“The Time I ended up on the FBI’s No-Fly List”
(and I’m still on it today!)
Here is a news flash: I’m not a terrorist, you know, for the record and all.
Let us travel back in time to the year 2006. My family, relocated to Jacksonville, Florida; after our home in Gulfport, Mississippi was ravaged by both Hurricane Katrina and looting. We were recovering from this trauma, and we had some good friends who lived up the street from us, on base. They were getting ready to PCS, or move, back to another state, and they kindly asked me if I would drive their second vehicle to their new home if they flew me back. Me, being the awesome friend I am, didn’t hesitate to say yes. Because my husband was deployed at the time, Christian would be traveling with me.
At this point in Christian’s development he was 4. Four was a tough time for Christian: he had just recovered from years of chronic ear infections and surgery after surgery. Finally, he reached a stage where he was able to fight off the infections and was getting better. He was catching up quickly, going from completely non-verbal at 2 years of age to never being quiet at 4.
And he was hyper: Very, very hyper. The definition of hyperactive. His meltdowns were several a day, and he would get himself so worked up he could not recover — which is true for many ASD kiddos.
I also must point out that Christian had not flown in a plane since he was two, which he did not remember. So, I focused on making it an “adventure” and “look how much fun this is going to be!” “Yaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay!!! There’s the plane, Christian!” while pointing out the window. “I can count the planes. Can you, Christian?”
I was prepared for everything with my carry on bags loaded down with puzzles, snacks, sippy cups, and all his favorite things. Unfortunately, when you have an ASD child, there is no such thing as being “prepared for everything.” I don’t care who you are, Mr. Eagle Scout, but there is no way you can always be prepared with an ASD child. Most of the time, what you remember to bring is absolutely the opposite of what your child needs.
The first flight went without any problems. He was a little overwhelmed by the noise of the airplane, and a bit nervous on takeoff, but I was in “full ASD Mama Mode,” (if you have an ASD child, you know what that means). I kept him happy and distracted through the first flight. Now we had an hour layover and, being the super mom that I am, was feeling quite convinced this all was going to go through without a hitch.
It was lunchtime, and Christian wanted a grilled cheese sandwich. He was very picky about what he ate, and was on a limited diet that mostly consisted of chicken nuggets, fries, grilled cheese sandwiches….. and that’s about it (Don’t judge me). So we found a small sandwich shop inside the terminal and I ordered our food. While we ate, an older couple sitting in the booth next to us smiled at Christian, and the older woman couldn’t help herself.
“Aww, is that sandwich yummy?” She asked. Christian stared at her curiously, not in a shy way, but more in a ‘no you cannot have my sandwich!!!’ kind of way. Because obviously, this old lady wanted Christians sandwich. Protectively, he hugged his sandwich to his chest.
Her eyes drifted from him to me, and I smiled. It seemed we both had our hands full. Her husband was in a wheelchair, and obviously was not quite “himself” anymore. I felt an instant connection with this woman on a care-giving level. We both were faking an enormous amount of patience, and we were both exhausted. Small talk ensued between she and I, as her husband stared off into space. I felt a connected to him as well, through his “WW2 Veteran” hat, that I suspect he was rarely without.
“He is so cute,” she said, “Is this his first flight?” I smiled, but not wanting to take the energy to explain that my son was born in Japan and we’ve actually flown quite a lot in the first couple years of his life, so I elected to go with the easier route conversationally.
“It’s the first flight he’ll remember, he flew a lot when he was a baby.” The woman was nodding, and about to say something, when her husband spoke for the first time.
“You better hope the terrorists don’t bomb the plane!!!’ He said angrily.
She turned to her husband and said, “Now Harry, that’s not nice. Look at this cute little boy. Oh look at the time! We best get to our gate!!!” She stood up, smiled over her shoulder, and we shared an exhausted smile together as she took every ounce of the energy she had to push the massive man out of the restaurant.
I glanced at my watch. Fantastic. We still had an hour to wait before our flight came. I refilled my soda, and then went back to counting airplanes with Christian. “Christian! How MANY airplanes do YOU see? I see one…. two…. three….”
An hour and 10 minutes pass by, with a lot of counting and puzzles, and a second snack. Christian was getting tired as it was in the afternoon and it had been an early morning. He was starting to get fidgety in his stroller, which meant getting him into his carseat on the plane was going to be tougher, so I let him get out of the stroller to stretch his legs a bit. I even held his hand (while carrying a stroller, car seat, my purse, a diaper bag, and our carry on bag with my other 4 hands) and let him walk onto the plane.
