FLOTSAM & JETSAM: Notes from the cove: Travel

Thursday, May 02, 2013

Notes from the cove: Travel

Sam Smith - My general view of travel matches Samuel Johnson's when asked if Rome was worth seeing: "Worth seeing, yes. Worth going to see, no."

Perhaps it is because of too many unexpectedly fluid stools left in too many foreign lands. Perhaps it is because of our strange legal system that forces ramps to be widely provided for the handicapped but allows airlines to cramp our legs with impunity.

And perhaps it is because of a strange tendency for me to be viewed suspiciously by those guarding our transport, a tendency that began at the age of 13 on a vessel headed from Puerto Barrios in Guatemala to New Orleans. On the first night out, a crew member was murdered and his body dragged through the dining salon and pushed out of one of its large portholes. For the rest of the trip, we passed the roped off bloody trail as we had our next meal.

It didn't scare me because I already had the instincts of a journalist and even arose at an early hour to see the police and Coast Guard vessels guarding us as we moved up the Mississippi River. Once in port, none of us left the vessel for eight hours as everyone, down to my three year old youngest sister, was interrogated by the FBI.

Pursuing the story, I asked my father how I was going to find out who done it. He gave me a dollar and told me to give it and my address to the hotel elevator operator and ask him to end you any news stories. "It probably won't work," he said, "but give it a try."

It did work, which is how this hard hitting 13 year old reporter discovered that the man had been killed by another crew member in a dispute over a gambling debt.

Some years later, now a college student, I found myself sitting in the increasingly empty customs area on the dock where the steampship America had landed after bringing me home from Europe. It clearly wasn't anything in my bags because they remained uninspected.

As I sat patiently on one of them as the last passenger on the dock, an inspector finally came by and said by way of greeting, "You're not the Smith we're looking for."
He glanced perfunctorily at my passport and asked me whether I was in college. I admitted that I went to Harvard.

"Harvard, huh? You have any problems with those communists up there?"

I couldn't come up with any and so he let me go.

It would be some decades before I would be a traveling suspect again. I was flying from Washington to Kansas City not long after the TWA 800 crash, the event - not 9/11 that actually initiated our manic efforts for airplane security.

My computer - a new brand of laptop from Japan - was the culprit. The airport security team's scanning sticks had determined that the computer was up to no good because it hadn't yet gotten on the approved list of computer smells. I waited a full 45 minutes while the pre-TSA security team tried to figure out what to do with me.

Finally, a National Airport police officer approached with his dog. The dog sniffed the computer, wagged his tail, and I was declared free to board the plane.

That was about four years before September 11 and remains one of those special moments when one is among the last of something good. For once on the plane, the airport police officer came aboard to get my Social Security number and before he left actually apologized for the incident, pointing out that it was not his department but the airline security team that had been responsible. Later, after I wrote a letter to the airline, I even got an apologetic reply from one of its vice presidents.

Departing from Kansas City, I thought it best to warn the airline security agent of how my computer had failed to screening in Washington. Her response, "Oh, they just don't feed their dogs right" and waved me on.

Some time later I ran into a similar problem flying into Long Island, which really surprised me because I couldn't figure out why a terrorist would bother bombing Long Island.

These experiences were not intimidating but symbolized the uncertainties of travel.

As did my departure this morning for Washington. I was no more than a half mile down the narrow road towards town when a friend, whose phone number I had given to the local police, came the other way and informed me that my burglar alarm had gone off and that the cops were on their way. Indeed, by the time I had turned around I was followed back to my home by two police cars. It was just a mechanical problem but it was one more piece of evidence to support my thesis that I will end my days in gunfire as I step out the cab at an airport in a town I never wanted to visit in the first place.

Besides, as Ralph Waldo Emerson put it, "Traveling is a fool's paradise. . .I pack my trunk, embrace my friends, embark on the sea, and at last wake up in Naples, and there beside me is the stern fact, the sad self, unrelenting, identical, that I fled from. . .My giant goes with me wherever I go."

I also think that some of us are doers and some are viewers. I am happiest doing something and never did well in museums.

And there is one other factor, magnificently expressed by Henry Beetle Hough, an editor of the Martha's Vinyard Gazette: "If I should go away I would miss something."

I have one major exception to my antipathy towards travel: trains. As I wrote once:
I early subscribed to Edna St. Vincent Millay's view that "there isn't a train I wouldn't take no matter where it's going." Such an opinion required not only a sense of romance, but considerable endurance, for love of trains was often unrequited. Trains could be dirty, cold, hot, late, cancelled, overcrowded, or sit for hours in a wheat field for no fathomable reason. I would quickly learn, for example, that the silver temperature control knobs in Pullmans were either dummy switches or that the legends on them had been printed in random order. But such annoyances were more than balanced by the pleasures of standing in the vestibule with the top of the dutch door open feeling the air and the country rush by. Or watching from the last car as the roadbed disappeared into a point. Or pasting your nose to the window and seeing the engine pull you around a curve. Or peering into the backyard of America. Or climbing into the top bunk. Or getting off the train in the middle of nowhere and wondering with another passenger what the problem was.
And lately I've added another exception: the Concord Coach bus line between Portland Maine and Boston, which features free pretzels and water southbound (but not northbound because of the stingy rules of Logan Airport), and drivers who have clearly learned a lot by watching the David Letterman show. They sing, joke and get through the required announcements as though it was a stage routine. The latest told us said that if we liked his service his name was Larry; if not it was Charlie. And we were to please be sure not to leave anything behind, but if we did, not to worry: "You can just go on a website called Ebay and bid accordingly."