My grandfather was a pilot back when being a pilot really meant something.
He wore aviator goggles and a leather cap. He flew in propellor planes with a scarf flung around his neck and posed for sepia-toned photos with friends, leaning forward with a cocky grin, his elbow resting on his knee. He flew in the civil war, and later broke a speed record from Mexico to Madrid in a Boeing 747. He flew with Iberia for years before retiring, racking up in working hours the equivalent of four years in the air.
My grandfather is a proud man. When I was a child he was a tall, stern-looking man who stood so straight you could have used him as a ruler. He would come to the airport to collect us, flash his card that proclaimed him a retired pilot and the guard on duty would let him into baggage claim to meet us; He was quite proud of this seemingly inconsequential perk. Every time we flew into Madrid, we knew we would see him the moment we got through passport control. He would stand there, hands clasped behind his back, looking as if he were waiting for someone to shout “AT EASE!” My brother and I would catapult towards him, laughing, and his poker face would split into a grin.
“Hello, my little coronel” he’d say as he tousled my curls.
After the shock of September 11th, ripples of horror spread around the world. Airport security went into overdrive.
That Christmas was the first time my grandfather wasn’t there to meet us in baggage claim.
As we walked out the gate after having collected our bags, I saw my grandfather arguing with a security guard, pointing at his card, explaining his security clearance. It was an important moment for my grandfather, for reasons I almost understood better then. In that moment he felt humiliated, betrayed, forgotten. He was no longer special. He no longer belonged. He, who had given his life to aviation, and flown thousands of hours to so many countries, was no longer an important person at the airport, to be treated with respect; he was now just another old man, welcoming home his grandchildren, bothering the security guard.
The world of global aviation was trying to pull itself together after an enormous security breach and the ensuing deaths of so many. What is the pride of one old retired pilot weighed against the future safety of their customers?
My grandfather is still a proud, stern-looking man. He still stands tall, if a little more stooped. He still calls me his little colonel.
But he never set foot in the airport again.