19 January 2008

M. Franck vs. The TSA

Time for a resumption of the winter follies of deux Americaines personnes et un chien sur L'Isle de Saint Barthelemy. Lots of things new this year. New taxes, new prices, new yachts in the harbor, new restaurants, and lots more, but that comes later. First I gotta report on our trip down here. Always an adventure.

Without a doubt, our seasonal travel to and from this island has a single focus: M. Franck, the almost 14 yr old Black Labrador Retriever, our soul dog.

Under the rules imposed by the uberstormfuehrers who run the several airlines and conspire with one another to adopt virtually uniform rules for the carriage of pets, the only dogs that may ride in the passenger cabin with their loved ones are rat dogs: you know, under 15 pounds, barky, unpleasant in appearance and demeanor, known to bite the hand that feeds them, sort of like diminutive canine versions of adversary lawyers I have encountered over the years. All other dogs, like the well mannered 75 pound Frank, are consigned to the luggage compartment, locked in a cage. The airline euphemism is "travel crate", but Frank is no dummy, and when he sees the bars, he thinks "cage." Who doesn't?

Okay, he rides with the luggage. It is, we are assured, climate controlled, and probably not even as uncomfortable as the alternately hot, cold, drafty, stuffy climate in the cabin where the humans are stashed and where viruses are swapped. And Frank probably doesn't have to put up with the dog-equivalent of the loud-talking moron sitting behind me on the aisle who spends the flight talking to his friend in the window seat on the other side of aisle.

So when you pull up to the AA terminal at JFK, how do you get from the curb, where the porters cower behind their counters when they see this mountain lion get out of the car, to getting Frank in the cargo hold of Flight 667? Ahh, that's an adventure.

Here's the way it was at JFK American Airlines.

First, luggage, including empty travel crate, is wheeled to the check-in desk. Pinks holds Frank on a leash while I deal passports, pay for overweight bags, etc,. We had arrived two hours before scheduled departure time. We take no chances. High anxiety. Vet has prescribed a pill for Frank, but nothing for Pinks. Wrong choice, in my view.

At the check in, the agent checks our passports, finds our locater number, assures us all is well, and then asks for Frank's "papers." The airline has in its computers the requirements of the destination country for the admission of both humans and animals. It will not carry any person or animal who does not have the necessary paperwork to be admitted at the port of disembarkation, lest the airline be required to carry the luckless passenger back to the US on the next flight.

Getting AA to agree that France will accept Frank is no casual matter. In fact, it is nerve wracking. We have an envelope full of rabies certificates, international health certificates, vet certifications that the dog can travel in cold weather, implanted chip numbers, and more. Last year the AA desk agent rejected Frank because he did not have an annual rabies shot. We pointed out that his rabies shot certificate said on its face that the shot was administered a year ago and is good for three years. Nope, that was not good enough for the agent and she insisted we would need to leave Frank behind. Yeah right. We took an appeal and the AA supervisor rolled her eyes at the desk agent and told her to get on with it please. So one approaches these transactions with the apprehensions of the citizen in George Orwell's 1984 who is constantly aware that the undiscriminating swing of a guard's club could shatter an elbow.

This time we draw a smiley with-it agent and we got through the check-in nicely. No unreasonable demands. All papers were in order. The agent tags our luggage and sends it away on the belt. She tags Frank's crate, and suggests we leave it in the corner and take Frank for a walk for the next hour. We need to bring Frank back one hour before flight time, get him through security, then put him in his cage and hand him off to an AA porter who accompanies us the whole way through and will wheel him off to the cargo area.

So we get some coffee and blueberry muffins, and Pinks, Frank, and I sit on the floor against a wall (no seats this side of security clearance) and share our second breakfast. Frank loves blueberry muffins, but never did get the caffeine habit.

Now comes a crucial decision. When do we give Frank the pre-flight tranquilizer the vet prescribed "just to take the edge off." I think this is ridiculous because Frank has no "edge." Any more laid back, he'd be unconscious, which, at 14 yrs old, he is most of the time anyway. But the vet said "give him the pill 45 minutes before."

But what does that mean? We need to give him over to the airline an hour before take-off. Did the vet mean 45 minutes before we put him in the crate and gave him to AA? If so, we need to give it to him before we start off for the security line. If she meant 45 minutes before take-off, we need to wait until after the security pass through, and give him the pill just before he gets into the cage. We had no idea the difference was so significant. We debate, and choose the former. Pinks administers the pill, we pick ourselves up off the floor, and seek seek out the AA porter to take us through the security line. Ten minutes later we find the porter, and we start the 100 yard journey to the back end of the security line.

So here's the picture. It's 7 A.M., the terminal is really humming, the AA guy is wheeling the empty cage on a luggage trolley, Frank is on the leash, except Frank is already zonked! He is a total drunk. He is staggering, falling down, we lift him up, he falls down, cannot get purchase on the slippery floor, his feet fly out in all directions. We make it to the end of the security line, and Frank surrenders. He lies down and goes into rem sleep. He is unwakable. As the line shuffles forward, we sort of slide Frank forward with us as you would a duffel bag. He does not stir.

