unbound page

Traveling with a musical instrument

Posted in Day-to-Day by unboundpage on December 24, 2010

My vacation has officially begun.  I am off work until the new year, I have finished the vast majority of my Christmas gifts, and I have a virtual stack of pictures waiting to become new posts for you.  But right at this moment, I am sitting in Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston, waiting for my flight to my parents’ little slice of frosty paradise in the Appalachians.

I was pleasantly surprised to find a quick and easy pass through security this morning, despite my usual worry when carting a netbook, a baggie full of *potentially dangerous* cosmetics, and a little rectangular case full of oddly-shaped metal and wood.   To the real eyes of other musicians it is obviosly an oboe.   However, on an x-ray screen viewed by your average TSA agent, it could be… well, most of them correctly guess musical instrument without demanding a further inspection, but I’ve had a variety of reactions.

Granted, the easiest solution to the security problem would be to simply put the damned thing in a checked bag, but between the sentimental and monetary value of that horn, I would just as soon check my firstborn child.  I accidentally left it in a gate-checked bag once, and spent the entire flight in a state of mild panic, breaking into a cold sweat as I wondered what the temperature was in the cargo hold, and if the pressure difference would damage the reeds.  No, I just have to brave security when carrying my precious oboe.

I once had a screener stop the belt for a good thirty seconds while she stared at my bag.
“Is that a… flute?”
“Oboe.”
“Ohhh…  Oboe.  …Right.”
It has been my experience that the vast majority of the human population does not actually know what an oboe is.  It’s a crossword staple, so most people know the word.  Some will show a degree of familiarity when you say, “It’s the duck from Peter and the Wolf.”  Others will look quizzically at the small case because they are picturing a bassoon.  I once had an Abbot and Costello-worthy conversation with a trumpet player in my high school band as he excitedly told me about the “double reed” he had seen at a concert.  I was thinking he’d seen something unusual like an oboe d’amore or one of those cool foreign instruments.  Finally he said, “No!  The one you play!”
“You mean an oboe?”
“No, not the big one!”

I once found myself going through airport security fairly late at night when there was no one else around.  They decided I needed a full bag check, so I sat and talked to a couple of agents while another took my shoes and another three or four opened my bag.  I was mid-thought when I quickly leapt up and launched myself toward the table where my suitcase was opened.  Someone had pulled out the oboe case and started to open it – upside-down.  I had a terrifying vision of the pieces rolling out over the purple velvet, then falling down the stacked contents of my bag and finally the fatal three feet to the floor, where the keys and springs would be bent and rendered unusable.  It later occurred to me that it was very lucky those agents weren’t actually armed or otherwise trained to react to sudden acts of aggression.  By all rights, I should have been treated as a threat, jumping up like that.  Instead, they stepped back while I gingerly turned over the unlatched case and politely explained that the contents were worth more than I was.

Today’s pass through the TSA checkpoint was quick and uneventful. Shoes off. Netbook and baggie extracted from my backpack.  Everything else went before the backpack, so I was slipping my shoes back on as the woman looking at the screen squinted a little then turned to me and asked, “Do you have a clarinet in there?”
“Good guess. It’s an oboe.”

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