My name is Anna; I’m just a Baltimore girl who likes to draw. You know my neighborhood the one with the pearl onion steeples on top of the church. East Baltimore has changed but you’d never know it sitting here at Uncle Hank’s party. I’m named after two strong Ukrainian women; my great grandmother Anna and Maya Deren. If my name is my destiny then I have a lot to live up to.
Uncle Hank is 58 today. I faithfully attend family functions when my schedule allows. I believe our ancestor spirits honor us when we honor the elder spirits that walk among us. Lately all anybody wants to talk about with me is my job. Not my art, not even my love life but my job.
I’m a security screener at the airport. Now they call us Transportation Security Officers. Like they say, if they can’t treat you right or give you a raise they’ll upgrade your title. Like we don’t know what they’re doing. Conversations about being a screener range from ‘the grossest or most embarrassing thing you ever found searching a bag’, to ‘the most exciting story about a gun or weapon’, to grousing about profiling. It’s inescapable. So I politely talk about my job and try to move on to other topics. It rarely works.
A few days ago I was working the checkpoint on D Pier; a late flight. I’m on the night shift so we mostly guard the exit lanes and test the equipment until the early morning shift comes in at 3:30 then we screen early arriving passengers until we go home at 5:30.
I was working the mag or walk thru; I guess the technical term is magnetometer. There’s a lot more to it than just listening for the beep, beep, beep. You’ve got to give passengers the once over to see if anything needs to come off or if they’ve forgotten the set of keys on their hip. Hips are another issue, lots of fake ones, but that story’s for another day.
A young man approached with an older woman. She was his mother and needed to talk to me about him before he walked through. Sometimes folks have special issues or pacemakers and we need to screen them with that in mind. He looked like a ghost. Hair sprouting out of his bandage covered head; arm in a cast and he was wearing a bloodstained t-shirt.
The night before a single car collision cost the life of a young man on I-95. They were two young guys traveling north from Tennessee when something went horribly wrong just outside the city. The young man in front of me was the driver; his friend was dead. His mother had flown up to rescue her son. They were on the last flight out of town and they were dazed.
He had a look in his eye like what they call the ‘thousand yard stare’ you hear about from war veterans. He’s not looking at you, he’s not looking through you, he just looks beyond for something he can’t see.
‘Male assist’ I call out and Ed responds. Holding my hand out one way to prevent anyone from sneaking through I explain the situation to Ed and he brings the young man through to gently get him through this way station and on his flight home to an uncertain and troubled future.
You always hear about the ‘little old lady’ who gets screened. She can’t be a terrorist but the fact is old people beep. They’ve got more hardware inside them than Home Depot and the process applies to everyone. But like this young man, we want to be the human face of the experience and be professional, courteous and kind.
‘I can’t believe it” he said, ‘A whole weekend away’. The car seemed to take on a life of its own as the two young men drove toward a future with them in the driver’s seat. They were young adults now, with adult dreams and what felt like adult responsibilities. But this weekend was about speed and getting to the college to see their girls
All he remembers is the laughter then the darkness. The car blew a tire and the young driver overcompensated sending them careening into the void. His friend didn’t survive; he will never be the same.
When tragedy strikes we become sleuths. We reconstruct events to establish the belief that it should have been us, it could have been us, it was our fault or we caused their death somehow. Each year is a burden as one carries the memory of a life cut short with them. The days pass into weeks, the weeks years until the memory fades and details dim.
And here at the party, I spot the ‘boys’ (mom still calls her little brothers ‘the boys’ even with the AARP cards in their wallets). They are staring into space after a silent toast. No words can be spoken; there’s nothing to say. Some doors can’t be opened. They know what’s on the other side they’re just not sure who’s crossing the threshold next.
Uncle Hank never talked about Tommy, but I remember once when I was a child hearing him speak of him saying ‘He was beautiful’. Looking through old yearbooks brought the sight of this lost friend into view. Like a blackout curtain with a pin prick. The curtain does its job; the room is dark and the pin prick is incidental. But you can’t help staring at it.
Hank carried around the burden of Tommy’s death all his life. What else could he do? Each birthday the boys toast Tommy and appreciate another year together. The pain never completely goes away but like that pin prick it appears at unexpected times.
Later that night I started to create a sketch entitled ‘He Was Beautiful’, and I think of that young man at the mag. Hank knows what he feels and what he faces. All I could do is get him through the screening process and on his way. All I can do for Hank is make sure to remember his birthday each year.
We spend maybe thirty seconds with people in good times and bad. Some like that young man — we never forget. That face, that stare haunts me. I’m glad I’m alive but I fear the day tragedy strikes near me, maybe because of me. Nothing prepares you for that journey. You can only hope that those who must guide you through the process are courteous and kind.
Ron Moore is a native of the DC area who currently resides in Statesville, NC. He served as a TSA Officer at BWI Thurgood Marshall International Airport for six years and was the founding president of The American Federation of Government Employee Local 1, the national union representing TSA Officers. He is a freelance writer, and the author of Washington Cats, a collection of poetry, and is writing a book about the early days of the TSA.
Excellent story rendered with skill and compassion. We are waiting for a full fledged book on this topic.