When we get within two people of the security scanner, things get hectic. Belts, watches, jewelry, shoes, leashes, all come off and are put on the belt. People are impatient. Frank is now lying on his stomach, with his legs pointing north, east, south, and west. It is at this point that that everything lets go. He pees, and his fur is now sopping wet. When the people in line turn their noses up, Frank raises the ante and poops, something I did not think a dog could do while lying down, but hey, what do I know. Now we have real chaos. Out comes the plastic bags This is a two-bagger. What does one do with two plastic bags full of dog shit in the security line? Is there a TSA rule on this? What Would Michael Chertoff Do? Put them on the belt? Un-American, and besides, I would only have to deal with them on the other end.

I have no viable options. I take the poop bags and run back to the check-in area and toss them into a wastepaper basket behind the counter. The agent is appalled. Sorry lady. I run back to screening area, in my stocking feet, holding up my beltless trousers, to confront the pissed-off TSA agent. He is upset because the unconscious Frank is holding up the effort to keep America safe from another Bin Laden attack. The people behind us are revolted. The line is not moving. Frank is in the way. How do I get Frank through the metal detector since he cannot, or at least will not, walk? And his fur has now sopped up most of the pee. I do what I gotta do-- and lift the 75 pound wet baby and carry him through the metal detector. The horn goes off. What? Does this thing detect dog urine? Is that a new terrorist tool? No, I simply forgot to remove my watch. I put Frank down, go back through the metal detector, remove my watch and put it on the belt, and pass through again. The TSA agent does not make Frank do the same, and I go to the after side of the belt to collect my valuables, leaving Frank lying there at the exit side of the detector arch. He is doing that lying-on-his-side-moving-his-legs-like-he-is-dreaming-of-chasing-a-rabbit thing he sometimes does while sleeping. Pinks is sure he is having a stroke and the crowd on onlookers has no idea what to think. Meanwhile the line is still stalled. We are facing an imminent passenger rebellion.

And while I am at the belt collecting my things, a TSA agent who just arrived almost stepped on Frank, and when she looked down and saw this large black dog lying there moving his legs, she screamed and ran. Comic relief. She is afraid of dogs, especially big black ones.

Well, the hard part is over… we thought. I reassemble myself, pour Frank into his travel crate, we lift the crate onto the trolley and the AA guy takes him away. At Pinks' insistence, I give the AA porter a tip of a week's pay. Mine, not his.

Once on the plane, we are relaxed. Did they load Frank on the right plane? Is it too cold down there? Too hot? Does he bump his nose when we land and the pilot puts on the brakes? Do we think of those things? Nah.

In SXM, things are very efficient. The charter people claim the crate and put it on the rubber-band puddle jumper. When we arrive at the plane, Frank is already aboard. He looks at us through the bars with glazed eyes, but they blink so we know he is alive, and off we go.

Once in Paradise, the plane parks at the west end of the strip, about 100 yards from the terminal. We take Frank out of the crate into the delicious sunshine, but he is still so befuddled he can barely stand and walk. Frank staggers across the tarmac delivering another bagful of poop. No garbage receptacles on the tarmac, and so Pinks carries it into the immigration room. We are prepared for everything, but are now down to the last plastic bag between us. Ed Koch would be happy to see how good we are.

Somehow, we cajole Frank to make the walk to and up the immigration ramp, and through the door to the immigration area. But once inside we are on a slick terrazzo floor instead of the rough concrete of the tarmac, and Frank's feet keep slipping out from under him. Of course, as we approach the immigration window, Frank delivers up yet another present for us. Amazing. From where is he getting this stuff? So now as we reach the window, I am holding two passports and Pinks is holding two bags of dog poop. Our passports are carefully scrutinized, faces checked against photos. We smile, Pinks holding the poop bags at thigh level where they are less visible to the cops peering out the waist-high window. We pass inspection, passports are stamped, and we are home.

Well, almost.

The French Gestapo immigration officers who last year deported 13 year old Jillian London because her passport had expired the previous year never do ask to see Frank's papers. He could be a canine leper. They couldn't care less. As long as he is standing up, he's admitted to France. But Frank has had a hard day, and as I am collecting the stamped passports, Frank quits trying to stand. He lies down, rather ungracefully I thought. Well, in truth, he sort of falls over sideways and goes back to sleep. But as he falls sideways, he pushes open the unlatched door to the room where the bad guys work. Now Frank's hind quarters and tail are in jail territory, the front half of the dog still at liberty. The bad guys smile nervously, I make a lot of apologies and explanations they do not understand, and quickly lift and carry Frank outside, Pinks following with her treasure bags, which she ultimately deposits outside in la toilette. I go back inside, get the luggage off the carousel and bring it out, and go get the car, while Pinks sits on the tile floor of the outside gallery with the unconscious Frank.

Two trips later, (small car, lots of luggage, lots of Frank) we are home. Frank is by now capable of standing but there is no way he can get up the steep steps to the living room/kitchen area. I refuse to carry him any more, fearing one more lift of this duffel bag will put me in traction, and we leave him in the shade at the base of the steps while I go get a beer, change out of my urine-stained travel clothes, get into my swim suit, and head for the pool.

An hour later, Pinks calls down and invites Frank to dinner. Some things never change, and when it comes to eating, Frank is still a puppy. He hears the word "dinner", bounds up the steps, scarfs down the contents of his bowl, finds his bed, and goes back to sleep. It's now 4:30 p.m., I have been up for more than 12 hours. Could be worse.

At 5:45 pm, the season's first gin and tonic in hand,we see a sensational sunset, green flash and all, and all is right in paradise once again.

Gotta love this place, non?

A bientot.

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