Flight Into The Weird

A 73-year-old skater recalls being thoroughly “patted down” by LAX U.S. Customs agents.

I am a skateboarder, though I am much older than most skateboarders. I am 73 years old. Yeah, 73, so shut up with the “wows!” and “no ways” and keep reading.

In May of 1998 I went with my friend Carlos de Andrade to Vancouver, Canada for three days to watch the Slam City Jam contest between 105 professional skateboarders. After the competition, Carlos drove to Bellingham, Washington to visit his girlfriend, and I returned to Los Angeles with my skateboard and overnight bag. At LAX, I quickly cleared customs without my baggage being checked.

In July, Carlos took fourth place in the finals of the ESPN X-Games in San Diego. The next day we flew to Amsterdam and stayed overnight at a motel near the Schiphol Airport. Early the next morning we picked up a Fiat from Avis and drove the Autobahn across Holland and Germany to Prague in the Czech Republic. This extraordinary city was to be the location of the first of four World Cup skateboarding competitions scheduled over a period of three weeks. Other competitions followed in Montpellier, France and Lausanne, Switzerland. The final competition in the series was scheduled for Münster, Germany. The Münster contest ended late on a Saturday afternoon.

We had chosen Amsterdam for our entrance and exit to Europe, because Münster is only a few hours’ drive from Amsterdam and I had an appointment in Los Angeles on Tuesday morning. When we arrived at the Los Angeles airport, we walked through customs with our bags and skateboards. The customs agents, surprised that I skated, hailed us with good wishes. Our bags were not inspected.

Carlos had knocked down sixth place in Prague, fourth in Münster, third in Montpellier, and first in the Lausanne Grand Prix. Although there were roughly 150 to 200 professional skateboarders in each of theses competitions, Carlos and Chris Senn were the only skateboarders who placed top ten in all four contests. Hot wheels, Carlos! You too, Chris.

Last spring I got lucky and won a trip to Athens, Greece. My only interest in the visit to Greece was to see the historical and archeological sights and visit some Greek islands. The prize had nothing to do with skateboarding, but as always, I brought my skateboards along. Unfortunately, I didn’t meet any skateboarders and found no interesting places to skateboard.

My ticket to Athens on KLM Airlines required that I change planes at Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam. I viewed the ruins of Greece and strolled where Plato and Socrates had walked before me. I did so for five days, then returned home. Again, I changed planes in Amsterdam, where I had a ten-hour layover before my flight to Los Angeles. The KLM agent in Athens assured me I would have no problem finding a room at one of the approximately twenty hotels at the Schiphol Airport.

Wrong!

There was a large convention in Amsterdam that weekend, and the hotels at the Schiphol were full, except for a single room available at the Hilton for $350.00. Seven hours of quick catnapping for $350.00? No way. A great idea clicked in my brain, and I rented a Fiat from Avis. Parked in a covered garage, the Fiat became my bunk bed for the night. Outside, the Amsterdam weather was rainy and cold, but here in the little Fiat parked in the garage, I was warm and cozy, snuggled in a sweater and baggy corduroys.

It was a wonderful night, and I awakened only once at around 5:00 a.m. I felt chilly. No problem. I started the engine. Within a few minutes, the heater had warmed the car’s interior, so I killed the motor and the heater and fell asleep until 8:00 a.m. I awoke, changed clothes in the car, brushed my teeth and hair in the airport washroom, and checked onto the plane. I shaved in the washroom of the KLM 747. It was the usual 747 flight: great meals, great wines, charming attendants, and terrible movies. After a long, boring twelve hours to LAX, we finallyrrived.

In the 50-plus years I’ve been traveling the world, I have always breezed through U.S. Customs, but on this particular day, my customs reception was very difficult.

