This is the story about how I almost ended up jailed for terrorism in a foreign country where I didn't speak the language. I was eighteen at the time, spending most of my life inside my own head and only occasionally paying attention to the world around me. This fact will become important later.

It was summer; I had just finished high school, and I was ready to see the world. A few months earlier, I had gotten the idea to travel solo to South Korea, and my family had surprisingly gone along with it. This was, I must say, a pretty big step for a person who had only left town on a few family vacations and had never ever left the country. But my parents had helped me get the passport, visa, and tickets sorted out, and I was ready to go. Well I didn't speak much Korean, of course, but who thinks of these things?

My last stop on my pre-flight farewell tour was a friend's house, a mere four hour drive into the rural countryside. His dad, a real gun nerd and genial fun-loving guy, spent the weekend teaching us the history and practice of firearms, including hands-on lessons shooting at various recyclables he had arranged on the surrounding prarie. It was sort of neat. I felled a few Tropicana bottles, and at one point genuinely hit the broad side of a barn with a crossbow bolt. At the end of that weekend, my friend's dad approached me conspiratorially. Apparently he had saved the best for last. "Take a look at this beauty," he whispered. It was an oblong pointy shape, brass colored, about the size of a roll of quarters in his outstretched hand. "This is the largest bullet you're legally allowed to own as a civilian, forty caliber. You can fire it from the ground and even take down a plane."

"Wow," I said.

"You're a great kid." he said. "Keep it." He put it in my hand.

"Okay," I replied, and I slid it into my pocket.

At that time, I had only one favorite pair of jeans. I mention this detail because what I did next was drive home, pack my suitcases, say goodbye to my family, and head to the airport. It was only when I was waiting in the crowded security queue, hemmed in on all sides, that I started going through my pockets looking for scraps of stuff to take out. I was pretty nervous about my first international trip. I remembered that even the foil from a gum wrapper could set off the sensitive equipment. Hence the truly gut-lurching moment when my hand brushed against the smooth metal bullet. Inconceivable. 'You can even take down a plane', my friend's dad had said. Gently panicking, I looked around for what to do. I was pretty well trapped. I was already waiting in line, heaving inevitably closer to the metal detector. So you can imagine what I did. Actually, no; you could spend a week imagining what I did and it wouldn't come close to what my fear-soaked brain actually decided to do in that moment, which was: slowly, gently, surreptitiously, so as not to alert the people on either side of me in line, I lifted the bullet out of my pocket and placed it feather-light onto the patterned carpet, pretending I was tying my shoes. I then stepped quickly away from it, anonymous, unburdened, clean. It was an exceptionally guilty thing to do. I felt feverish and regretful about a great number of things in my life. I hoped I wouldn't be tackled and executed by TSA agents before I could read my book on the plane. I hoped my friend's dad wouldn't call and ask how the bullet was doing. I noted, uneasily, the security camera which was perfectly positioned so as to record everything that happened in the security line. I hoped very, very much that this fact would not become important later.

I passed easily through the metal detector, though it gave me no peace. My guilt was a shard of buried shrapnel that had merely escaped cursory inspection. The first flight, to the east coast, was also uneventful. But what wretchedness! I would say unequivocably that the waiting was the hardest part: I wondered urgently how long it would take them to find the bullet. Did they already have it by now? I saw, vividly, the scramble of activity, someone shouting for the video footage, the team rushing to connect this single anti-aircraft bullet to some larger, unknown scheme. I wondered if they would shut down the entire airport to be sure.

The second flight, to Korea, was actually also uneventful for about the first eight hours. In fact, it was sufficiently comfortable and interesting that I began to imagine, for the first time, what it might be like to live a free life. We were about an hour away from landing when a flight attendant approached me and said, "Do not get off this airplane when it lands. You will stay in your seat."

That was odd, I thought. Trying to be sensible, I reasoned that it probably had absolutely nothing to do with the anti-aircraft bullet I had dropped on the floor in an airport and in full view of a security camera. It was probably about something innocuous that I just hadn't thought of yet. I decided to think it over in the airplane lavatory.

A flight attendant sternly intercepted me. "You must return to your seat immediately. Do not get off this airplane when it lands."

I watched hollowly as several other passengers pushed past me, blithely unaccosted, to use the lavatory. So much for my theory that the in-your-seat rule applied to everyone while the plane was landing. I went back to my seat.

For the rest of the descent into Incheon International Airport, I thought about my situation. It became clear to me that my inability to speak the language might be a truly fatal shortcoming in the near future. Throughout the entire trip, the flight attendants were all exceptionally terse and efficient. I feebly waved down one of them in an attempt to get more information, but she spoke mostly Korean. She tartly reiterated that I shouldn't get off the plane, then dashed off. I spent some time thumbing through my Korean-English dictionary, wondering which words I could use to represent myself if I were given a tribunal. I wasn't sure if they'd send me back home or not; it seemed like an extra expense.

Finally the plane landed. Picture a cabin full of people, save one, breathing a sigh of relief. It took another hour for everyone to grab their bags and ooze slowly out of the plane. I tried to lose myself in the crowd a few times, but a flight attendant always found me again and firmly returned me to my seat. I'm not sure how they managed it.

Finally it was just me on the plane, plus a few flight attendants who were busily ignoring me. The plane looked huge and sophisticated when empty, but I had no heart to appreciate it. I saw a piece of blue afternoon sky through the plasticky window. Smudged, distant, but maybe good enough for a last glance.

Another hour and a half passed on that empty plane. I had already decided a hundred things I would have done differently in life. A man in official uniform strode on board, flanked by several flight attendants. Military, I thought.

"Out of your seat. Come with us." he said. Uh-oh, I thought.

"We apologize it took so long to find you a wheelchair."

I looked, uncomprehendingly, at the silver contraption he was pushing. "Is this about," I started to say, then stopped. "I don't, uh." I added helpfully. I stood up.

They received this standing gambit with some alarm and irritation. "You mustn't try to stand up. We found a wheelchair for you, now come sit."

"I don't need a wheelchair," I said blankly. I really didn't.

"Yes, you do. We double-checked. Now come sit." I was beginning to understand it meant a lot to them personally.

"Thanks," I said carefully. "I really appreciate this, really, but I think I don't want to try a wheelchair right now and so I'm going to go if that's alright with you, but again I really appreciate it."

I fled from the plane, babbling apologies as I went. They didn't move to stop me, but their eyes said it all: shock at my reckless disregard for my presumed personal health, my capriciousness in playing will-they-won't-they with a mobility aid, and my sheer misanthropy in sending them on an hours-long scavenger hunt for my own amusement. They were not at all pleased.

I called my mom first thing, practically in the jet bridge. "What an ordeal!" she said. "Then nothing happened about the bullet at all?"

"No," I said. My knees were still shaking.

"I can't figure out why they did all that! It makes no sense." she said. "You know, the funniest things happen on long trips. I remember thinking that when I got your ticket, for example. I asked myself, what could happen on your first trip overseas? Maybe you get there and your phone doesn't work, or you're really hungry, or you have to crash-land in the Pacific. Maybe you get there and your legs have inexplicably locked up after spending eighteen hours in a chair. Who knows! I worry. So I figured, I might as well see what the options are—"

Created: 2022-08-01 Mon 21:06