Native Wisdom

Making small talk with the cab driver, I sipped coffee on the way to the Juneau airport. The rainy morning continued a string of rainy mornings.

I checked in and wound through security, made it to the other side of the human scanner, and stood in sock feet. My pack, however, didn’t make it.

“Is this yours?” the TSA agent asked.

“Yes, it is.”

“We’re gonna have to search it.”

My mind raced as I tried to recall the pack’s contents. No knives. No water bottles. Ah…

“In the top of the pack, you’ll find a shaving kit. Inside it, there’s a little corkscrew that has a red handle and little blade.”

“I’ll find it,” he snapped.

He’s not going to reason with a man in sock feet, I concluded.

He proceeded to empty the bag’s contents—fly boxes, waders, drawers, and all—piled them in a heap, and carried them to the scanner. I waited.

When he returned, he went straight to the shaving kit and removed the offending item. Cleared to board, I spent 20 minutes failing to pack everything as it had been before. With sweat beading on my forehead and the final boarding call ringing in my ears, I took a coat from the luggage, zippered the pack, and proceeded to stew.

Entering heavy rain in Ketchikan, the plane landed well in advance of my 9:30 floatplane connector. High wind, however, accompanied the downpour, and the de Havilland that would take me to Prince of Wales Island remained moored somewhere in the Tongass Narrows. I grabbed a breakfast burrito and cup of coffee before heading downstairs to a mostly empty waiting area. I took a seat near the Pacific Airways counter and next to a fellow in a Chicago Cubs hat that looked fresh off the shelf.

“So, you’re a Cubs fan?” I asked.

“Yes,” he replied. He explained that he had spent a summer of his childhood in Chicago visiting relatives and had been a Cubs fan ever since.

I told him that my first memories include the Atlanta Braves and that Hank Aaron was my first sports hero. We talked about favorite teams and players and our own modest playing careers.

He had played baseball growing up and still played for a Tlingit softball team. Occasionally, he’d mention something and break into a smile. When he grinned, his entire face lit up, and I had to smile along.

“Do y’all travel to play?”

“Yes, we travel. It’s fun.”

Eventually, though, the conversation steered away from sports and toward homes and destinations.

“You from Ketchikan?” I asked.

“I’m from Haines. I’m heading to Klawock for some Native business. Do you live here?”

“I’m originally from Georgia.”

“I can tell.” He smiled. I did too.

“I wasn’t sure I’d make it to Ketchikan. I thought I was going to miss my flight out of Juneau.” And I told him about the TSA agent.

“We play tournaments in Whitehorse, and we always get checked.”

“At the border?”

“Yeah. Cars in front of us just go through with a wave. But we get checked. The border agent says, ‘Just pull over there, and I’ll be with you in a moment.’ Then we have to empty everything, and the agent’ll go through our bags of bats and equipment. Our suitcases. It happens nearly every time—coming and going.” And he smiled.

“Why do you think that is?” I asked.

“I don’t know for sure,” he said.

“Well, I think I’m gonna get a cup of coffee. You need anything?”

“No, thanks.”

When I returned, he’d disappeared. The lady with Pacific Air said I’d have to wait at least two more hours before I knew anything definite about my flight.

Away from the conversation, I began to feel silly for getting upset earlier that morning. I admired the Cubs fan’s patience and hesitancy to simply indict someone for something that seemed obvious. No doubt, though, he wanted what every American wants: for the pursuit of happiness, within the law, to mean the same for him as it does everyone else.

Russ Lumpkin
editor@alaskamagazine.com