Can we pretend I didn’t say that? Cracking wise on such matters can lead to some all-round unpleasantness, as Bill Maher found out. However, putting the terrorism aspect aside, underpants are an inherently funny subject. There was an advertisement for European-manufactured thermal longjohns that used to appear in a magazine I once edited, that depicted a hardy Nordic-style fellow out ice-fishing in his skivvies, with a big wide guffaw spread across his face. The ad copy was spare and convincing: “Damart thermal underwear lets you laugh at the cold!” We’d snicker uncontrollably, just looking at the page proofs. Stupidest ad campaign ever.
But you do your level best not to giggle when the Transportation Security Officer is looking your way, as was the case regarding your correspondent at Sky Harbor Airport in Phoenix last week. They were letting passengers carry all the usual things on board, including paperback books, which had been banned from some flights for a couple of days following Mr. Abdulmutallab’s attempted mass-murder. I’ll repeat that I have nothing but disapproval for anyone who tries to bomb an airplane, but I fail to see how preventing reading during a five-hour flight adds in any way to passenger safety or contentment. (Those Amazon Kindle things are another matter. Go ahead and outlaw them, if you wish, and not just on airplanes.)
So, I settled in for the duration of the flight with an obscure Donald E. Westlake, which I’d picked up for two bucks in a Mesa strip-mall. Not to accentuate the negative, but, good grief, things look awful in Mesa, a bedroom community that’s home to a couple of hundred thousand blue-collar folks. It’s not just all the closed car dealerships, and there are dozens, or the abandoned and fenced-off shopping malls, and there are many, but I actually witnessed, at a busy intersection, a shuttered Taco Bell. I’ve never seen such a sight. What kind of an economic indicator is it when people can’t spare 59 cents for a bean burrito?
In any case, in a world where you can’t count on much, you can always depend on Don Westlake to help you kill a couple of hours. It has been a year now since he died, last New Year’s eve, just as the University of Chicago Press began reissuing all the books in his Parker series. I recommend them unreservedly. My two-dollar Westlake was an early work, from the 1950s, and bore no similarities to the deeply noir Parkers, but it kept me occupied and even engrossed until the last page.
As I slipped the book back into the seat compartment, the fellow positioned to my right, in the window seat, held up the J.J. Jance he’d been skimming. “Want to trade?” he asked. He was a lean Western-type fellow, who looked like Dennis Weaver as McCloud. I suspected the Westlake might be collectable, and I really have no idea what or who J.J. Jance is all about. “What the hell,” I said. “Sure.”
We exchanged paperbacks. He said he worked for an environmental company, out of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, that assists the Army Corps of Engineers. He said he works outside much of time, and I wondered if he’d ever heard of Damart thermal underwear. Surprisingly, he had.
His name was Nick. He was heading back to Tonawanda, New York, he said, where his company had a contract to work in a neighborhood where the cancer rate has been off the scale during the last three or four generations. His job, he told me, is with a team that is containing and removing radioactive material from the ground. I asked where he learned that specialized skill. University of New Mexico.
I asked, following a slight pause, how the area of Tonawanda came to be radioactive. He looked at me closely, and then he answered: Manhattan Project. Sure enough. It turns out that the deadly gunk left over from constructing the first nuclear bomb was trucked out to upstate New York 65 years ago and stuck in the ground, under a modest clay shield. Now that area residents appear to have been subject to radiation-induced tumors for the past two-thirds of a century, Nick and his bro’s are working six days each week trying to clean up the mess. After the job is done in New York, it’s on to Alaska and then Ohio, and then somewhere else where men in thermal clothing will contend with other environmental outrages in someone else’s backyard.
After the plane landed, I thanked him again for the book-swap, and wished him well. “Sounds like you’re doing some important work,” I said. I gathered up my J.J. Jance and walked out into the Western New York snowstorm, thinking about all the unexpected places various people choose to hide away different things that can kill you.