.
"Put your arms out," he said. I complied. He ran an electronic wand up and down the sides of my body, from ankles to armpits. Then he said, "Would you mind if I checked your belt?"
Before I could answer, he reached out, turned the front of my belt toward him, then ran the wand behind it. Nobody else on the flight had been stopped. My family had long disappeared inside the tunnel to the airplane.
"Take off your shoes, please," he said.
I cooperated. As he ran the wand up and down the soles of my shoes, two female security guards asked if they could go through my carry-on.
"Uh-huh," I said, but my mind raced. I'm a dad, for crying out loud ó didn't they see my daughter? I shouldn't have worn the tie-dye shirt. Can't they see how short my hair is? (I had just gone through four rounds of chemotherapy that knocked my hair out as it put my cancer into remission.)
My carry-on, a black backpack, contained an airtight box with eight chambers for all my vitamins. I didn't want to bring a number of bulky vitamin bottles on vacation, vitamins I took to help protect my body from the chemo. Who knows what all those colored pills would look like to a stranger? Was I a drug smuggler? Who carried this many pills?
A small group of people had formed behind me; I'm sure I had started to work up a sweat. The two security guards pushed their hands into my backpack. One found the airtight box and opened the lid. A rainbow of vitamins gleamed under the terminal's florescent lights. Now I was reduced to a teenager with stash. The uniformed woman said, "What are these? Herbs?"
"I have multiple myeloma," I said. I hated to have to play the cancer card.
"Come on, Daddy," Maya pleaded. Suddenly my 4-year-old daughter had reappeared from the tunnel. She saw her daddy shoeless, a security guard going up and down his back with a wand, two more security guards looking through his backpack. I didn't know how to explain any of this to her. She was new to airplanes: Clouds were still cotton candy, flying was magic.
"You guys do a thorough job," I said, trying to brush off the sting of humiliation.
"Thanks," said the man who looked overworked. "Some people get pretty angry."
Soon the contents were back in the bag and my shoes returned. Maya pulled me into the tunnel, leading me by the hand. There we were, father and daughter in red, white and blue T-shirts, headed to Wisconsin to celebrate Independence Day.
While Maya looked ahead, excited to begin her vacation, her father remained silent for the longest time.
David Flood is a writer in Seattle. He is keeping an online journal about his cancer experience at www.davidflood.com.
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