We left Sullivan, Illinois July 23rd for our first real trip overseas as a couple. The year was 1993. Sandra’s brother Larry had been living in Israel for a couple of years by then and was attempting to learn Hebrew in order to become a citizen of the country. He previously lived in New York City for over twenty years. Somehow Larry had done some work for a company in Israel and earned two free tickets for round trips to Israel from the USA, so he gave them to his sister and me.
Our flight out of the US started from Champaign, Illinois, only fifty miles or so from our home. We had driven there and checked our four bags at Willard Airport for the short trip to Newark where we would catch our Lufthansa Airlines ride to Tel Aviv via Frankfurt, Germany.
Our overseas flight left Newark about four in the afternoon for the long trip across the Atlantic. I think Sandra was almost as excited as me to know we would be seeing Larry in a short time. Larry was to meet us at Ben Gurion Airport just outside of Tel Aviv later the next day. He was borrowing a car from his friend and business partner in order to meet us and take us to an apartment he had arranged for us to rent.
Our flight to Frankfurt went off without a hitch, at least until we reached the Frankfurt International Airport. As we left the plane to make our connection to Tel Aviv, we had to wait for our luggage to arrive so we could check it through to Israel. We waited as the entire plane load of luggage arrived on the luggage belt. People grabbed their bags and went through the Customs line so they could make their next connecting flight. Sandra and I waited…and waited…and waited some more. Eventually the belt stopped moving and we still never had our luggage. I went to see a man in the Customs office and explained that our bags never showed up. He assured me there more bags coming and we had to wait, so Sandra and I waited some more. Nothing more came through on the baggage belt conveyor, so I went to see the man again. This time he directed me to go through the Customs line and report the loss to the baggage clerk at the claims counter. I told Sandra I had to go through the line and she should wait there where she was seated until I returned.
Going to Israel is an experience, I suppose no matter where you are from, but I soon encountered a new experience. As I went through Customs empty handed. I explained to the officer what I had been instructed to do about my lost luggage. He promptly took me inside a tent set up for the purpose of doing body searches. He had me stand flat-footed with my legs far apart, bent over and leaning on a table. He patted me down from head to toe, stopping in some places that made me very uncomfortable. I was embarrassed with the thoroughness of his body search. Finally he let me go, so I went to the baggage claims clerk and told her about my lost luggage. She said that if it didn’t show up within fifteen minutes, we should go on to our final destination and report the loss there at Tel Aviv. I then walked over to the ticket agent and explained we had to wait another fifteen minutes for our luggage. “I am worried that our [plane is about to leave,” I told her.
“No, they will wait for you, Mr. Meredith. This happens quite often,” she told me.
“Do you mean they are holding up that 747 with 400 people until we get our bags?” I asked.
“Yes, they will wait,” was her answer.
I headed back to tell Sandra in the large waiting room where she sat, but I was directed to go back through the same tent. I protested, but to no avail. I suffered the same kind of search by the same officer as before. “You just did this to me a few minutes ago,” I told him. He ignored me and made me go through the same process as before, a bit friendlier with his hands than previously. Again, I was free to go see my wife, but I was beginning to think this guy liked me a little more than I was comfortable with.
Sandra and I waited another fifteen minutes, after which I told her I had to go back to the baggage clerk and tell her our bags weren’t there yet. She sent me over to talk to the ticket agent once again. “Has our plane waited on us?” I checked,
“No, they had to leave, but there will be another plane in three hours,” was my answer from her. “Please check your hand luggage through Customs and see me again for a ticket change.” She told me to back through Customs.
As I looked at that damn tent again, knowing what would take place there if I entered again, I decided to wait until the officer was busy and duck under the rope and avoid the tent search. And I did exactly that, ducked under the rope to go get Sandra. As I straightened up from ducking under the rope, a German soldier screamed for me to halt as he ran up to me with a really big gun. He grabbed me and turned me around and had the gun in my neck. I was sweating bullets by now. They thought I was a terrorist, or maybe something worse. He yelled at me in German, but I didn’t understand a thing he was saying. A second soldier came to help the first one. He also screamed at me. I thought I was about to be a dean man. I wondered at that moment how Sandra would ever get to Israel by herself.
Then I saw the Customs man in the blue suit come out of his little office to see what all the commotion was about. He walked over and asked the soldiers a question, which I didn’t understand. Then he turned to me and asked what happened. I tried to explain I was just trying to avoid another embarrassing body search.
I’m not sure what he said to the soldiers, but they holstered their guns and turned me loose to return to Sandra. I know I was shaking like a leaf when I reached her sitting against the rear wall of the large room. She looked at me, without even asking me how I was or anything that considered my near-death experience. “Did you get out tickets changed?” she asked.
In a very shaky voice I told her, “No, not yet.” I was still so out of breath I could barely manage to say anything. She gave me a direct order to get back up to that counter and get our tickets changed. I will not say what my next words to her were, but trust me, my church friends would not want to hear them.