In August 1985 Renata and I happened to be leaving Casablanca airport on the same day Pope John Paul II was arriving for a visit to Morocco – the first time a Roman Catholic Pope had ever visited a Muslim country. From inside the terminal, waiting to check-in, we could see the preparations being made down on the tarmac, and later the Alitalia plane touching down. Having seen on television his visits to other countries, I knew he was sure to kneel and kiss the ground when he disembarked. Not wanting the moment to pass without a personal memento of such an historic occasion, I snapped the telescopic lens on my camera, asked Renata to sit tight, and headed out the door and around the side of the terminal.
I went over a guardrail, down an embankment of brown grass, right to the chain-link fence that bordered the tarmac. Putting my camera up to the fence I was able to get an excellent, uninterrupted view of the airplane just as the portable stairway was being wheeled into place. Staring through the lens I watched as the door opened and John Paul II emerged, waving.
Just then I heard a metallic clicking sound behind me, and an unmistakably stern voice saying something to me in Arabic. I turned to find two men whose uniforms indicated they were members of the Royal Guard of King Hassan II. And they were aiming their substantial guns right at me.
I never did get the photo. Never even saw the Pope descend the stairs. I was frisked, questioned, berated, and released. My ticket and my American passport saved me. Shaken, I found my way back into the terminal, considering myself lucky to be able to make the flight.
Having a gun pointed at one in earnest has a sobering effect, I find. When the barrel disappears and is replaced in one’s view by a steely black ring out of which at any moment could come serious hurt, all else seems rather unimportant. Good communication – in measured words and body language – is a premium.
The first time I was ever held at gunpoint – again by police – was in California, just three years before my Casablanca experience.
I was out for a walk late on a balmy California afternoon, just north of Santa Rosa. Normally Renata would walk “the loop” with me, through vineyards (“Ahab’s pride” we called it), past the Mark West Springs Elementary school in whose playground we later had our first kiss, and back past a small shopping center and row of other businesses. But for some reason Renata was away that day, so I was walking the loop alone.
As I passed the row of businesses, some with small landscaped gardens in front, I caught a whiff of a lovely floral smell. Intrigued by what plant was giving off such a sweet fragrance I meandered into the garden of the building nearby. I went from plant to plant, looking and smelling, and wound up at some bushes planted right next to the wall of the….bank. It was at exactly the moment I noticed it was a bank, that I saw, out of the corner of my eye, a police cruiser go by on the street. Instinctively I ducked down, but that only made things worse. I had been spotted, and I saw the cruiser’s red & blue lights go on at the same time he made a fantastic rubber-burning U-turn and came screeching back into the bank’s driveway.
His door flew open and, just like in the movies, the officer crouched between his door and the car, gun drawn, and told me to “Come out slowly, with your hands up!”
This time I was asked to go spread-eagle against the front of his car, was padded-down, and then spun around to face away from the car – arms still up in the air – as the police officer returned to his seat and ran an identity check on my Oregon state driver license. A few minutes later he came back to me, satisfied I was not being sought for any other mischief.
“So, son, what are you doing hiding out in the bushes next to a bank?” he asked.
“I wasn’t hiding,” I said, remembering that with the police honesty is the best policy, “I was smelling the flowers.”
Whatever answers he had expected, mine was not on the list, so a pause ensued as the officer considered what I told him. He looked me up and down once again. “Explain,” he said, simply. To which I gave him an honest account of my walk around the loop, the lovely floral fragrance emanating from the bushes – he could smell it himself if he wished, just over there – and my botanical explorations to reveal the source.
He took off his hat, ran his fingers through his hair, and stretched his neck. “Son,” he said, “you’ve trespassed on private property, and I could take you in. But I’m not going to. However, from now on in life I want you to remember that whenever you feel inclined to stop and smell the roses, please don’t do it next to a BANK!” He tossed me my wallet, snapped on his hat, got in his car and drove off.
I’ve been detained by police two other times, and just a year later even broke into a bank (I really needed to), but I have taken that good officer’s wisdom to heart and have become much more cautious about just following my nose.