Innocence and the flying brick
`WOULD you like a lead brick?'' Margaret asked. That's what I like about being a journalist: People ask you the oddest questions. ``Would I what?'' I replied.Skip to next paragraph
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``As a souvenir of your visit,'' she said.
Outside, the Midwestern autumn shed its warmth on the Illinois landscape. Inside the corrugated steel building, Margaret had been explaining what I'd come halfway across America to see: the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, a four-mile-long circular tunnel dug into the farmland, around which pieces of atoms are set whirling until they smash into one another at energies of 2 trillion volts.
``We use the bricks to shield against radiation,'' she continued. ``We've got a lot of extras - they make good doorstops.'' Dutifully, I selected a modest-size one from the stack by the door. It was dark gray, slightly greasy to the touch - and astonishingly heavy, like a whole armload of firewood compressed into a paperback book.
``Thanks,'' I said, trying to appear nonchalant as I found myself listing dangerously to starboard. As we walked out to my car, Margaret chatted amiably about the physicists I'd be meeting over dinner. I experimented with several postures. For a while I dangled the brick by my side - with studied indifference, the way a husband carries his wife's purse while she's busy in a shop. When I felt my fingers slipping, I flexed it up to shoulder height, like a weight lifter ready to press. We reached the car just as the elbow was beginning to penetrate the rib cage. I plunked it into the trunk and forgot about it.
Until the next day, that is. That's when I remembered that I'd flown, not driven, to Chicago - that this was a rented car, that I had no luggage to check, and that I'd have to take the brick home in my carry-on bag.
``What's that]?'' said the uniformed woman at the Midway Airport security checkpoint, squinting at the X-rayed image on her video screen.
My heart sank. I'd just returned the car to a lot that seemed miles away - and walked down the long, sun-warmed hallway toward the gate. Twice I'd had to stop and set down my bag - and my briefcase, and the case with my tape recorder and portable computer, and the plastic bag with gifts for the family - and rearrange the load. Now, my collar damp under my tie and perspiration trickling behind one ear, I knew I had to explain myself.
``It's a lead brick,'' I said carelessly, the way you'd say, ``Oh, that's just my shampoo.''
``A lead brick,'' I said, mopping my brow and trying not to look nervous. A couple of years ago, writing a series of articles on terrorism, I'd learned that security guards are trained to spot unusually anxious and shifty-eyed passengers.
``Why do you have a lead brick?'' she said evenly, scrutinizing me over the top of her screen.
I told her about Fermilab, 2 trillion-volt protons, and radioactivity. That didn't seem to help. So I explained that I was just a journalist.
``I'm afraid I'll have to have a look,'' she said. I groped among the dirty socks and pulled it out. She picked it up, gasped, and put it down.
``Technically I'm not supposed to let you on with this,'' she said. ``It could be used as a weapon.''
``A weapon!'' I said. ``I can hardly lift it.''
``I know,'' she said, beginning to soften. ``But I'll have to register it anyway. Do you have a business card?''
I handed her one. She wrote something on her clipboard, smiled, and waved me through. I stuffed the brick back in among the laundry, trudged down to the gate, boarded the plane, and shuffled down to my window seat.