A Terrorist on my Flight

Part of airplane wing over Alaskan coastline
From my airplane window

(Continued from last week)

When he reached the final security checkpoint the guard took one glance at his passport and let him pass. “Why doesn’t he stop him?” I wondered anxiously. Just ahead of me in line stood an elderly woman, probably someone’s grandmother. The guard pointed first at her and then at me and explained that we had been randomly chosen to go through a thorough search, as if the earlier security checks had not been thorough enough. After 15 minutes of thorough examination, I was allowed to put on my shoes and belt, and to repack everything that had been torn out of my carry-on luggage.

Entering the plane I contemplated the absurdness of being force to go through these humiliating searches at every gate, over and over again. Why should I, a father of five with my pale Scandinavian complexion, be suspected of being involved in any devilish terrorist plot? And the old lady who had stood in front of me at the control table, surely she wouldn’t hurt a fly! Nothing seemed to make sense anymore.

When I finally reached my seat and placed my hand baggage on the chair, our eyes met for the first time. The suspicious looking, young, Arab man, raised his eyes for a split second to look at me from his seat next to mine. “This can’t be happening” I thought. I stowed my bag, took my seat, and as calmly as I could said, “Hi, How are you?”

He mumbled something in return but did not seem to be very sociable. I tried to think of something intelligent to say to get a conversation going but came up blank. Instead I reached for the flight magazine in the pocket in front of me and opened to an article about the events of September 11th. Coincidence?

I glanced at the man next to me. He was holding several small, handwritten notes in his hand, all written in Arabic. He seemed to be trying to conceal them from me while he read them, which only made me more suspicious. I’m sure I was not the only one on the plane who had noticed the nervous, young man. But what could I say to him? He was such a neat, clean cut, well-dressed young man.

The plane began rolling and we soon took off towards Amsterdam. Soon the smell of food filled the cabin, lunch was being served. It actually smelled good, even if I wasn’t really hungry. Without really thinking I turned to the young man and said, ”Food will taste good, I’m starving!” He looked at me and nodded. Our food was served and we ate in silence, the conversation I had hope for never got off the ground.

I noticed that he didn’t drink the wine that was served, so I assumed he was a devout Muslim. As we finished our meal, and the stewardess removed the trays, I turned to him again and mentioned that the food had tasted good. He nodded his agreement.

There I was, sitting next to a terrible terrorist who was most certainly going to blow up the plane. If that was the case I at least wanted to know why. I needed to get him talking. I asked him, “Where are you going?” A simple question; not too intrusive. He looked at me and answered without hesitation, “I’m on my way home to Abu Dhabi to see my parents.” “Abu Dhabi!” I exclaimed, “I have been there many times on my way from Europe to Asia!” He smiled at me and his nervousness seemed to evaporate. We began talking about his homeland, the desert and the ocean.

He told me he was studying at the University of Washington in Seattle. But he also had a hobby. “Do you like pocket watches?” he asked as he stood up. He brought out a beautiful leather bag. “I buy these in the US for a few bucks, and sell them in Abu Dhabi for around $1000!” He brought out one pocket watch after the other, all wrapped in toilet paper, to show me. They were all from the 1800’s. “You see,” he explained “American’s only like new things. I buy old watches, pay a small price, and sell them for a good profit.” He brought out an unusually small pocket watch, carefully wrapped in paper. “This is from the mid-1800’s. I will keep this one for myself.”

He collected many items and antiques from the US. This time he was also bringing a Ford Model-T that his father had ordered for the museum he owned in Abu Dhabi. We had a lot to talk about and the trip over the Atlantic passed quickly.

When we parted in Amsterdam I was amazed at how quickly my fear and suspicions were dispelled by a little conversation. It is not at all surprising that he was nervous at the airport in Seattle, nor was my reaction surprising. We were both victims of the events of that dreadful morning of September 11, 2001. The world may never be the same again. But I learned something on that trip to Amsterdam. Communication may be our primary weapon for dispelling fear and misunderstanding between people. While evil may now have a face and a profile, not everyone who fits that profile is evil. Something to remember as we live and travel in this multicultural world, communication is more important today than it ever was.

It will never be the same again, will it?

Statue of Liberty with NYC and Twin Towers in background.
New York City, 1986

For those of us who travel regularly, whether it is for business or for pleasure, the tragic events of September 11th has made a lasting impact on our lives. Not only did thousands of people lose their lives that day, the extent of evil in human beings reached a totally new dimension. And that evil was given a new face and a new profile, which, unfortunately, sometimes even affects the innocent.

Last year in September, just days after the airlines resumed flying again, I was en route from Anchorage to Colorado Springs. It was not a direct flight; I would have to transfer in Portland and again in Phoenix. I don’t think that I have ever seen an airport more deserted and desolate than that morning in September when I arrived at Anchorage International Airport.

Check-in went surprisingly easy. I had expected much more difficulty with security controls. Soon I was comfortably seated on the plane with only a few other brave souls as co-passengers. Just before take-off two large, well-built men came on board and made their way to their seats at the back of the plane. “It’s obvious who they are,” I thought, “certainly not tourists!” The same thing happened on the flight from Portland to Phoenix, two large, well-built men sat at the rear of the plane. On the final leg of my journey, from Phoenix to Colorado Springs, it happened again. Two large, well-built men entered and sat down at the rear of the plane.

