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Saving Pink Bear

The alarm goes off early and we rush to pack after three weeks of travel around Italy. We spent a couple week with friends in their vacation homes then explored Rome, Florence and Venice and saw all the sites that were of interest to children (i.e. less Duomos, more gelatos.) For our last night we’re at a mediocre hotel near the Milan airport so we can catch the first flight to London in the morning. The kids are getting last minute jumps across the “valley of the trolls” between the beds as I dart around the room filling my carry-on with things that will make traveling across the world with eight and five-year-olds tolerable if not fun. Coloring books, crayons, UNO cards, snacks, and flip-top thermoses. Maddie clutches Pink Bear to keep him out of the bag. She and this foot long, floppy stuffed animal met in her crib on her first night at home. He goes everywhere with her and has NEVER been packed in a suitcase. Pink Bear needs to breathe.

I haven’t had coffee and my brain isn’t functioning, so when I turn on the television for the first time in weeks, George Bush is in full frame declaring “We will not tolerate those people and their terrorist acts,” I don’t think anything of it, because it mirrors countless news-bites from political leaders since 2001. Five years have passed since 9/11 and we’re becoming desensitized. For the sake of security, we’ve given up allowing friends to say goodbye or greet us at the gate. We now pass-through full body scanners and increased security makes travel take a lot longer than it used to.

We head to the airport anticipating a typical long international travel day. Black beret-clad polizia guard every entrance with fingers on the triggers of their sub-machine guns and German shepherds at the ready.

We know European security has more of a military intensity than we’re accustomed to in the US, and as we wait in an extraordinarily long line to check our bags, there is an electricity in the air, but nothing makes me think it has anything to do with the newscast we heard earlier until we reach the counter.

Madame,” says the Air Italia ticket agent, “You cannot carry your purse on the plane.

“Excuse me?”

No purses are allowed. And the children must check their backpacks.”

“I don’t understand?” “

“You may carry nothing but your passports, Madame. Have you not heard the news?”

Suddenly the cacophony becomes clear. I hear words like terrorists and bomb and notice that the flight departure board is full of cancellations to United States destinations. Fortunately, our first flight to London only appears delayed.

Are books ok?” I ask

“Yes. Those should be ok.”

I hastily riffle through my bag. “What about snacks for the kids?”


Contact lens solution?”


“Are you serious? It is a 14-hour flight.”

“I’m sorry Madame, but no liquids of any kind are allowed. Do you have glasses?”

They are in the suitcase you already sent down the conveyor belt.”

Bewildered, we stuff everything into our largest carry on and check it. My purse, the kids travel sacks, my husband’s wallet and our cell phones. And I am forced to mentally move from attempting to keep the kids happy on our long flight to just getting my family home safely no matter what it takes.

We leave the counter with a book and a passport each. Maddie clutches Pink Bear, and Jack holds his stuffed monkey, Swinger, in his tiny hand. We pass through intense security. Our hands are swabbed for bomb-making chemicals. No one has told us why.

When we land in London five hours later than planned, the tension is tenfold. We learn that a British surveillance operation uncovered a transatlantic plot to detonate liquid explosives aboard airliners travelling from the UK to the US and Canada disguised as soft drinks and hidden in carry-on bags.

Our flight is delayed another six hours. We haven’t got our wallets so we cannot buy food or belly up to a bar for a pint.

We come to another mid-concourse checkpoint where we are told that books and magazines aren’t allowed. Chris and I each have just one chapter left in our books, so we retreat to a bench while the kids color as many pages as they can in their workbooks and we quickly finish our novels, which are all then thrown into huge bins, brimming with books of all sizes in every possible language. It has a Fahrenheit 451 feeling minus the matches.

Starving and tired, we move through the crammed terminal toward our gate when we come to yet another check point. Frazzled security officers are shouting up ahead of us. “Men to the right, women to the left!” yells a man with a gun.

And our family is forced apart as Chris and I look quizzically at each other. The people ahead of us are being subjected to full body pat downs by officers of the same sex. We just want to get home, so we do what is asked.

Until a security officer goes one step too far. She asks my daughter to hand over Pink Bear.

“No way!” Maddie says defiantly. My four-foot ballerina/student-of-the-month clutches her bear tightly, lip quivering in her first deliberate stand against authority, “You can’t have Pink Bear. He’s my best friend!”

The officer looks to me to intervene, “You can wipe him for residue, but I assure you all you’ll find is eight years of dust mites and Cheerio crumbs, and I am not making her give up her favorite, irreplaceable toy.” The line of weary, anxious travelers is growing longer and more restless behind us, but those closest are rooting Maddie on. “Let the child keep her stuffy!” “This is ridiculous! Where is the threat in a little bear?”

Maddie looks up at me with tears in her eyes as the officer huddles with her superiors and I squeeze her hand in assurance. The officer returns saying that if Pink Bear goes through the scanner, he can go to America with us. Maddie agrees and is reunited after her friend is scanned and squeezed and wanded as if he were made of explosive beans.

Jack and Chris are still in the “Men and Boys line.” By the time they get to the magnetometers, word that small monkeys are allowed must have gotten to security because Swinger makes it through with limited fuss.

Eight hours later, with the airport scrambling to provide whatever food and beverages they can to the thousands of stressed travelers, we finally board our British Airways flight to Los Angeles.

No one has anything with them. Kids are restless. Babies cry for eleven hours straight. There are no pens to fill out customs forms. When we land, water bottles are passed out as we disembark. Unbeknownst to us, this is hydration for the next long waiting period. Ours is the only international plane allowed into the US that day, yet the Customs line is slow. No one has a phone with which to call loved ones to pick them up. The line for the two pay phones in the Tom Bradley Terminal stretches the length of the entire baggage claim and no one has change. Calls have to be collect, IF people can even remember the number they want to call.

As our luggage finally comes down the conveyor belt, a man in a rumpled tailored suit who was clearly used to flying first class declares “I will never fly commercial again!” I wish I had that choice.

It’s been 28 hours from when I filled our carry-ons in Milan to when Pink Bear’s head finally rests safely on his sister’s pillow in Burbank. He seems unfazed, his black button eyes open and ready for the next adventure.


As told at Story Salon on April 5, 2023.


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