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The Terrorist in 23E

Imagine this scenario: You're on a plane. It's getting ready for take-off when suddenly your seat mate jumps to his feet, says he's left something behind but he'll be right back, and bolts off the plane. You notice he leaves his carry-on bag behind. You can't resist. You're a little nervous so you peek in the bag and suddenly, your worst fears are realized. You see what appears to be a bomb. Commentator Susan Kepner had this exact experience. She tells us about the "terrorist" in seat 23-E.

The Terrorist in 23E
by Susan Kepner

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One of the infrequent, delectable pleasures of travel is realizing that everyone has boarded the plane, and the seat next to you is still empty.

We were very near to taking off from Dallas on our way to Chicago when a middle-aged Asian man holding a flight bag over his head came bolting down the aisle, climbed over my lap, and claimed the seat for which I had made such pleasant plans. Suddenly he cried, "Oh, I have forgotten a paper on the counter!" then climbed back over me, like Roberto Benigni climbing over people to accept his Oscar, and went bounding up the aisle, leaving behind him his flight bag.

"Flight attendants, prepare for departure..."

Excuse me? We would be departing without the Asian Benigni? But with his flight bag? I reached down and unzipped the bag. To my great surprise, there was absolutely nothing in it, except for the six canisters lashed together. Six round canisters about four inches wide and ten inches high, tightly wrapped in aluminum foil and bubble wrap, and lashed together by the kind of mailing tape you have to cut off, looking exactly like the explosives we've all seen in the movies.

Sitting next to me across the aisle was a uniformed, off-duty flight attendant. I leaned over, tapped her on the shoulder and said, "I hate to seem neurotic, but would you mind looking into the flight bag left by that man who just went running up the aisle?"

She smiled indulgently, replied, "I'm sure there's no problem," unbuckled her seat belt, leaned across me, looked into the flight bag, exclaimed "Oh, God! Press the flight attendant button!" and dashed up the aisle. She soon returned and said, "He's getting on the plane. Don't worry. We're not leaving without him."

And sure enough, here he comes, smiling broadly. I leap to my feet before he reached me and he slides happily into his seat.

"I have found my paper!"

"I am sorry," I say, "I know it is extremely rude of me, but I was concerned when you left the plane so quickly. What are those things in your flight bag?"

"Food from my ancestors' country," he replies, non-plussed by my invasion of his privacy.

"What country?"


"I see. So, what are they?"

"Some pork, some rice."

"Sticky rice?" I ask. "Pork and sticky rice steamed in banana leaves?"

He beams with pleasure. "Ah, you know this food! Yes, yes! Gio! I take gio to my niece in Des Moines. They not have such thing in Des Moines, but in San Diego we have, so I take this to her for a surprise."

Surprise! Mr. Bac turns out to be a peach of a guy. Since coming to the United States as a refugee two decades ago, he has worked 16 hours a day, taking off only Sunday morning to go to Mass. Mr. Bac and his wife have worked tirelessly to have his own furniture store and her own gift shop. Their four studious children work in the family stores in their free time. At Chicago, he leaves me with his business card, imploring me to visit and have dinner with his family the next time I am in San Diego.

I imagine myself flying there carrying a flight bag in which I have put nothing, except for the six cylinders covered in aluminum foil and bubble wrap, lashed together with mailing tape. They will contain six carefully wrapped varieties of my grandmother's famous strudel: apple, poppy seed, cheese, almond, walnut, and cherry.

Surprise, Mr. Bac! Food from my ancestors' country!

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