When I booked the flight I requested to have the same seat on both planes, for consistency. We found our seats (his a window seat, mine a “middle”). Despite our “early boarding” for children under the age of 5, the third person in our row was already settled. We were a little surprised — and intimidated — at the woman sharing our row. Our “Isle lady” was mid-fifties, thin, with more “scowl” wrinkles than “smoking” wrinkles, which were many. She was wound as tight as a spring, and when she realized that we were to share the tight space of row 34 with her, she was notably unhappy.
Politely and gently I set up Christian’s car seat, then I buckled him in and gave him a snack. Everything is okay, I lean back into my uncomfortable chair and take a deep breath. In two hours I should be home…
At which point my four year old, leaned over me, took the rare opportunity to speak with beautiful clarity AND make eye contact, and he says to the tightspazz sitting beside me, “My mom is a terrorist, we are going to blow up this plane and we are all going to die.”
Time stopped still. Where had my child gone, and who had replaced him with this demon child??? For a second I was wondering if she might chuckle it off, you know, because demon children just say the darndest things. Move over, Bill Cosby, I’ve got a show for you.
I remember stuttering. I was trying to say, “he doesn’t know what he’s saying,” “he doesn’t understand,” “he overheard some old demented man saying something about that over grilled cheese!!!” None of that came out of my mouth. What did come out of my mouth was a breathless gasp that I was certain was my very last breath as my heart exploded in my chest. Then a windy “he-he-he” was all I got out of my mouth in this single second that time stood still.
I watched in slow motion as she raised her hand up in the air. Next she started screaming. Hysterically.
“Flight Attendant, there’s a terrorist on the plane!!! We are going to die!!!” The plane had just started to taxi when it came to a screeching halt, shifting our weight forward, that’s how sharply the plane stopped taxiing.
Now, Christian has always fed off others’ emotions, and this was no different. Seeing her hysterical reaction and the hysteria of the surrounding passengers, he began to cry alligator tears, and along with the woman was screaming “We are going to die! The plane is going to fall out of the sky and we are all going to die!!!” Over and over again.
I am not going to lie. At this point, I was in all-out-Damage-Control mode. It was General Quarters on USS MyLifeisNuts, and we were sinking. Had I been able to abandon ship, I would have gladly done so. Being that I was strapped in the middle seat between Thing 1 and Thing 2, I resorted myself to, at least attempting to, containing the flooding. I was trying to distract Christian from his hysteria, but in his tired, delirious state, there was no doing so. At one point I was seriously considering shoving his socks in his mouth. I’ve never really wanted to smother my child before, but in that moment, I probably could have. I just wanted to get home or be swallowed up by a giant sinkhole. Either option would do.
“Maam, you need to come with me.” A stern, angry, Morgan-Freemanly-deep, voice graveled behind me. I tore my eyes away from my darling little spawn of evil and saw the biggest, scariest looking black man I have ever seen in my life, holding a pair of handcuffs.
Again with the stuttering, “I-I-I…”
“Ma’am. With me right now.” Now his hand is on his hip, and is that a taser or a gun on his hip?
“What about my child?” Finally, a sentence that made sense.
“We’ll take him.”
I stood up and was handcuffed, and walked off the plane onto the runway, my childs’ screams in the background “We are all going to die!!!!!” (Hey, if nothing else, my child is very persistent!).
One of the flight attendants picked up my screaming child (who took the opportunity to head butt her and push her away, as he was in all-out-meltdown-mode, and he wasn’t light). We were led down off the plane on a temporary set of stairs, erected in the middle of the runway. I glanced over my shoulder and asked the flight attendant: “could you please grab my purse, my stroller, my carseat, my carry-on bag, and diaper bag?” to which the big black man leading me by my elbow yelled, “Is the bomb still on the plane?”
Just his voice made me stutter.
“N-n-n-no sir. Just my purse and my diaper bag and carry-on bag. And my stroller and car seat.”
“Don’t worry” his deeply stentorian voice was enough to make me shake, “We will take care of this.” I glanced over my shoulder and I saw a parade of law enforcement vehicles and golf carts heading toward the runway. In the first time in my whole life, I tasted my tonsils – or possibly my appendix (jury is out on that). The first vehicle arrived, a police SUV, and a intimidatingly excited dog and his handler were heading toward us. The dog did a sniff over of me and my son, now in the arms of another security officer, this one yielding the loudest radio crackling I have ever heard.
