Gary and the chemical explosives

Some years ago, in 2002 I think it was, I happened to be passing through Los Angeles airport on my way for a flight back home. Airport security was considerably tighter than it used to be, but all those incredibly annoying scanners had yet to be installed.

I was randomly selected for a baggage check. (The fact that not all bags were checked tells you how long ago this was.)

Fine. I handed over my bag.

They opened it up, had a poke around, then swiped the inside with a small piece of material which they popped into a machine.

Red lights flashed! Alarms sounded! Nice men with guns appeared!

"What's wrong?" I asked.
"Sir, please step back behind the red line," said a nice man with a gun.
I stepped back behind the red line.
"What's wrong?" I repeated.
"Sir, your bag has tested positive for chemical explosives."

Well this was going to be fun! I knew I was pure as the driven snow, in this one small respect at least, so I settled in for an interesting experience.

It will come as no surprise that everything came out of the bag. Then they pulled the frame out of the bag. Then they looked inside the frame. Then they looked inside the lining. All clothing was minutely inspected. I had probably 15 or 20 books in that bag, some of them huge technical volumes. They turned every single page.

While this was going on, another nice man took my passport and wandered off with it, no doubt to ask the FBI if I was known to them. He returned while they were still flipping pages and tearing my laptop apart. He gave me a strange look, and didn't return the passport.

That's when I remembered that, not long before, I'd had to get a Federal Police security check.

The check was so I could do some work at Argyle Diamond Mine, which is the largest source of pink diamonds in the world. Once you're inside the compound, the diamonds are just lying on the ground, so they prefer to restrict visitors to honest people and successful thieves who haven't been caught yet. (While walking past swept-up heaps of small black rocks, I'd asked, "Where are the diamonds?").

But the nice men at LAX wouldn't have known that detail. All they would have known was that the Australian Federal Police had queried the FBI for a standard check on me, and the FBI had probably recorded that query. And now here I was, testing positive for chemical explosives.

After they had reduced the bag to its component atoms, they asked, "Have you ever spilled any soap or washing powder in this bag?"

As it happened, my wife and I had used this bag on our honeymoon, and washing powder had indeed been spilled. Fourteen years before.

"That must be it, then. The machine detected the phosphorus."

From fourteen years ago?

They reassembled the bag and repacked. I tried to help several times, but each time was politely but firmly told to get back behind that red line. So I watched them make a complete hash of the repack. Lumps bulged in odd places and the zipper strained. They handed back my passport. I moved to pick up the bag, but was told, "No sir, this man here--" they indicated one of their own, no doubt the most unimportant man present, "--this man will carry your bag until you get on your plane."

My new friend was having none of that. He picked up my bag, brushed past the long queue of people waiting to check in, and stopped at the front desk.

"Check this passenger in at once."

And that's how to get to the head of the queue at LAX. But I wouldn't necessarily recommend it. We threw away the bag when I got home.


Peter Cooper said...

that's one sensitive machine!

Carrie said...

Sounds like a time. I worked as airport security for awhile and we had to do things like paw through dirty gym bags. Makes you kind of glad those machines are that powerful.

Gary Corby said...

Peter, yep. I was amazed.

Carrie, I'd ask what was the yukkiest thing you ever found, but I can think of too many possibilities...

Sarah W said...

I'm relieved you were allowed to proceed, but my attention was caught by the diamond mine. Wow - you have the coolest job(s).

To venture off-topic, I finally received my pre-ordered copy of The Pericles Commission Saturday. I'm on page 186 and have no idea how or if all this is going to be straightened out . . . I want to call in sick today to finish it!

Gary Corby said...

Hi Sarah!

Yay for you getting the book! So glad you're liking it. You can't imagine how much that helps me work on the next one. Seriously.

There's not much they can do with a foreigner, unless they want to feed me for the rest of my life. I was provably innocent so no problem; I thought the whole thing was funny. I was also mildly surprised they didn't strip search me. They probably would these days.

The diamond mine has its own rather interesting security system. I'll write about it some time.

whaddayameandoihaveroomfordessert said...


sorry, Gary, but this made me laugh really hard.

