I. The Mission
There was something out of the ordinary in the way my aunt asked about the black duffel bag that I had schlepped all over the western world. Of COURSE I knew it (as in “you know that bag of yours?”); even knew where it WAS. And of COURSE she could use it for any lawful purpose (this point to come back up for discussion sooner than I thought). So I had scarcely finished giving her thumbs up on the black duffel when something told me to call her back to see what she had in mind. It was then that I learned of the Collards Project.
The Collards Project, at this stage still shrouded in secrecy, involved transporting a substantial payload of (cooked) collard greens to my cousin (her son) in Colorado, in connection with her upcoming visit there for her granddaughter’s (my second cousin’s) graduation from high school. Her son, a genuine product of southern cooking, would consider the world to be spinning in the right direction if he could sit down to a substantial serving of collard greens and associated juices.
“Just what did you have in mind?” I asked my aunt that evening, as we sized up the black duffel for width and depth, attempting to project its safe collard-carrying capacity.
“Well, I was planning on freezing them, then wrapping them real good, so they would keep for the whole trip out there.”
I had seen other things “wrapped real good” in this family context, and I knew it meant something a few notches past mummification, relying on successive layers of tupperware, black garbage bags and duct tape—your basic Good Fellas technology for keeping something fresh over a long trip.
II. Clouds Gathering
The Achilles Heel of this otherwise commendable maternal gesture, however, sprang onto the stage: AIRPORT SECURITY. My aunt and I both had been glued to the TV set that fateful morning of 9-11, and had followed closely as Osama and El Quaeda and some other funny names and places became household words. But she had not had the extraordinary experience of traveling by plane since then as I had. She knew little of the ridiculous lines, the confiscation of toe nail clippers, and the specific body searching of every seventh person in line—no matter who they are—just to make sure nobody thinks that security is trying to zero in on some shifty-looking camel riders with bombs or can openers hidden in their drawers…or who knows where. So to keep everything on a level playing field, so to speak, even the blandest and least threatening persons you can imagine—see where this is heading??—had to be scrutinized with a fine-toothed comb, as well as an X-ray machine and a metal detector.
“Of course you can wrap them up securely,” I acknowledged, having received fresh candy and baked goods by this method myself, half-way around the world.” But those were more laid-back times,” I mused, “that we kissed goodbye on 9-11 Airport security will want to open up these packages and check out each one, so you might as well not get them all bound up with tape. That could be a huge mess.” That term was fortuitous, since the quantity of greens we’re talking about here would normally be termed a MESS anyhow, as in” a mess of collards.”
My aunt’s mental wheels at that time were busy conducting a quick inventory of suitable containers for cooked collard greens, calculations about freezer space and how long they would take to reach an appropriate (frozen) hardness, how they could be wrapped in swaddling garbage bags, and tucked into the duffel bag, and still get to the airport two hours ahead of time (also something she did not fully believe was real. She even thought it was likely her plane would depart on time. (Truly.)
While she contemplated the specific gravity of frozen collards, I was trying to envision how the security guards—hired off the street in the last few weeks and subjected to a crash course on terrorist tools and tactics—would look upon my aunt making her way toward the check-in counter. “Beware of aunts bearing collards” might just as well have been posted along the corridors.
“OK now—listen up!!! Now I know you people are having to absorb a lot of new material in a short time. But just remember—you are our first line of defense against terrorism. And 9-11 oughta tell you that we never know what they will try…or how they will try to get around us. They may try to plant explosive devices in very ordinary looking packages…and even have very innocent-looking people serve as their carriers. So don’t fall for any cockamamie story…even if it’s from your grandmother!! DO YOU HEAR ME???”
III. The Query
I was finally able to press upon my aunt the seriousness of this matter and the need to anticipate this whole security thing. I was concerned about the potential for an altercation in the airport, especially one involving a duffel bag bearing my nametag. Nightmarish visions of that nametag being the only item recovered on the slopes of some rocky mountainside—by search parties deputized by the NTSB—were now part of the grisly 9-11 legacy. “We believe the explosion may have resulted from devices imbedded in packages of frozen collards”, the chilling report intoned, “and we are seeking information regarding the owner of a black duffel bag who may not even have been aboard Flight 984…
I did not share with her this uneasy apocalyptic vision, but she nonetheless sensed that something above and beyond was called for. It was time for some answers, she decided. . Only question was who was going to provide them. Now if only the right people would answer the telephone.
Trained in administrative law, I was aware of the complex procedures followed by federal agencies to address public policy considerations. It would be months before the collards question ever appeared in the Federal Register. Maybe changes would even be required in the Warsaw Convention governing tariffs and baggage and whatnot. But surely, what had been a tortuous process before 9-11, was now likely to resemble a receding (or advancing)glacier in its pace. My awareness encompassed the confusion surrounding the status of security guards—Whose were they? By whom were they employed? Whose policies did they follow?—did not produce any clear reference points for the inquiring (my aunt) citizen whose substantial interests (a term I had learned in law school) were affected by the FAA’s position (or lack thereof) regarding frozen collards on domestic flights.
