Medium Towel Radiator

By Chris Grabenstein

(author of the John Ceepak mysteries TILT A WHIRL, MAD MOUSE, and WHACK A MOLE and the Christopher Miller thrillers SLAY RIDE and HELL FOR THE HOLIDAYS)

My wife and I are ready to suggest a new slogan for the Transportation Security Agency (TSA) in their on-going battle to keep our skyways safe:  “If you see something, say something but don’t expect us to do anything.”

In fact, it’s become painfully clear to us that the folks in the white shirts with the epaulettes, the ones who regularly make us line up to take off our shoes, belts, and underwire bras, the x-ray scanning gendarmes who confiscate our tweezers, nail clippers, and water bottles, the security specialists who eyeball your Baggie and take away your shaving cream if it’s over two ounces, have absolutely no idea why they are doing any of that except that it beats flipping burgers at Wendy’s.

Yes!   Now I understand the true nature of the blogosphere.  This is a place to vent, rant, and rail!  (And maybe demonstrate where sicko ideas for thriller plots like the ones in SLAY RIDE and HELL FOR THE HOLIDAYS come from).

Here goes.

Recently, we were flying home to New York from Nashville (It was one of those 7-7-07 weddings.  BTW — Did anyone besides that kid Damien get hitched on 6-6-06?).

We were all snuggled into our Jet Blue extra legroom seats, watching Simpsons reruns on our chairback screens, dreaming about Blue Chips and biscotti yet to come, when my wife SAW something:  a lady carrying an infant in one hand and a bright green Bic butane lighter in the other.   After much consternation (come on – who, even years after kindergarten, wants to be known as a tattle tale?), she decided to SAY something, just as the slogan plastered all over NYC since 9-11 suggests.

She found a flight attendant and said, “Uh, that lady who just walked up the aisle with the baby and is now seated in Row 22 has a Bic lighter filled with flammable gas sealed under heavy pressure in a miniature flint-fused flame thrower,” or words to that effect.

The flight attendant took a quick stroll up the aisle, came back and reported as follows.  “I didn’t see anything.”

To which I, the smart aleck in our family of two, remarked, “Gee if that shoe bomber Richard Reid had had a Bic instead of a book of paper matches, he could’ve really done something besides pose for a mug shot in a scraggly beard and an orange jump suit.”

To which she, the Jet Blue constitutional authority, replied that “the laws of the United States” prohibited her from asking the baby-toter if she had a lighter.”

Yes, I remember those laws.  You see, I used to smoke.  Many a night at the smoke-filled bar, someone would waggle their unlit cancer stick in my direction and ask, “Do you have a light?”   The police were immediately summoned and the offending party was unceremoniously hauled off to the hoosegow.

A few weeks earlier, when I was flying out to Omaha for Mayhem In The Midlands, I had my shoes shined in Newark airport.  This was after I took them off for the security screening and realized that the state of Nebraska may not let me cross their border with shoes in such a sadly scuffed state, cows and leather being a big part of the whole Omaha Steaks image system.  While the shoeshine guy thwacked the buffing towel across my toes, I watched the other humble and lovable shoeshine guy working the booth sell a Bic lighter for a buck to man in the throes of a nicotine fit.

This is all on the far side of Airport Security, mind you.   I immediately started hatching a plot for my next Christopher Miller holiday thriller!  A terrorist buys a Bic Lighter from an enterprising shoeshine guy for a buck, buys The New York Times for a buck fifty at the newsstand, waltzes on to Jet Blue (where no one is allowed to ask questions if he keeps the lighter tucked in his pocket), and takes a seat in the row directly underneath the oxygen tank for the masks.  It’s up in the luggage bins.  Usually near the back of the plane.

I’m thinking a rolled up Times and a flick of the Bic, and you’ve got yourself a pretty nice voted-off-the-island Survivor-style Tiki torch ceremony in the back of a crowded airplane.  Tear the plastic tube off that oxygen tank or, better yet, give our psycho an accomplice – an old man with emphysema and his own portable O-2 tank!

