While filling out the personal background section of the MasterChef application, in which I answered truthfully that I had never been arrested or committed a felony, I realized that my answer was not quite accurate. I had, in fact, engaged in an activity in the past that today would result in a rendition hearing and an indefinite vacation at Guantanamo Bay.
In the summer of 1982 I was working as a research assistant in a molecular biology lab at MIT. To supplement the meager pay, I also worked a few nights a week at Toscanini’s Ice Cream in Central Square, a store I had discovered shortly after it had opened in the fall of 1981. My girlfriend Liz and I ate ice cream at least once a week, it was clearly the best we had ever tasted.
Liz was spending that summer interning at a law firm in Minneapolis and living with her parents in St. Paul. We made plans for me to fly out for a visit in July, plans that included my taking a few pints of ice cream with me. It seems she had told her father about how good it was, and he, being an ice cream junkie, made it clear that her request was more of a demand. Furthermore, I was given a list of father-approved flavors from which I could assemble my assortment.
I scooped a pint each of four different flavors and stored them on the -40° F freezer to harden. (When ice cream is first churned, it is frozen at -40° F to minimize the size of the ice crystals. It is “warmed up” to -20° F before it is placed n the dipping tank where it is served to customers.) My plan was to pack the hardened pints on dry ice for the trip. My lab was full of cardboard boxes with Styrofoam inner sleeves, in which various biological supplies were shipped.
As luck would have it, the only boxes available that week were from New England Nuclear, a Boston subsidiary of DuPont that furnished radioisotopes to the medical research community. My lab frequently purchased 125I, radioactive iodine that we used to label proteins for reaction uptake studies. The morning of my flight to Minneapolis, I grabbed a box, stripped off all of the DOT shipping labels (seen at the top of this post), and packed it with the ice cream completely surrounded by dry ice. I sealed the lid of the foam inner box with duct tape, placed that box in its cardboard container, and sealed the seams of the outer box with more duct tape. I carried the box to the airport in a white Crate and Barrel shopping bag. Everything was going according to plan.
Until I got to airport security, which consisted solely of placing bags on a conveyor to be passed through a x-ray scanner. (Do you remember? You could keep your shoes and clothes on, carry nail clippers, and drink a bottle of water while you waited.) I stood the bag on the belt, and as it entered the scanner, it tipped forward, so that I — but not the scanner operator — could see the top of the box. He was just about to wave me through when he looked over at the bag as it rolled toward the retrieval area. And now he could see what I saw: the words “New England Nuclear” printed on the box top.
“Hold up! What’s that?” He pointed at the bag.
“It’s just a box I’m using to carry some ice cream for my girlfriend.”
“It says ‘nuclear” on it. Is it radioactive?”
“If it was radioactive, what do you think would have happened when you ran it through the x-ray machine?” (I had to struggle to avoid saying “bombarded with x-rays.”)
“How should I know? I’m not a scientist.”
“Well, I am, and I’m telling you it’s a harmless cardboard box full of ice cream.”
“I’m sorry, sir,” (remember when they still called you “sir”?), “but I’ll have to examine the box. Please open it.”
I had no choice. I took out my pocketknife (!) and slit open the tape sealing the outer box, removed the foam inner box, and peeled off the second tape seal. I poured out enough of the dry ice into the cardboard box to expose two of the bright red containers emblazoned with the Toscanini’s logo.
Before I could say anything, the guard said “Toscanini’s? Is that better than Brigham’s?” (Brigham’s was the generations-old local brand that most townies were raised on.)
“I’d let you try some,” I answered, “but I think that would get us both in trouble.”
He finally waved me through, but I had to reassemble the boxes. I poured the dry ice back into the inner box and replaced the lid. The duct tape was covered with Styrofoam bits, rendering it useless, so I couldn’t re-seal the box. I fit it back into the cardboard container and closed the top flap, again unable to seal the seams. Everything went back into the shopping bag, which I carried onto the plane and stored in a overhead bin. My ordeal was over.
If you are at all familiar with the structure of the American humor essay, you know that this is the point when when things get worse, and things got worse in a hurry. The fellow in the seat next to me asked for a pillow, so the flight attendant opened the bin, only to be greeted with a cloud of thick, white smoke. Of course: the combination of the no longer airtight-sealed boxes and the reduced cabin pressure accelerated the sublimation of the dry ice into its gaseous form, which had been accumulating in the storage bin. With the door open, it made its exit, creating a waterfall of white fog that slowly drifted down the aisle toward the back of the plane, which was still in a shallow climb.
Much to her credit, the attendant didn’t scream or shout, which gave me enough time to explain that I had a box of ice cream on dry ice. A she dusted the snow off of my seatmate’s pillow, she replied “It’s OK. I only freaked out when the live lobsters some guy was carrying escaped their box and hopped out of the bin.” She was so blasé; I couldn’t imagine some of the weirdness she had witnessed at 40,000 feet.
I landed in Minneapolis, where it was an uncharacteristic 90 degrees outside. Waiting for me at the gate were Liz and her father, who was wearing his usual scowl. He didn’t like me: I was a smartassed kid who didn’t know the value of hard work, and whom he suspected was shagging his youngest daughter. After a chaste hug from Liz we headed for his car, which had us walking outside for at least ten minutes, enough time for my cargo to heat up.
As I shrugged off my backpack, he grabbed the shopping bag to put in the trunk. Before I could snatch it away from him, he caught a glimpse of the box top.
“It says ‘Radioactive Biologicals On Ice.’ I thought this was ice cream. And why is it smoking?”
Once again, I went through the whole explanation – unused box from lab, dry ice, damaged seals, the heat – until he seemed satisfied. When we arrived at Liz’s home I transferred the ice cream (“This had better be the best damned ice cream in the world for you to go through all this trouble”) to the freezer, and set the box on the back porch, where it steamed away for the rest of the day. To his credit, Liz’s dad loved the ice cream, but still gave me the stink-eye for the duration of my stay.
I’ve gotten a lot of mileage out of this story, almost as much as The Pumpkin Pie Story. But when I retold it recently, one of my guests said “You’re lucky it happened so long ago. If it happened today you’d be in prison.”
Assuming that I could somehow manage to get a box like that through an airport all the way up to a security checkpoint, I would certainly have been pulled out of line for a “special” search, the best possible outcome of which would have been my being able to say “And that, children, is why I’m called the Ice Cream Terrorist, and why you can’t transport ice cream across state lines.”