An overly alert agent noticed I had made several trips outside the country. Two trips (to Vancouver and Athens) were for short visits of only four days. The Customs inspector also noticed I had visited Amsterdam on four separate occasions this year, but on each visit I had stayed less than twelve hours. Amsterdam is the drug capital of the world, where it is legal to possess and grow marijuana. Marijuana is everywhere. You see it growing on the decks of houseboats on the canals. Tourists go to the coffee houses for marijuana and espresso, charging both items to their Visa cards. Unfortunately, naiveté attracts devils – heroin, amphetamines, cocaine, and death are often not far behind. My first visit to Amsterdam was to view Van Goghs and Rembrants, now Amsterdam depresses me.

The customs agent was also curious about my trip to Vancouver – a city to pass through when moving drugs from the Far East to the United States. Suddenly, customs viewed me as a very suspicious character. In customs jargon, I had “a profile.” Over the next few hours, I began to slowly realize that these agents were convinced I was a drug courier. In drug jargon, “a mule.”

I was placed in the custody of another airport agent who politely asked that I place my bags on a large table for inspection. I was ordered to open my backpack, my shoulder bag, and the large bag containing my clothes and skateboards. With very little sensitivity, the agent removed all of my neatly folded clothing and the skateboards, dumping them on the counter. When finished, the agent ordered me to repack my bag. This action is designed to humiliate and frighten the criminal.

The dumping and repackaging was performed while I was being interrogated about the reasons for my travels. Although my bag held three skateboards, the agents appeared to doubt I was a skateboarder and that I had journeyed to Vancouver for a competition. One agent said his grandparents didn’t do anything like “that skateboarding stuff.” Another agent related that his grandparents just sat around the house watching television.

So I was a drug suspect because I am active and healthy?

I cracked, “Buy them skateboards; that’ll get them up and jumping.”

They responded with no humor.

Back in the 60s, my first foreign vacation had carried me to Spain. In Pamplona, I suffered from a very embarrassing case of diarrhea. Trying to explain one’s problems to a pharmacist who doesn’t speak English can be a very difficult and unforgettable task. I decided such an incident would never happen again. For this reason, when I travel I carry a huge supply of medicines for any unwanted occasions. Some of the medicines are so old they are probably useless, but I still carried them: Kaopectate, aspirin, an enema solution, vitamins from A to E, St. John’s Wort, indigestion and gas pills, allergy pills, cold medicines, cough medicines, Neosporin, antioxidant supplement pills, Clearasil, bandages, knee braces, Mineral Ice for sore skateboarding muscles, etc., etc., etc. I even carry condoms and Kentucky Jelly, if I should be so lucky as to need them. Certainly, my medical anxiety is overdone, but I do not worry about visiting doctors and pharmacists when I travel the world. But this time the medicine chest would become troubling evidence.

Three agents escorted me to a very small room with a desk. I was instructed to stand spread-eagle in the corner and place my hands on each wall. I know what spread-eagle is, I watch cop movies on TV. The agents did not make me undress. Prior to performing the pat down, the agents explained the investigative action and described what I could expect. They insisted I look straight ahead at the wall. I had done nothing illegal, but I was curious.

When one is going through a pat down, it is very difficult to just stare at a wall and be unemotional. The hands of the agent ran all over my body very, very slowly. He kept patting, and I kept looking, and he kept repeating very sternly, “Straight ahead.” He didn’t miss a spot. His fingers caressed my buttocks and anus; slowly his hands examined my testicles and penis. I was very grateful that I wasn’t naked.

I like to look on my life from the happy side. Instead of being infuriated, I accepted the actions with good humor and extreme fascination. I suffered from no guilt of being a drug courier, so I had no fear. The more I though about it, the more humorous all of this weirdness became. My mind wandered through the ridiculous. I wondered if classes in the pat down were required of all the trainees prior to graduation and promotion. In these classes, did they practice on mannequins, or did the students pat down each other? Were the pat downs just reruns of light-hearted teenage discoveries, or more? By graduation day, the trainees should be very good buddies. The giggling at my humor annoyed the agents. “Straight ahead! Stop moving.”

When the basic assumption is incorrect, all other reasoning that follows is equally flawed. The false becomes the fact. All energy is directed into providing value for the flawed assumption. Faster and faster they surmised greater fantasies. I was carrying condoms, so I had filled them with drugs and swallowed the condoms. Or I had used the lubricant to insert the drug-filled condoms into my anus. The enema preparation in my medicine bag was to be used for releasing the drug-filled condoms after I had passed through Customs.

