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On the road: Honest Abe and anti-aircraft missiles

Travel is broadening, or so the old adage goes. It can also be humorous, scary, or downright weird.

We won't even consider anymore the commonplace sight of people scurrying along airport concourses, seemingly talking to themselves (at a volume sufficient to be heard yards away). This, thanks to cellphones equipped with wireless “Bluetooth” technology that transmits signals to an inconspicuous earpiece/microphone. Soon, I expect, some ingenious techno-wizard will figure how to implant a cellphone chip in the brain and then everyone can talk non-stop, whenever, wherever.

In the Memphis airport recently, awaiting a flight to Disneyland-on-the-Potomac (oops, Washington, D.C.), a couple of vignettes:

  • People-watching in airports is always an amusing time-killer. There are those dressed as if they're headed for a presidential ball, others as if going to a grunge band concert. And invariably, there'll be a couple, sporting beet-red sunburns from their three-day Cancun/Cozumel/Caribbean junket, toting bags of duty-free liquor and cigarettes, bopping along in shorts and flip-flops, even though the temperature outside may be minus-12.

    Anyway, glancing up from my magazine, what to my wond'ring eyes should appear, ambling along the concourse, but a tall, gaunt, stooped, sallow-cheeked dude, dressed in an Abraham Lincoln suit, complete with real beard and sideburns, and wearing a towering stovepipe hat. Y'don't see that everyday. It was all I could do to keep from catching up to him: “Uhh, Abe, my sixth grade teacher required everyone to memorize your Gettysburg Address and get up and recite it before the class, and now, decades later, I can still do it (though I hardly remember my own telephone number). Wanna hear me?” But I just gawked, like everyone else who saw him.

  • Regardless of proximity to a mealtime, and given the airlines' penny-pinching proclivities nowadays, no flight under three or four hours will have food; it's soft drinks and pretzels, if you're lucky (no peanuts anymore — might trigger somebody's allergies).

So, it's commonplace, while waiting for a flight, to see people digging into gloppy slices of pizza, Big Macs, cinnamon buns, ice cream cones, and other fast food.

But across from me this day were a middle-aged couple who'd come prepared. Upon sitting down, she opened a wicker picnic hamper, from which she extracted a Thermos of coffee, cups, plastic plates, linen napkins, and an array of food that seemed non-ending: a salad, slabs of roast beef, veggies, slices of french bread, and as the piece de résistance, a big hunk of yummy-looking chocolate cake — all of which they proceeded to leisurely consume, while all the pizza/Big Mac/ice cream eaters looked on with great envy.

Washington itself, since 9/11, has been undergoing an evolution of security that now has concrete barricades everywhere, air monitoring devices to detect toxins, bulky trash bins designed for bomb containment, a myriad of surveillance cameras watching one's every move, an anti-aircraft missile (!) mounted atop a building near the White House, and who-knows-what-kind of other anti-terrorism devices and measures.

Long one of the nation's most beautiful cities, Washington is becoming an armed fortress. It is a sad commentary on the times.

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