TSA, the Kubotan, and Me

by Taffy Cannon

“It will be a miracle if they don’t want to take a look at something,” I told my adult daughter as we slipped into our shoes after passing personal TSA screening at the St. Louis Airport.

It was high noon on Sunday and we were headed home after ninety-six jam-packed hours in the small Southern Illinois town where my brother had just passed away after a lengthy and complicated illness. Somehow we had managed to complete everything that needed to be done—including eating corned beef and cabbage on St. Patrick’s Day at the improbably-named Covered in Chocolate restaurant and riding out a thunderstorm the previous night that cut power to half the county, including our hotel.

After a skycap checked four large suitcases full of memorabilia and the final gleanings of a life finished too soon, we’d proceeded toward our gate with a motley collection of mismatched carryons that represented my fifth and final downsizing of my brother’s possessions in four years.

Bin by bin we now watched our stuff come through the X-Ray machine and down the TSA conveyor belt:  jackets, shoes, laptops, cosmetics baggies, cell phones and the first three carryons.

Carryon Number Four stayed inside the black X-Ray tent for a long, long time.  When it came out, The Agent held up the green canvas gym bag and looked in our direction.  I offered a little wave acknowledging that it was indeed my bag and nodded cheerfully when he said he wanted to run it through the scanner a second time.  He peered closely at the contents with another agent for quite a while, with a lot of pointing and shaking of heads.

I wasn’t entirely sure what I’d packed in that bag, actually, in the blur of the past couple days.  I had absolutely no idea what might be causing the trouble, either.  I was pretty sure  that we were clean. We weren’t carrying any weapons, even though Bill had once been a cop and an enthusiastic student of war. The swords had gone to his stepson, the guns to his stepdaughter, and I’d shipped home the eleven-inch Sabatier chef’s knife.  We were carrying no explosives, bottles of liquid, or full tubes of toothpaste.

Now we hauled the rest of our stuff to a table where The Agent deposited the gym bag, gloved up and began to explore.  He was a tallish, stooped fellow, with thinning sandy hair, not interested in personal chit chat even though I had decided it couldn’t hurt to explain just how we happened to be making this trip.

I could see now that the gym bag held a large photo album with my brother’s police department insignia patches on its cover, our Dopp kits and makeup bags, and a plastic shoe box into which I had dumped the contents of a drawer labeled Memorabilia. I kept my mouth shut as The Agent announced that he’d run the various sub-containers through individually.  My money was on the Memorabilia bin, and sure enough he returned to the table fully focused on it. He’d already poked around in its contents once, but this time he moved with renewed purpose and specificity. Moments later he came up triumphantly waving my brother’s keychain.

It felt a little anticlimactic.


“That’s my brother’s keychain,” I told him, mistress of the obvious.  “He carried it as far back as I can remember.”

It still held, in fact, the keys to the truck and house that we had been forced to sell when his doctors refused to let him live alone or drive any more.  But the object in question was the keychain doodad, a five-inch slim metal cylinder that had lost most of its black paint over the decades and was now mainly pewter-colored.

Also, as I thought about it, kind of heavy, not the sort of keychain you could slip in your pocket and forget about.

“It’s a kubotan,” The Agent announced.

“A what?” The word was totally unfamiliar.

“A kubotan.”

“It’s just his keychain. He was a cop.”  By now I had mentioned this fact as often as I could reasonably drag it in, that my younger brother, the former cop, had just passed, on the other side of the river.

“It’s a martial arts weapon.”

Writer nerd that I am, I next made him spell the name, making mental notes.  The way he was handling the newly identified object made it pretty clear that I was in Very Hot Water. The Agent took it to a different table and spent quite a lot of time photographing it.  I was pretty sure by now that he wasn’t planning to give it back, a fact confirmed when he readily agreed to let me have the keys themselves.

At the same time he collected my driver’s license and boarding pass, announcing that he would need to bring the LEO in on this.  The who?

“L. E. O.  The law enforcement officer.”

It took quite a while to round up the LEO, but finally a smaller, less colorful version of The Agent showed up, a retired cop who’d landed a nice gig out at the airport.

By now I was resigned to losing the keychain/kubotan and more concerned about making our plane, the one that had all the rest of our luggage checked onto it.  But the LEO took his sweet time calling my information in, running my record, making statements into the phone like “The incident occurred at 12:46 PM” after describing me as a white female of specific years.

I also began to wonder if this stupid business was going to put me on some special scary flyer list, so that every time a TSA agent flashed the WonderLight on my driver’s license and boarding pass, I’d be asked to step off to the side for special attention.

And then at last it was over.

I was given back my license and boarding pass, assured I’d have no permanent record, and allowed to take my own picture of the kubotan in custody. They even offered to check it for me as luggage, but we’d filled our two- free-bags-per-person quota, so #3 would cost fifty bucks.  Which frankly didn’t seem worth it for something whose value was entirely sentimental at this point.

I sometimes wonder what became of the the kubotan. Was it melted down, tossed into the trash, or perhaps slipped out of the collection bin into some employee’s  pocket? It was, after all, a perfectly useful close-range martial arts weapon.  Which turned out, when I got home and looked it up, to be legal pretty much everywhere in the United States.

Except for air travelers.