The following true story was originally published in the November edition of “The Orange Alert,” the agency newspaper of the Department of Homeland Security.
I Was a Patdown Officer for the TSA!
HER EYES BORED into mine for the first time in forty years. We both knew this one was going to be personal.
“Hi, Sister Stanislaus.”
“You look well.”
“I ain’t complaining.”
“I’m not complaining.”
Same old battleaxe. Even back at All Saints we all speculated she was past 90. And here she was, looking not a day older, which is not to say, young.
Now I laughed at her trying to correct me. I let the sound of the latex snapping on my wrist tell her that this time she wasn’t the one in charge.
“You could’ve let them scan you, Sister.”
“You think I’d let them do that, Johnny?”
No, not really. One look at the old-style get-up she still wore told me that much. The floor-length habit, the black veil stretched over a tunnel of starched cardboard, the immaculate wimple, the same black high-button shoes. I’d seen the agency bulletins warning that our most powerful scanners were helpless against rigs like these.
That made it my job.
“You want to hold your arms out like this, Sister?”
“You aren’t going to do this, Johnny. You’re a good boy.”
That was rich.
“A good boy?,” I said. “Last time you shared your thoughts on that you told me I was going to hell. Besides, it’s TSA rules. You know what you always taught us about obeying the rules.”
The way I grinned at her would have got my block knocked off in her home room.
“Yes,” she said. She sure didn’t scare easy. “I just don’t see how all this helps you find those wicked Mohamedans. You all need to put on your thinking caps.”
I didn’t tell her that TSA wasn’t budgeted for anything like that.
I reached around for what was hanging from her waist like a sash. None too gently, I yanked it free. She didn’t flinch. “Oh, HO,” I said. “And what have we here?”
“You really don’t recognize it, Johnny? Don’t tell me you’re afraid of a little rosary.”
It wasn’t all that little. It was four feet if it was an inch, with black beads the size of garbonzos and a steel-edged crucifix just right for opening up a daydreamer’s cheekbone from seven paces.
“Ain’t this the same one you used to garrote Benny Majekowski in fifth grade? He still talks like Marge Simpson.”
Her eyes closed for a moment in a gesture of sacrificial patience.
“That should be, ‘isn’t it the same one,’ Johnny. And Benny needed my help remembering the difference between ‘lain’ and ‘laid.’”
Sister Stan, still original gangster. I was still in school when the big changes started and even the hard Orders had to soften up and disarm their sisters, taking away all the heavy-duty yardsticks and the brass knuckles. Even then, Sister Stan was one of that warrior class who weren’t going to just run off and marry renegade priests or take jobs with the welfare office. She’d stayed plenty tough.
But I’d gotten tougher, too. After learning all I could from having a whole card of IHMs work over my chin like a speed bag, I thought I’d see how the soft life felt. Eventually I did six tours of duty with Special Forces. Then some time with Blackwater. Now TSA. I’d seen things.
I let the rosary rattle into the Tupperware like a rockslide. For all the reaction I got her face could have been unpainted plaster.
“You won’t dare touch me, Johnny. Because you know it isn’t right.”
“There’s no right or wrong, here, Sister,” I said. “This is the airport.”
I grabbed her. Hard. She let out a whimper of shock, another of submission, another, probably, of ecstasy.
“Whoo-hoooooooooo!” Off to one side a kid in a knit cap was pointing his camera phone our way. “YouTube!”
I gave her none of the special handling they all expect from their goody-goody podiatrists and their dentists and their morticians. Once I go to work on a passenger, he gets the same level of service as the one before him and the one after. I may not be an angel, but I’m no lousy profiler.
When I finished it wasn’t half a second before she was all pulled back together again. I found my eyes avoiding hers. I focused on de-gloving.
“Do you feel better now, Johnny?”
I had to reach way down for the guts to eyeball her again, but I found some.
“Just a job.”
She was gathering her rosary back from the bin.
“I see,” she said. Her old voice had that skeptical note I’d hear when I used to tell her how a gang of kids mugged me for my homework. “Speaking of jobs,” she said, “do you remember that lovely Jeffy Hugmore from All Saints? I’m sure you’ve heard that he’s a very successful brain doctor now. He’s even operated on Phil Donahue.”
Hugmore was a kiss-up weasel who held the school record for getting the most swirlies in a single day. Sister used to let him clean the chalkboards.
“Good for him,” I said. The line behind her was getting restless. So was I.
“They do say all this makes us safer,” she said. Then her eyes to pin me the way they always could when it was life or death if I couldn’t come up with what 11 x 12 was.
“Johnny, do you think that’s true?”
I had to break the spell. I tapped my badge and said: “They ain’t payin’ us to think, Sister.”
It did the trick. I got her eyes to do the martyr thing again. But this time she didn’t correct my grammar. Probably figured: what’s the use?
“Have a nice flight,” I said. They make us say it. She didn’t let on she heard me, fussing with her veil to make it more uncomfortable.
And then she said: “Have a nice flight, Sister.”
Damn! “Have a nice flight, Sister,” I said. After where my mitts had just been, I guess I owed her that.
Two seconds later she was floating off towards Departures.
I turned back to meet the next passenger they were handing up to me. “Hey, Johnny, old pal!” the guy was saying. “Long time, no see!”
Jeffy Hugmore’s terrified eyes stared into mine for the first time in forty years.