This is the day I almost missed my flight home to see my son due to a slingshot. A slingshot that was not mine! This wooden toy, carved like a tiger, was given to me a couple nights before by Chubbs. “Hey I’ve got something. Would you be willing it to give it to my son?” He hands me a plastic bag with a couple notes for his family and this cool little 3-by-7 inch wooden sling shot.
My #1 concern receiving it: Don’t forget this helo pilot’s one request! He’s a man flying missions every day in the Middle East for goodness’ sake. And all I’ve got to do is get it in my bag, and not forget once I’m back to stop by his home, just across the street, and give it to his family.
But between the SH-60 SeaHawk Helicopter ride getting me off the Cruiser, then the C-2A Greyhound launch off the Carrier’s Flight Deck; the Bahraini Customs at the Airforce’s AMC Terminal and then the 12 hour wait in Bahrain, it didn’t cross my mind to not keep this one thing—that represented me getting to go home and see my family when no one else from my crew were able to—in my backpack for safekeeping.
Important stuff goes in the backpack right? Wallet, phone charger, survival snacks, aspirin, underwear, and special deliveries right? Wouldn’t want it to get pilfered by grasping hands in my sea bag during 8000 miles of transport in the belly of various airplanes…or broken by heavy luggage stowed on it.
“Sir, dese items are prohibited in da Nederlands. Maybe not in yuhr country, but, yes, here. Vhy didn’t you poot it in yuhr checked baggage?” They ask me.
I had arrived to Amsterdam at 0800. And realized not at once, but progressively, that the flashing screen for departures (listed in multiple languages), said 1220 Salt Lake, and probably meant that my flight was delayed from 1030 to 1220. Ohh crud, I thought. What time is it in Salt Lake, I’ll be arriving then two hours late. Maybe, man–probably, unless they make up the time, I’ll miss the connection to San Diego. Okay, I better go talk to a representative.
The first person I found was on the main floor of the Airport Lobby. I asked the guest services man, in yellow shirt, for directions to the Delta Desk. He said, “They won’t change the ticket here, if you miss it, just go to the Delta Desk once you get there to Salt Lake.”
But, I’ve been through this before. I knew better. So I went and got in line at the Delta Help Desk.
The Help Desk
Thankfully the line was short, and a tall, 6 foot blond Dutch woman was kind and helpful wearing a red KLM blazer (Royal Dutch Airlines). But then they got busy, person after person kept lining up. Thank God I got here early.
She confirmed, “Yes. You will miss yuhr flight connection in Sohlt Lake.”
This caused some irony. While there had been two Desert Hawk Helo Flights canceled earlier that week, and we’d had no available seats on the COD from the Carrier earlier in the week, all the military flights had gone like clockwork since leaving Saturday morning at 0800. But now, I get to Amsterdam International Airport and out of all the flights listed under departures mine seems to be the only one delayed…and the weather looked perfect out there hovering at Zero degrees Celsius, there in that green country.
The Dutch attendant—to whom I’ve of course shown pictures of Isak, our new-born son, and of brave Damaris—starts to make calls.
I waited 10-15 minutes as she helped 6 or 7 others, and I stood to the side. I want to be honest about a physical effect of 24 plus hours of travel and perhaps the stress of trying to get home to your post-natal wife — I had developed some uncomfortable gas and was a little grateful to stand to the side in mercy to this line of fellow human beings!
She’s back with me, “Good news, Sir. There is anuhdder flight out to San Diego after dah one you’ll miss. You vhill get to San Diego only two hours later!”
A Standard Question with an Honest Answer
I’m amazed, relieved! And now, they tell me, I need to get in a line for a pre-screen process for international flights. I hand my passport to the KLM agent behind the kiosk. I start telling him about Isak. Upon receiving my passport he says, “Where are you coming from?”
Part of our task, that we are constantly reminded of in the military, is maintaining operational security. We are not to disclose the exact location of our ship. So I was cautious, not knowing if he was prying or simply curious. I didn’t realize he played a security role for KLM. So trying to prompt me to speak, he says more emphatically, “Really, where are you coming from? How did you get to Bahrain?” At this point I start showing him pictures of my flight, sitting in the Helo, a picture of our landing on the big ship to show that this is genuinely how I came to Bahrain. He says, “Okay, Okay. I understand.”
It hadn’t crossed my mind how strange a passport looks with no entry stamps in it. Not stamped leaving the U.S. Not stamped entering Bahrain. Now here I am in Amsterdam International Airport. And it feels like I could get stuck, with his questioning me, that I’m going to re-enact scenes from Tom Hank’s movie The Terminal all over again!