Apparently I didn’t smell like I’d been playing with large amounts of fertilizer, so the dog was instructed to head towards the plane. Christian and I were transferred to one of the golf carts, me still handcuffed, him still screaming, and driven back towards the main airport. I remember feeling very anxious because my purse was still on the plane, with all of Christian’s snacks. Oh, and there was the handcuffs, and being treated like a terrorist, thing too.
Once inside the building, I went through the most thorough strip search I have ever endured, and was required to remove both of our shoes and our jackets. Then another pat down, handcuffs still in place, and then we were walking (well I was walking, Christian was being dragged, still hysterically crying and screaming because they took away his favorite blanket) down a long, cold hallway. I tried to talk, but was immediately told to be quiet. I would have my chance to explain myself later.
We were brought into a small room, that was more of a cell than a room. It may have been 7 feet by 7 feet. Once brought into the room, I asked the TSA official if I could be unhandcuffed to calm down my child, and he consented. I sat on the floor, barefoot, and the room was cold and chilly. Weirdly cold. Visions swimming around in my head included life at Guantanamo with the real terrorists, along with the deepest wish, in the world ever, for this to be a dream. I didn’t have to even pinch myself to know it was real: the cold concrete behind my back and under my feet was enough to make it very clear that this was absolutely for real.
Finally at a place where he was no longer being overstimulated, and having no where soft and warm to sit, Christian crawled into my lap, at which point, he fell asleep. Apparently having the worlds biggest meltdown at the worlds worst time is exhausting.
They had taken my watch and the only item on the wall, besides a glass mirror which was obviously a two-way-window-from-every-movie-ever, was a clock that was stuck at 9:15, and the second hand ticked back and forth but didn’t move. In the silence and cold, I finally had a moment to gather my thoughts. “I am a military veteran. I traveled with both my military ID and my passport. Surely they will get my purse, do a background check, and realize that I am not a terrorist, but apparently this sleeping little boy in my arms is.”
After what felt like, an eternity, the black version of Mr. Clean with his scary graspy voice and giant arms opened the door and entered, followed by a smaller, younger TSA officer. “Mrs………C—,” he read from my open passport, holding my passport photo up to compare against my visage. “Your passport is quite an interesting read.” My face flushed, but no words came. “Korea, Japan, Australia, the Phillipines…. and that’s just on the first page.”
“I was in the military. My husband is STILL in the military.”
“We know that. What happened? Dishonorable discharge get you upset and angry with your country?”
“I was honorably discharged and I got out of the Navy because I had a baby.”
“So why were you in all these countries?”
“Because I was in the military.”
“Nobody travels that much.”
“I was on a ship. Ships tend to travel.”
“So why did your child start screaming that you were going to blow up the airplane?”
Deep sigh. “I don’t know. There was this old lady in the terminal with her husband and he was in a wheelchair and he probably had dementia and the old guy said something to Christian about terrorists bombing the plane and I didn’t even know Christian had even understood what that meant… he did so well on the connecting flight….”
Needless to say, they didn’t believe me, and the interrogation went on. And on. and on. Finally, around 6:00 pm (four hours after our plane was due to take off), they allowed us to leave the little room, and they arranged to put us on the next standby flight, but they made me check EVERYTHING: Christian’s carseat, his stroller, my diaper bag, and my purse, even our shoes were checked. I was given our passports and my military ID, and that was it. Everything else was checked, and while “the Black Mr. Clean” did not accompany me on the flight, the guy that shared our row with us was also, more than likely, a plain clothes air marshal.
And just to add insult to injury, despite my deepest fears that once the plane started to taxi Christian would start yelling again, this flight went beautifully well. I thought for sure I was losing my mind.
It wasn’t until the next time I tried to travel I realized that I am now on the “FBI’s watch list.” I was booking my flight, a few years later, and once I entered in my DL number, an error code popped up, with an instruction to call the airline directly. When I called them, I was told that I needed to fax them two certified copies of identification, and that is true to this day. Only once they receive a copy of my birth certificate and my passport, will I be able to book a flight, and never via the internet.
And that, my friends, is my story about the time I ended up on the FBI’s No Fly List. So now, it’s just easier to drive.