Such fantasies must be proven. The agents told me they were taking me to the hospital for X-rays of my stomach and bowls. They wanted me to sign a release paper. I asked how long the hospital episode would take.

“About two hours.”

Would they drive me home after the X-rays? No, I would be returned to the airport.

Absolutely not! I was no longer amused. There would be no cooperation. Enough of this absurdity! All of this had been an interesting experience, but now it was going to end. I had many things to do this afternoon, but getting X-rays of my stomach and bowels was not going to be one of them.

Then, just as suddenly, I agreed to the X-rays. Yes, I wanted to be X-rayed. I wanted to tell everyone about what has happened to me today. Unsaid, but deeply planted in my mind, I decided I would write and article about this weirdness. I agreed to sign the release for the medical examinations. They produced the paper; I signed.

The agents left the room. I was alone. I assumed I was being watched on closed-circuit television. They returned quickly and said I was free to leave. One of the agents dramatically tore up the hospital examination release that I signed. “Have a nice day.” No apologies.

“What are the condoms for?” I sneered. “Quickie sex, if I’m so lucky.”

They laughed. These guys are in their late twenties and early 30s. They think “old” is a synonym for “dead.” Well, maybe their grandparents are, but not this boy. – Bill Dorr

just stare at a wall and be unemotional. The hands of the agent ran all over my body very, very slowly. He kept patting, and I kept looking, and he kept repeating very sternly, “Straight ahead.” He didn’t miss a spot. His fingers caressed my buttocks and anus; slowly his hands examined my testicles and penis. I was very grateful that I wasn’t naked.

I like to look on my life from the happy side. Instead of being infuriated, I accepted the actions with good humor and extreme fascination. I suffered from no guilt of being a drug courier, so I had no fear. The more I though about it, the more humorous all of this weirdness became. My mind wandered through the ridiculous. I wondered if classes in the pat down were required of all the trainees prior to graduation and promotion. In these classes, did they practice on mannequins, or did the students pat down each other? Were the pat downs just reruns of light-hearted teenage discoveries, or more? By graduation day, the trainees should be very good buddies. The giggling at my humor annoyed the agents. “Straight ahead! Stop moving.”

When the basic assumption is incorrect, all other reasoning that follows is equally flawed. The false becomes the fact. All energy is directed into providing value for the flawed assumption. Faster and faster they surmised greater fantasies. I was carrying condoms, so I had filled them with drugs and swallowed the condoms. Or I had used the lubricant to insert the drug-filled condoms into my anus. The enema preparation in my medicine bag was to be used for releasing the drug-filled condoms after I had passed through Customs.

Such fantasies must be proven. The agents told me they were taking me to the hospital for X-rays of my stomach and bowls. They wanted me to sign a release paper. I asked how long the hospital episode would take.

“About two hours.”

Would they drive me home after the X-rays? No, I would be returned to the airport.

Absolutely not! I was no longer amused. There would be no cooperation. Enough of this absurdity! All of this had been an interesting experience, but now it was going to end. I had many things to do this afternoon, but getting X-rays of my stomach and bowels was not going to be one of them.

Then, just as suddenly, I agreed to the X-rays. Yes, I wanted to be X-rayed. I wanted to tell everyone about what has happened to me today. Unsaid, but deeply planted in my mind, I decided I would write and article about this weirdness. I agreed to sign the release for the medical examinations. They produced the paper; I signed.

The agents left the room. I was alone. I assumed I was being watched on closed-circuit television. They returned quickly and said I was free to leave. One of the agents dramatically tore up the hospital examination release that I signed. “Have a nice day.” No apologies.

“What are the condoms for?” I sneered. “Quickie sex, if I’m so lucky.”

They laughed. These guys are in their late twenties and early 30s. They think “old” is a synonym for “dead.” Well, maybe their grandparents are, but not this boy. – Bill Dorr