So he moves on with another question. Did anyone give you anything? Standard question. I recall Chubbs’ gift. So I answer, “Yes.” And then take out the baggie with the notes and the toy. Not even a clue that this wooden slingshot could be considered a weapon.
He says, “I dohn’t know about dis!” Calls over a stern security officer who starts to give me grief. I’m trying now to push back saying, “I’m the one who brought up that I even have this thing. So…how do we figure it out? Put it in my checked bag. Give me a waiver?”
I can’t let this wooden sling shot out of my sight for the love of Bunker Hill and her kids! I tell the stern man,“I’m not trying to be difficult.” He says, “Yes, you are. You’re arguing.” I try to calmly state my case. He slightly softens and calls for “higher.” Back to the red blazer, red skirt, senior help desk attendant. He walks over to show Chubbs’ slingshot. She murmurs, “mmm….mmmm.” Then smiles, “Keep it een yuhr bag okay…?” And assures me that it will be alright.
Stress and Fatigue
I think they are all amused seeing the irony of a toy being smuggled past their security by an American Sailor who just had a new-born son who means to give it to his fellow shipmate’s son, who happens to be a neighbor?? Could they know that it takes us three to four weeks to get mail home? Not to mention the stress of packaging it. That gift would never have made it in time for the holidays sent another way.
This is not the chill Amsterdam time I’d anticipated. Already feeling somewhat drained from the vigil of waiting two weeks to get home to my wife and son. Nope. This was not chilling for 60-90 minutes at Starbucks, catching quick WiFi, then sipping on the first real coffee in 72 days (that’s not made with reverse osmosis seawater treated with Bromine)… that I’d hoped for.
Thoughts rushed through my brain. Leaving this awkward scene I was grateful to have Chubbs’ slingshot back in my backpack. That was weird, stressful, but done, I thought.
More thoughts. I need to get ahold of Bob about the flight delay—hopefully he can still pick me up. I’ve got to break the news to Damaris that I’ll be late due to another delay. And honestly, I’m kinda hungry. Head tired…and this Baaahhhdd flatus is still cycling through.
I headed to the Delta/KLM lounge hoping for relief. Maybe they’ll let me in being active-duty Military and all. Let me just say I began realizing that though the airport in the Netherlands felt like America, especially compared to Saipan, the Ship, and Bahrain… it was NOT.
From the different security screening process, to the different regulations regarding weapons, to now my seemingly indifferent treatment at this lounge’s front desk. They did not care about my Delta Skymiles Platinum card or military service.
The Uneasy Wait
Well I’ll skip details of my buying a delicious Dutch pancake and tasting some coffee that gave me a turn…
I was walking again now having contacted Bob and briefly skype-called Damaris. It was 2:15am there.
She’s on the verge of tears ‘cause Isak prefers the bottle, and one side of her feels more productive of milk than the other…and the news of my delay, I can tell, hurts her heart, desperate for me to just get home.
I was walking then, to go price out Starbucks, before heading to the gate for the flight when I hear over the airport intercom, “Salt Lake departing at 12:20 has been moved from Terminal E to Terminal D”. Oh man the gate’s been changed.
Quickly, I headed that way and arrived to the gate. Once, in line to board, Peter, a Dutch man, father of four and a grandpa, approached me and said, wearing his red KLM vest, “Ahh duh Police need to toke to you about duh Katapolt.” It’s taking on whole new words now! He’s friendly about Isak. Must have spoken to others about me. He’s also apologetic in demeanor. I go along with him as they take me out of line.
So Close, Yet So Far
I watch 80, 90, 100 people filing through, getting on our plane to the U.S. of A and now there’s no line! They’re saying over the loud speaker, “Final call for flight to Salt Lake City.”
Peter’s calling the police on his phone, they aren’t showing up. I confess I start not worrying about Chubbs and start worrying about Dembr (my nickname for Damaris using her five initials.)
What have I gotten myself into? There’s a man, different from Peter, now guarding me. He says, “it’s out of vyur hahnds now.” I say, “You guys can have the sling shot.” But he explains that the police need to do an interview and that formal turnover of the contraband (?!) is required.
Oh brother, this feels like our mission trip to Romania all over again, 15 years ago, in the Paris Airport when Elizabeth L. wasn’t showing up at the gate to fly, and our team kept waiting till past final boarding call.
I see myself, in my mind’s eye, hunched over Indian-style 15 feet away from these strangers crying about the ridiculousness, the tragedy, of this situation…but I tell myself even if I could make myself cry it wouldn’t do any good. Then a KLM representative—there must have been 6 or 7 of them who had been giving reassurances—begins saying, “I can’t hold a flight of 300 for one person.” Her tone expressing, You got yourself into this.
