PORTLAND, ORE. — I have now taken two airline flights since Sept. 11, and before each one, I was asked to step out of the line at the security checkpoint and submit to a "pat down" search.
I realize the need for such measures, but the experience still caught me off guard. I have spent my entire adult life complying with the law. I don't cross police lines. I pull my car to the side of the road when I see an emergency vehicle heading my way. And I always cooperate with road crews holding the "Slow" and "Stop" signs.
So there I was, being frisked for the first time, the hands of a complete stranger squeezing my arms and legs. It gives you a new appreciation for the Bill of Rights. My first thought was, "Do they really think I look like ... ?" But that kind of attitude is exactly what we don't need right now. In fact, I probably looked extremely questionable. Since I don't shave every day, my face is usually sporting a healthy growth of stubble, and wearing dark glasses indoors adds another layer of mystique.
I probably looked a bit "swarthy." This word has been cropping up in news stories about passengers who have aroused concern simply because of their physical characteristics. For most Americans, "swarthy" implies dark hair and olive skin, without specifically targeting people of Middle Eastern origin. But anyone with a literary background knows that writers have often used the term to describe roughneck characters of all nationalities.
Consider this passage from a classic novel: "Perrault was a French-Canadian, and swarthy; but François was a French-Canadian half-breed, and twice as swarthy."
Yes, they were uncouth, but Perrault and François taught Buck how to be a great trail dog in "The Call of the Wild." Odd to think that in our 21st-century world, two sled drivers from the Yukon might be viewed by the authorities as potential airline hijackers.
I'm also glad that during my pat-down, I did not blurt out, "Wait! I'm a block captain!" For one thing, it's not exactly true. I used to be block captain. I helped install Neighborhood Watch signs, and put out a monthly newsletter, but our group was never tightly organized, and eventually disbanded.
Perhaps more important, announcing my background too loudly could have propelled my name into a data bank of Homeland Security patrol volunteers. Having grown up watching countless "Bugs Bunny" cartoons from World War II, I have no desire to emulate those imperious air-raid wardens in white helmets who were constantly portrayed running from house to house shouting, "Put out that light!"
For now, I'm doing as our leaders recommend, resuming normal routines and not letting panic affect my behavior toward strangers.
Recently, I saw a truck with three swarthy men driving slowly on a Sunday morning. A mobile terrorist cell? No, just a guy named Isaiah and his helpers, landscaping the yard across the street. I knew that from talking to them on previous visits.
On my street, nobody's getting patted down yet - and I want it to stay that way.