If a priest asks you to watch his luggage

What did I do? The result was an unhappy priest. And safety.

We've all heard the airport warnings not to leave our bags unattended or accept anything from strangers, so when a priest ran up to my wife, Elaine, as we were waiting to board a plane, and asked her to watch his bags for a minute, an alarm went off in my head.

Perhaps I'd seen too many action movies, but my first thought was "terrorist!" She, of course, had thought nothing of it; had smiled and nodded and said she'd be happy to look after them.

So it came as a shock when I told her that we had to tell the man at the check-in counter what had happened. "It's expressly forbidden," I said. "He should know better than that."

"But he's a priest," she said.

"You mean he looks like a priest," I said. "What better disguise could you have?"

Reluctantly, Elaine went over to the counter and told the airline representative what had happened, and he came and took the bags.

I didn't really expect sirens to go off or a SWAT team to come rushing over, but I was surprised to notice that he simply put the bags behind the counter and called someone on the telephone. Perhaps five minutes went by.

Gradually, I became aware that a large man sitting across from us was staring at me. "He looked like a regular priest to me," he finally said. I nodded and smiled, not wanting to be drawn into an argument.

The bags were still behind the counter where the man had put them. Why wasn't something being done about them? And where was the priest?

I was beginning to feel both foolish and angry at the same time. When airport security started being tightened up a few years ago, I had joked about an umbrella I was carrying. "Don't you want to examine this?" I'd said. "After all, it could be full of illegal drugs – or high explosives." Another security guard rushed over and told me that I could be taken in for questioning for saying such a thing, that it was no joking matter. And he was dead serious.

When the priest appeared a few minutes later, Elaine ushered him over to where they'd put his bags. I could see, the flight representative was chewing him out, but nicely.

They weren't going to drag him off somewhere or even, apparently, search his bags. I was beginning to feel more and more foolish. The priest looked befuddled. He was an older man – thin, ascetic-looking.

The airline representative seemed to be having a tough time explaining the situation to him. When the priest came over with his bags and sat down, both Elaine and I avoided eye contact with him.

Later, as we were sitting in the plane, the priest walked past us. "I'm sorry," Elaine said to him, but he didn't acknowledge her in any way. Was he deaf, perhaps? Or just angry? Disillusioned? Disappointed that even a priest is no longer above suspicion?

So what are you supposed to do? I thought. Use your own judgment? And what if he had been a terrorist? Wasn't it better to have embarrassed the man, slightly, not to mention Elaine and myself, than to have us all go up in smoke?

Of course.

And yet if I had to set up a good airport security system, I'm not certain just what I'd do.

Clinton Trowbridge is a freelance writer.

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