C. N. Nevets said...

That happened to some friends of mine and even though they were cleared by the detergent explanation, they remained on a US watch list for about 5 years after.

Loretta Ross said...

That's hilarious! My first college history professor once had his car dismantled by the Canadian Mounties at the border because his spare tire well was jammed shut and they thought he might be hiding something.

Come to think of it, he also had an airport security story involving a suitcase full of loos Legos . . .

My copy of The Pericles Commission is also in and I'm headed up to Sedalia this morning to pick it up. I'm also meeting my nephew there to get a bunch of PVC pipe I can't carry in my car, so if he sticks around to help me with the plumbing after we get back, I'll pretty much be honorbound to actually DO plumbing. Otherwise, I'm pretty sure I'll let the plumbing go hang itself and read instead. ;)

Julie Weathers said...

Wow, I'm glad you posted this. I was going to ask you to explain and forgot to go back.

It's amazing the machines are that sensitive.

I second the motion about the diamond mine story, though I've already read how they do it. I'd like to see how accurate the article is.

L. T. Host said...

I would love to hear more about the diamond mine, that's fascinating!

What an interesting story. It's awesome that they escorted you to the front of the line. And be glad it didn't happen on this trip: things have gotten even tighter/ stupider recently.

Still, at least it makes for a cool tale!

Gary Corby said...

Loretta, I'm glad you're finally getting the book. Thanks for sticking at it!

Do enjoy your plumbing.

Gary Corby said...

Nevets, yes, I was pleasantly surprised when they didn't strip search me the next time I visited.

Gary Corby said...

Glad to keep everyone amused!

Okay, a post about the diamond mine is in the queue.

LQQ said...

Time to forget these Greek mysteries and write your autobiography.

Like a few of the other posters my copy arrived today from Book depository. I started reading The Road yesterday. I have now read the first three pagers of Pericles this evening. The Road can wait - Nicolaos is coming on the bus with me tomorrow.


Amalia T. said...

Holy Buckets!

Did you get to repack it before they loaded it? or did all your stuff end up smashed up with the hashed re-packing? Also-- wouldn't the question about spilling something be more effectively asked at the BEGINNING of the process?!

Gary Corby said...

Hi Seth,

Nico would enjoy a bus ride. People are finally getting their books...yay! Also some relief at my end. I hope it was worth the wait.

Gary Corby said...


Nope. The whole idea was to stop me from touching it until the other end. I recall a few things got somewhat overcompressed, but at least I got on the plane!

I'm reasonably sure no amount of good excuses would have stopped that bag from being dismantled.

Stephanie Thornton said...

Haha! That's even better than the time my husband got picked to carry a random bag for security to see if a security dog could find it.

He did.

We never found out what was in the bag. I hope it was a stash of cocaine or something really cool.

And yes, you must post about the diamond mine!

Gary Corby said...

I dunno Stephanie, I think that story beats mine.

I bet the case was full of doggy biscuits.

Christinaswritinglog said...

Wow, flying anywhere in the US sounds like a real pain, although I must admit you manage make it sound almost fun.

I have never even seen anyone's bags searched at the airport. We do not have anywhere near as much security on local flights in South Africa. Mostly because we are out of the way and no one particularly wants to bomb us.

The security at most national key points is tighter, though. You only get let in if you are expected and they routinely search cars. This is how we almost got a friend's aunt arrested for attempting to blow up a prison.

We had loaded our final year mechatronics project into the boot of his car after the final demonstration. The next day his aunt had her car in the shop and borrowed his. Still being in a sleep deprived post project demonstration haze he forgot to mention the project that was still in the boot.

So when she went to see a client in prison and the guards opened the boot, all they saw were a lot of home made electronic circuits ( our PCBs had a defect so we had to improvise with planks and nails). She had to do a lot of explaining, but luckily everything was still labeled and the guards did not know that peltier diodes could actually be used in bombs.

Gary Corby said...

Christina, if that happened at a US airport at the moment, Auntie would be explaining things while under lock and key for sure. And they'd close down the entire airport. And they'd bring in bomb disposal. And Auntie and nephew would make the news. It'd make my little adventure totally tame!