“I think I’ll just call ‘em up and ask,” she resolved, “Don’t see what harm it could do, and it might help.” I asked her whom she was planning to call…and she said the airport. Well, specifically, airport security. Knowing a few people who worked at the airport or had relatives who did, I had personal and certain knowledge that NO ONE at the Jacksonville International Airport had the authority or capability to give a definitive response to any collards-related questions posed over the telephone by a prospective air traveler. In fact, merely ASKING such a question might result in heightened suspicion.
Further. my years as a lawyer wrangling with agencies and other adversaries had led me long ago to avoid reliance on anything anyone said over the telephone. Most of it was objectionable as hearsay, whatever that was. So you couldn’t rely on it if it was good, and if it was really stupid, you couldn’t hold it against the telephonic source. So why even deal with it? Send them a letter; spell out your concern; get them to send you a letter back, signed by a responsible official, and THEN, and only then, did you have something, maybe.
But the world works differently for different folks. And my aunt’s way of making it work for her was on the telephone. She could call up SEARS, or Bell South, or Dillards, or Visa, and get direct satisfaction, once she got a real person on the other end. If only that worked for the rest of us. But could she do it with the FAA?? No problema, amigos…
Getting through to someone initially was not as easy as she had hoped. “Hello, is this the airport security office? My name is Mildred Smith (not her real name). I will be traveling on one of your flights to attend my granddaughter’s graduation, and I need to talk to somebody about your policy on collards….”
This approach caused more than a little hot-potato tossing on the other end. “Hey, Charlie, there’s a lady on three has a question about collards.” One moment, ma’am…transferring now….” Charles Abercrombie, (not his real name), Wackenhut Security (not the real company), Supervisor. How may I help you, ma’am??”
“I want to know what the airport’s policy is regarding frozen collards…
“Collars? Did you say, ma’am?"
"No, COLLARDS, collard greens, collards that you eat, only these would be frozen. Just like I told the first man. I am taking these to my son in Colorado.”
“Ma’am, we don’t have any specific policy regarding collards, if that’s what you are looking for. Some of us like ‘em; some don’t. It’s just a personal preference.”
“But can I take them ON THE AIRPLANE? That’s what I am trying to find out. I don’t want to get them all bundled up…and have you make me open up every package there in the airport. See what I am saying?”
“Ma’am, I understand your questions, and I would like to help you. But we have to look at every passenger and every bag on a case-by-case basis. If we could approve particular packages in advance, that would kinda defeat the purpose of security, wouldn’t it?”
“Well, if I go to all this trouble…and you tear up every package of collards when I get there, I will not be very happy with you.”
“Ma’am, we have a lot of unhappy people every day. In fact, we have been given a quota of people to make unhappy; that’s just part of our job since 9-11. But if these collards you speak of can pass through our X-ray machine and do not show any signs of metal or potential explosive devices imbedded in them, then you are probably good to go. Unless our new dogs—who are trained to detect substances that might be used in bio-terrorism—sniff something they don’t like, then we would have to take a closer look.”
IV. At the Dinner Table
“Mmmmmmmm…you know how much I love these collards. It was so nice of you to bring them all this way. And you even remembered to leave off the ham. That must not have been easy for you…”
“You are certainly welcome, and I hope you enjoy both packages. Just sorry the other four couldn’t have made it too.”
“How’s that, Grandma? You mean you had six to start with?”
“That’s right, sweetheart. The others had to be sacrificed so that these might be allowed to travel."
“Sacrificed? Tell us about that, grandma."
“Well, child, it was like this. The first package went to the porter, so he would help me get this duffel bag up to the ticket counter and put a tag on it. They are pretty leery about helping with bags anymore, even though that’s their job. But a package of collards kinda helped him to see his way clear, you might say.”
"And the second container went to the ticket agent, so she would know what to put down on the tag. She even tasted them, when I told her the others were just frozen versions of these. I think the rest of that bunch ended up in their little lunchroom back there.”
“And what happened to the others, Grandma?? Tell us!!"
“Well, the third one had to be destroyed. They had this new chamber right there at the gate where they had to detonate suspicious looking packages. They put mine in with an umbrella this Egyptian lady said she was delivering to a camel driver’s son who was in flight school in Colorado Springs learning to fly a crop duster. Blew collard greens all over the airside. Never saw such a sight!!! Wonder nobody got hurt!!"
“Wow, Grandma…Did it really explode? Why didn’t you get arrested? Did they know it was her and not you???”
“Well, sweetheart, it turned out the last guard at the gate was the son of a lady I used to know from church. We used to have great covered dish suppers for everybody, and his momma would usually bring a mess of collards in that very tupperware. Even had her name still on the bottom.”
So soon as he started looking through the rest of my duffel, he saw his momma’s name there and started to cry. “ Miz Mildred, I would love to have something of my momma’s…” I just handed him the whole container, told him I had always intended to return it, put the last two back in, as he waved me on through.