I realised after I’d posted yesterday that I’d missed out perhaps the most powerful intrusion of the War On Terror (TM) into my life, the liquid explosives plot of August 2006 which happened the same week I flew to Chicago. It also happens to be the funniest, in a maudlin kind of way.
It was 14th August 2006, three days since three men attempted to smuggle liquid explosives onto airliners. Flights were cancelled, and whilst everything was now in theory back to normal, the backlog of flights and the lengthy security checks means the reality couldn’t be further from that. Check-in times were extended, which for a flight which left before 8am now meant a 4am checkin time, which meant a National Express coach at 12.10am.
I have certainly said before now that Friends Don’t Let Friends Take the National Express, a mantra I stick to so strongly that I once drove to Heathrow (a round trip of 250-odd miles) to pick up an American friend to spare her that fate. This attitude was forged that night, principally because it was a perfect illustration of Trains Good, Coaches Bad. Trains are long. This gives trains the crucial advatage that should you find yourself near someone or something noisy/scary/unpleasant, you can pretty much rely on being able to stand up, wander along and pick a new place to sit. Trains have also worked out that whilst toilets are useful and neccesary things, they are best positioned between carriages where you can ignore them until such time as you wish to use one. The humble coach, however, has no such luxury. No-one should have to witness the terror of a toddler who is convinced the bus toilet is going to swallow him up, or the stuggles of his mother trying to convince him otherwise, or indeed the smell that results because she is crouching in the doorway trying to reassure him and thus cannot close said door. Sleep? Nothing could have seemed more distant and unattainable. I arrived at Heathrow in the middle of the night, bleary-eyed and promising never to travel on one of these infernal vehicles ever again.
That morning, Heathrow was like a warzone; policemen with machine guns, kids wrapped in space blankets, families who had been stranded for three days trying to get home, backpackers camped out on their rolled-out foam mats by check-in desks. I had my shoes sniffed for explosives, we checked in all our hand luggage and carried passport and boarding pass in a clear plastic bag. No inflight movies, nothing to read, no-one really in a talking mood either, strangely enough. There was an exception to that rule in the shape of a tall, 50-something, extravagantly camp American Airlines steward with a DeVito-esque Noo Yoik accent who wandered down the aisle of the 767 exclaiming, “Would ya like the calzone or the folded pizza?” The children, of course, were seriously considering this non-choice. Every so often an adult with a working knowledge of what a calzone was would make eye contact with him, and he would return their gaze with an imploring look that said “Please don’t ruin this for them, we could all use a laugh this morning.” He was right about that.
As the first flight to O’Hare that day, we managed to get take-off and landing slots. I learned later that the next two were cancelled. I came very close to joining the ranks of the space-blanketed, kipping on a bench and living off fried chicken in Terminal 3 to await a seat.
Border control at O’Hare were jumpy, perhaps understandably, and lone male travellers aren’t exactly their favourite thing anyway, but after a brief, intense set of rapid-fire questions about whether or not I could prove I had a return ticket (difficult without my luggage, but I eventually found a print-out of my Travelocity receipt; what might have happened if I hadn’t bothered putting that in my see-through plastic bag we will never know), I was admitted to the Land of the Free, Home of the Preternaturally Suspicious.
By that afternoon I was, admittedly in a somewhat jetlagged state, looking out over Lake Michigan from a tiny beach by the north shore suburb of Winnetka IL. Lucky doesn’t begin to cover it.
Michigan seems like a dream to me now
I’ve gone to look for America
Paul Simon, America
Assume for a minute that the Michigan in question is the lake rather than the state and these words seem almost prophetic, or at the very least like a paraphrasing of the sort of statement I’ve uttered countless times.
This probably doesn’t make a huge amount of sense to most of you. Before I progress any further then, I should at least begin some sort of account of my last (and first, if you’ll excuse the jarring nature of putting those two in close proximity; the English language is a strange and wonderful beast!) trip to the United States.
There is, I’m reasonably convinced, nothing in the experience of the average British 18-year-old that prepares you for your first sight of one of the truly great American cities. No amount of photos or guidebook accounts can prepare you for the first time you approach, at ground level, the sheer cliff face of the metropolis, rising out of a morass of suburbia. (more…)