Dangerous encounters — security and me
A number of years ago I was scheduled to fly intercontinental, but ran into a fairly serious problem. Occasionally, like once or twice a year, I have a problem with my back. The muscles in the lower lumbar region cramp and become very painful, sometimes leaving me almost immobilized. The condition struck on the day before my flight, and I had to rush to the doctor — actually hobble to her practice. Dr Hansen understood the gravity of the situation: I had to get on the flight with a group of colleagues, in order to catch the onward flight all the way.
The doctor decided to take radical steps: two muscle relaxing injections, tablets with Paracetamol and 250 mg of the relaxant Chlorzoxazone — and a heavy duty lumbar support belt to wear on my trip. It was a little uncomfortable (I now know how women felt when they were forced to wear corsets), but it made the many hours in airline passenger seats bearable. I was thankful for that.
At one of the airports where I had to switch planes — for security reasons I am not mentioning exactly where this happened — I went through the passenger check. They had a new full body scanner…
… and when I had got through an officer approached and asked me to come along with him. Not a reason for alarm — they often do a double check to make sure you are safe. But this time it was not to the area immediately behind the scanner, where guards were hand-checking passengers, especially their shoes. The officer led me to a door some distance away, and there politely let me enter first. But he did not follow. Instead the door slid shut and I was alone in a small room. There was a camera, and a video screen with two or three people on it, looking at me. They spoke to me over audio and asked me, very politely, to remove my shirt.
Now I understood what this was all about: the belt! I started to explain that I was wearing an orthopaedic lumbar support, but they insisted: please just take off your shirt. This I did and removed the belt, which they asked me to deposit in a metal box. After that I had to turn around, so they could see me from all sides. Finally the door opened and I could exit the room. A short while later I was given my support belt back and could proceed on my journey. I realized: I had been in a special blast room, reserved for suicide terrorist suspects.
That was my second somewhat scary confrontation with security. In 1986 I had an encounter that was similarly awe-inspiring. It happened in a hotel in Brussels.
I was there for an event with the World Chess Champion Garry Kasparov, and when I entered the hotel in which he was staying I spotted him across the lobby, standing in a small group of people. I waved and started walking towards him, when suddenly there was a man standing in my way. I tried to walk around him, but he moved to prevent that. Clearly he was blocking me from proceeding. “Sorry, you can’t cross the hall,” he said.
I soon learned the reason: the United States Secretary of State George P. Schulz was in the hotel and expected to enter the hall shortly. That was why Garry was standing there: he was waiting to be introduced to him. I explained that I was a friend of Kasparov and scheduled to meet him at the hotel. The man spoke to his collar lapel, and another ominous figure approached. They asked to see my ID and gave me a quick pat-down. Then both accompanied me across the open space to where Garry was standing.
When I got there I did something pretty stupid: I punched Garry three time on his shoulder. He looked at me in surprise, and I said: “That’s for the three games you lost.” They were the games 17, 18 and 19 of his World Championship match in Leningrad against Anatoly Karpov. Those losses had been deeply worrying to his fans, the only compensation being that Kasparov won the match 12½–11½ in the end.
Garry understood the punches. He grabbed my wrist and slapped himself on the cheek with my palm, fairly substantially. “That’s for Seirawan,” he said, referring to a game he had lost a month later at the Dubai Chess Olympiad against US grandmaster Yasser Seirawan. It was a typical interaction between us at the time (Garry’s a very physical person). But the two security guards sprang into action: they drew guns and threw me to floor, pinning me down. No, wait, I exaggerate. One stepped between us, the other took hold of my wrist. “What’s going on?” he said. Garry quickly assured them: it’s just a joke, no need for alarm. They let me go but stood on either side of us while we waited for Secretary Schulz.
When he arrived and was introduced to Garry (and me) I am proud to say that I did not punch Schulz in jest, just shook hands and exchanged some friendly words, about his German heritage. This encounter put me just one step away from Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan in the handshake chain (though I have other backup connections as well). At least I did not end up in a blast room or spend the night in jail.