Ask the pilot

Where have all the Swiss Army Knives gone? The pilot pursues the mystery of the confiscated "sharps."

Published November 7, 2003 8:30PM (EST)

Be careful what you wish for. A couple of weeks ago I offhandedly dared you to create anagrams from a pair of tongue-twisting airline names. Lloyd Aero Boliviano, anybody? How about Petropavlovsk Kamchatsky Air?

If the former is ever desirous of an ad slogan, they can now consider this suggestion from reader John Robert Armstrong: "OILY BALLOON AVOIDER, ADORE ALLOY OBLIVION," the best of more than a dozen submissions, and which twice over puts the airline's 18 letters to cunningly poetic use. Or, as proposed by reader Matthew Zimmerman, imagine a placard warning passengers, "LIVE OILY LOON ABOARD." And after stowing your bags and tightening your belts, remember to "LAY OLIVE OIL ONBOARD."

As for Petropavlovsk Kamchatsky Air, a small airline from Russia, the best concoction was, "VIVA ALASKA SKY! (MOCK PERTH PORT)." Nah.

No surprise there are Internet sites -- is one -- that will do the rearranging for you, but I'm wondering if Salon readers aren't those same people who call National Public Radio every Sunday morning to try those annoying on-air word puzzles. Just not my thing, and listening to those challenges is like having maple syrup injected directly into my brain: "I'm thinking of a popular item for sale in a grocery store. It has seven letters. The first letter is the same as the fifth, and the fourth letter is the same as the third letter of the world's eighth largest country. What is the item?"

And so forth.

Those of you not excited by anagrams saved your enthusiasm for my piece about poor Nathaniel Heatwole, the Guilford College junior whose act of would-be social protest raised the ire of the Transportation Security Administration, and may soon be raising a judge's gavel in a courtroom. One e-mailer notes that Guilford is a Quaker institution with a rich history of civil disobedience. Heatwole is just "a pacifist," the letter explains, continuing a long tradition.

Maybe, but Heatwole's mistake, to me, wasn't subversion. To the contrary, his failure was exercising a total lack of it. Well-intended as he might have been, he missed the point, serving only to further nurture our irrational fears of box cutters. Yes, sharp objects can be smuggled onto a plane. But Heatwole neglects to ask the essential question: So what?

If you're going to fight nonsense with nonsense, hardly a rare maneuver among pranksters and our more clever challengers of authority, at least do it humorously. This particular act was neither constructive nor funny. Boyd Rice or Jello Biafra he ain't.

Antipodal as it may sound in the current climate, I advocate a more liberal -- which is to say sensible and rational -- policy toward the carriage of sharps aboard airplanes. As I wrote, the true deadly weapon on Sept. 11 wasn't a box cutter, it was surprise. And, as a few of you were astute to point out, the hijack model was forever changed in the process. Although discussed in a column several months ago, enough of you brought this up to warrant repetition: Never again in this country will anybody assume a purloined plane is headed to Cuba, Lebanon or anywhere but into the side of a skyscraper or government building. Thus I can't imagine anybody making it two steps up the aisle, to say nothing of through the cockpit door, armed with less than a bucket of pinless hand grenades balanced on his head.

And yes, by the way, I really did carry a fork in my luggage with which to eat ramen noodles in hotel rooms. On short, late-arrival layovers when restaurants were closed, this was often the only way to sneak a bite before a crack-of-dawn van ride back to the airport. All you need is one of those in-room coffee makers. You crush the noodles into the pot, and run water through the machine sans coffee. The fork is just a little touch of dignity.

When I was a commuter pilot for several years, my salary afforded only the fattiest, 10-for-a-dollar options from the local CVS or Osco. If I felt like splurging, the supermarket in Porter Square, a few minutes' walk from where I live, features a comprehensive art-noodle section that made those late-night feasts of desperation more palatable.

It just wasn't the same, though, using a plastic fork.

If the TSA ridiculousness has spawned anything useful, perhaps it's a cottage industry of sharps recyclers. No official tonnage reports yet on how many clippers, Leatherman tools and X-Acto knives have been snatched, but apparently it's enough to justify a new government contract to dispose of the stuff. Last month TSA announced it would pay $2 million to a Virginia firm, Science Applications International Corp., to cart away confiscated items at scores of airports. Whether this money will come from TSA's $75 million "research budget" is not made clear.