Did I, Chubbs, Bunker Hill, or the Terrorists who attacked on 9/11? Did I when I said my commissioning oath by that Philadelphia Liberty Bell 12 DEC 2011?
The whole thing was exhausting. Somehow a distilled parable of the sacrifice of separation and the unknown that the military faces.
The same parable that DEMBR and I have lived, suffered and embraced while being an officer and Chaplain to Marines and Sailors these past 6 years.
Two tall police officers show up. Perhaps 25 and 42 years old. They’d long since called “Final Boarding.” With thick Dutch accent the younger says, “Let’s make diss quick, vehr is diss item? You vhill give it to me, eet’s prohibited. We’ve got a flight tuh get you on tah see yuhr son.”
There was an unmistakable military bond I felt with the men in arms. And to be honest the relief of resolution, even resolution one doesn’t want, was washing over me.
I handed him Chubb’s son’s slightshot feeling pained. Wanted to take a picture to show, “Hey I tried! And here’s what happened. Honest, they actually confiscated it! And here’s the young policeman who stole your kid’s Christmas…”
But he was right. I didn’t take the picture, because I needed to move on. I needed to be on that flight for Dembr….struggling to nurse, freaking herself out, weary, sad. And me, no idea how she’s doing. What she needs from me. What I can do to help….Makes me nervous. Don’t want to miss it. But I feel I can help. Especially with Isak still under 6 pounds and needing to gain weight.
The fight was knocked outta me. I was ready to crawl on all fours down that ramp begging to be on the flight if they had asked me to. I cared, but come on! I’d almost missed my flight to Damaris and Isak in the middle of a Mid-East deployment over a toy slingshot! Ahhhhhh!!! Crazy, Crazy, Crazy, Crazy, Ahhhhh!!
How did I not see this coming? Culture shock? Shock! Lord, how long do you want me to stay in the military and keep doing this?
I trudged down the ramp, with quick step, resigned and ready to move forward. And thank God, the door to the plane was still open! A KLM attendant accompanying me from the gate to ensure they’d open it.
Everyone’s seated. I spy my seat. Great. I’ll be sitting by an affectionate couple. Ok Lord, sitting by a yoga pants girl too….I miss Damaris…Will these stowage overheads be full with my being the last one on?…Yep. This is a little tight…What do I need to take out of my bag for the next 10.5 hours?
Then he was there. Ruddy cheeked. Strong. Wearing his Beret. Special Lieutenant “Hans Brinker”.
He seems to tap my shoulder, “I deedn’t see it. Eet’s not allowed in my cuntree, but if you tahlk to dah attendants vhen you geet ohff, they’ll have somting fer you. Ahnd—thank you fer yuhr service.”
Eye contact. Firm Handshake.
“God bless you,” I say. I get out a picture of Isak. “On behalf of my son and wife, Thank you.” He turns around smartly to disembark the plane.
Yes, thank you Lieutenant “Hans Brinker” and all of Holland for the tulips, pancakes, bunny clogs and for your display of duty, attention to law and security and for reserving just enough grey area to send this tired Sailor home to his wife and his son with his mission intact—carrying my message to Garcia still. God you didn’t let me fail. Even when my hope was gone.
Bob came on time to pick me up in San Diego. As we rolled onto my street in his big Diesel powered Chevy Truck, he slowed, then parked at the curb by our driveway. I off-loaded my bags and farewelled him.
I pause. It’s only right. There was one stop I needed to make before kissing Damaris and holding Isak. The Harris* household and all of the USS Bunker Hill personnel who’d sacrificed to send their Chaplain home deserved it. Doorbell rings. Mrs. Harris comes to the door with toddler in arms and a 6-year-old peering behind her.
“Hello. I just got here Mrs. Harris. Wanted to drop off a little something for your son.” Looking at the boy, I continue, “You’d be so proud of your daddy, he stays up all night to fly that Helo, often from 2-8 am, to keep us safe. He wanted you to have this present. He loves you. Merry Christmas.”
They thank me. The little man is excited. The door slowly shuts. I walk the 25 yards across the sidewalk, and street, there in the dark December night toward my own doorstep. Walking there under the stars, grateful for a son to cradle, a wife to hold, and aware of my Savior who came and saw me though this journey. He does so to all of us who look to Him.
I always want to be about His mission, whether it be in war, traversing life’s terminals, or even ferrying wooden slingshots destined for little people here in a big world that He loves so much.
*Harris is a name changed to keep the family’s identity private.