When we arrived (safely and unscorched) in New York, my wife called the Transportation Security Administration.  They have an Eagle on their patch – they’ve gotta be serious about security.  In fact, the TSA Website has a slide show proclaiming stuff like “Increased Vigilance At U.S. Airports.”   We figured these Vigilant Ones would be interested in cracking down on the rather unvigilant Jet Blue and the screeners at the Nashville airport.

Or maybe not.

First they kept her on hold for 25 minutes.

Then the gentleman who finally picked up the phone advised her “not to worry about it.”  The lady probably just bought her Bic at a shop after she passed through security.   He also doubted that the lighter had any flammable fluid in it because it was probably just a souvenir.

Wait a second.  The words Nashville or Music City were not printed on the side of the lighter.  It was a standard issue Bic.  They all have fluid inside them.  They come that way from the Bic factory.  There’s no way to refill a Bic.  You light your cigarettes or your New York Times until the gas is all gone, then you toss it away.

When my wife asked TSA Security Maven #1, “Why would they be allowed to sell lighters in souvenir shops on the other side of security when it’s against the law to carry a lighter on an airplane?”

She was asked to please hold for TSA Question Answerer #2.

Oh, by the way, when we checked our luggage at the ticket counter, the guy ahead of us had to remove the lighter he admitted to packing inside his suitcase.

Anyway, when TSA Man #2 materialized on the other end of the phone, he answered my wife’s question with an example:  “You’re not allowed to carry water bottles through the metal detectors but once you’re past security you can buy all kinds of beverages and carry ‘em on a plane – not just water.”

Hello?  I believe the reason you can’t carry water bottles past security anymore is because someone may have dumped out their Poland Spring and refilled the bottle with Nitroglycerine or some kind of flammable liquid to turn your sport bottle into a Molotov cocktail!   It’s not about the water!!!


I don’t think the folks at the TSA understand why they do what they do except that someone spinning the color wheel of threat levels told them to do it.

In the end, for seeing something and saying something, we were made to feel like alarmists and fools — not to mention tattletales.

But, we did get a good plot for a thriller.

Mad_large  Whack_large

7 thoughts on “Medium Towel Radiator

  1. pari

    Chris,Welcome to Murderati.

    We’re just about to fly the unfriendly skies . . .

    One thing that makes me sad is that my kids won’t ever have the experience I did of flying without all the mish-moshing — just showing up at the airport, joking with your neighbors in the waiting area, the relaxed feel of it all.

    Now, we move like cattle through the security lines and then have to wait for 1-2 hours before even boarding. It’s become humorless.

    I understand the need for vigiliance; I just wish the practice of it wasn’t so darn joyless.

  2. MF Makichen

    Dear Chris,Wonderful to find your post on Murderati. At this point I try not to question the craziness of TSA. I just do what they tell me to do. Authority seems to bring the smart aleck out in me, and that doesn’t go over well in today’s security climate.

    So, I was visiting Portland and Powell’s Books and picked up Tilt A Whirl. I haven’t started reading it yet, but it’s in the queue. Whenever I tell anyone that I’ve read Slay Ride but not Ceepak they look at me in disbelief!

  3. B.G. Ritts

    “You will never understand bureaucracies until you understand that for bureaucrats procedure is everything and outcomes are nothing.”– Thomas Sowell

    Chris, great to see you on Murderati! I’ve got MAD MOUSE and WHACK A MOLE on my TBR mountain. I’m looking forward to reading them.

  4. norby

    I feel your pain. As my friend and I were going through security on our way to Ireland her shoes caused some concern. These things were basically ballet slippers, that’s exactly what they looked like and how they were built. We would have had to be smarter than Einstein and Stephen Hawking put together to slip something into these babies, but they spent ten minutes and almost tore apart her shoes trying to figure out why the machine was beeping. A five-year-old could have looked at the damn things and told them there was nothing in them. But the machine was beeping!


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