Meanwhile, I shouldn't have been so flip about suggesting the seized material be turned into sculpture. At least one artist is already in line with my thinking.

TSA hands over concourse contraband to each state's surplus property division. From there it meets an assortment of fates. "Our interest is in preventing deadly and dangerous items from getting on the plane," said TSA spokeswoman Chris Rhatigan in a September copy of the Louisville Courier-Journal. "We're not concerned with what the states do with it." (Imagine that kind of resolve toward something actually worthwhile? Of course, picking scissors from people's pockets is immensely easier, and more emotionally placating, than actual anti-terror intelligence gathering.)

Some states have decided to donate vast quantities of the booty. Check out these online photos of a Goodwill store in Sacramento, Calif. One has to wonder if Wenger, maker of the Swiss Army line of products, isn't peeved that TSA's silly rules are driving down the price of its knives and pocket tools.

Eager to recoup costs, other states, including Oregon and Kentucky, are taking a less charitable route. Any guesses as to where they've turned? If that corner drawer in the kitchen is running short on miscellaneous metallic doodads, or if for posterity you'd like to own some tangible fragments of American lunacy in 2003, look no further than our nation's favorite receptacle of cultural detritus. Yes I'm talking about eBay. Where else to find heaps of useless personal hand-me-downs but our favorite four-letter forum of electronic voyeurism? Several airports have uploaded their caches of "weapons" for your online bidding pleasure.

If eBay is good at anything, it's turning every conceivable shape, size and color of crap into a catalog of virtual Americana. How I wasted my time -- and $75 -- driving up the price of the Jazz Butcher Conspiracy's "A Scandal in Bohemia," and that rare collection of Stephen Dobyns poems, when for the same money I could've had a pile of bottle openers and miniature screwdrivers.

Maybe I'm just jealous. If eBay's existence troubles me, it gets back to a lousy decision I made one rainy night almost 18 years ago. Sometimes I imagine how many bags of ramen -- even the expensive kind -- I could buy today if only I hadn't thrown away the contents of a metal footlocker in 1985. Inside that locker were about a hundred pounds of airline memorabilia that my friends and I had collected during our weekend forays to Logan International Airport in the mid- and late 1970s. Virtually anything emblazoned with an airline logo was snagged and hoarded: timetables, booklets, luggage stickers, silverware, pins, pens, in-flight magazines, barf bags, playing cards, boarding pass wallets.

How, precisely, we accumulated these items is worth mentioning. We'd come to know Logan with as much intimacy as we knew our own homes. We sauntered through metal detectors, rode carousels through the baggage rooms, memorized the codes to locked doors, rummaged through ticket kiosks, and easily talked our way onto jetliners. This in the 1970s, in many ways the Golden Age of Hijacking. There's a lesson in there somewhere. Looking back, do I feel airport security was dysfunctional, begging for acts of sabotage or terror? No, not really. In essence it was no different than today. If somebody is intent enough on committing a dastardly deed, he'll figure out a way.

We'd also written to airline offices the world over, and received huge packets of promo materials -- books, posters, plastic models and even T-shirts.

All gone. I remember the moment in '85, in my old bedroom at my parent's house. I was listening to Billy Bragg's melancholy "Between the Wars," as I made my melancholy decision to pour the entire stock into a garbage can. (My interests and infatuations never seemed to migrate or evolve. They tended to be stopped cold, all at once, in some terrible defining moment typically of my own making.) The locker, a silver metal chest about the size of a large suitcase, still exists in my parents' attic in Revere, Mass. It's covered with luggage stickers from Braniff, Eastern, and North Central. It goes BWWWOOONG when you bang on it. Because it's empty.

The only thing saved was a large stack of airliner postcards, a collection I still own and have lately begun adding to. Their portability, if nothing else, inspired me to stash them away. Years ago most airlines published and distributed postcards showcasing photos of their aircraft. I've got about 500 in all, from Aeroflot to Air Zimbabwe, some of which, according to where else, are worth $20 or $30 apiece.

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By Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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