Just before take-off, the silence aboard was broken by the crackling of the speaker and the captain began to speak, “Well, flying has never been safer,” he assured us. “Just take a look at the stocky gentlemen sitting way in the back,” he chuckled, “I don’t think any terrorist would want to pick a fight with them!” Since then air marshals have become more difficult to detect. Either they have been given other assignments or they have learned to blend in with the passengers.

Two months later, in November 2001, I was again en route from Anchorage, this time to Amsterdam. I was changing planes in Seattle. Air travel had recovered since September and the airport was once again full of people. Among thousands of hurried passengers I spotted a person coming toward me in the corridor. It was a young man, very well dressed, with olive skin and dark hair. There was no way that he could hide his Arab background. He could have stepped right off the covers of many of the magazines we saw the days and weeks following the terrorist attacks in September. He was the epitome of what was now profiled as the face of evil, a death machine, or a terrorist.

But it wasn’t so much his appearance as his actions that alarmed me. He seemed nervous, eyes glued to the floor, never looking at anyone. As he passed I breathed a sigh of relief that I was not on the same flight as that suspicious character. I continued, somewhat relieved but surprised that one person among thousands of people in this crowded airport could make such an impression on me.

Well, it didn’t matter anymore, I had reached my gate and soon the experience would be forgotten. But the sign above the gate showed that there had been a change in plans. My flight would depart from a different gate. “No problem,” I thought, “I have plenty of time.”

I soon reached the new gate, and there he was again, the young Arab man, looking at least as nervous as before and just a few people ahead of me in line. “This can’t be true!” I mumbled to myself, “What are the chances of this happening? Maybe one in a million.” What do you do if you end up on the same flight as a suspected terrorist?

I’ll tell you what I did next week!


To be Good at Filming…

Editing class in Vedum, Sweden
Editing class in Vedum. Everyone works with their own material to produce an exciting film.

After selling my first film to Swedish Television when I was a teenager, I purchased professional equipment and began to study the techniques of filming with a goal of becoming a good documentary/wildlife filmmaker. I was soon hired to work with Nils Dahlbeck at Swedish Television in Gothenburg. Having retired from his job as CEO of television, Nils had begun producing his own films for a nature program called, “Back to Nature with Dahlbeck.” I became acquainted with many people working at television. One later became my mentor, helping me with several of my early productions. One thing he often told me was, ”To be good at filming you must first learn to edit.”

Many of the films we see on YouTube or other Internet channels could, with a little editing, be fantastic documentaries. My mentor was correct when he said that a good film starts in the editing room. Through our organisation, Naturfilmarna – Swedish Wildlife Filmmakers, we have held several classes in filming and editing. Not only do our students learn to produce a better film, they are inspired and realise that editing is exciting and fun. They often become so engrossed in their new skills that they work late into the night. If you enjoy filming, but consider editing a chore, my advice is that you learn the secrets of editing and you’ll soon discover new possibilities for your film.

I’m a little late getting this blog published this week because I, and several of my colleagues from Naturfilmarna, have been at The Swedish Outdoor Show (Vildmarksmässan) where I was asked to hold a film school. Twice a day I lectured on why someone becomes a wildlife filmmaker and about some of my adventures in filming. I shared a little about working with the Kodiak bear in Alaska, the Ceylon elephants on Sri Lanka, and about our latest project, Himba – the Red People. One of the most important aspects of my job is presenting my work to an audience. Standing in front of a group of people I can almost feel their excitement as they experience the adventure through my words, and a responsive audience fuels me to tell my story with even greater enthusiasm. This weekend at The Swedish Outdoor Show we met lots of interested and interesting people who wanted to know more about wildlife filmmaking.

Some of the people who come to the Outdoor Show are a bit “unusual” with stories of their own. Perhaps you need to be a little eccentric to venture out into the great unknown, feeling comfortable in unusual circumstances that lead to incredible adventures. One of those people who came by to talk to me was Marcus Aspsjö, the son of good friends of ours. A young adventurer I’ve known since the day he was born. His next adventure this summer will be to paddle the Yukon River from Whitehorse, Canada till the Bering Sea on a SUP (Stand Up Paddleboard). Since I’ve been working in Alaska for over 30 years we had a lot to talk about. One of the things we talked about was safety, something that, as a role model, Marcus needs to be vigilant about. My advice was to be prepared for the unexpected. Most people think bears are the greatest danger while traveling through Canada’s and Alaska’s wilderness, but most injuries are caused by mistakes made when your not paying attention. Then the bear, with all his power, is the least of your problems. Follow Marcus at https://www.facebook.com/adventurecalling/

Home again, I head back into the studio for the final editing of our next film, “The Tom Coleman Story.” Next week I’ll tell you a little about this remarkable life lived in the service of others.

My Dear Elsa – The Movie is Finished

Elsa Lundh and Stefan Quinth
I often visited Elsa at the senior care facility where she lived out her last years, bringing the fan mail she received from viewers all over Scandinavia.

In February 2006, we held a three-day premiere of the film “My Dear Elsa.” Elsa hadn’t seen the film prior to the premiere and came to the theater a little nervous but very excited. Throughout the first showing Elsa laughed and commented loudly, narrating along with the film. When it was over Elsa called out loud and clear, ”Now I have finally been vindicated!”

When the film later aired on Swedish Television (SVT), Elsa became an over-night sensation! The buyer for SVT told us that “My Dear Elsa” received the most re-run requests of any documentary they had ever had. It was an enormous boost for Elsa’s self-esteem.

In 2007 Elsa contracted pneumonia. That fall and the following spring her conditioned improved slowly and I visited her and filmed her several times at the senior home where she was living. We never divulged Elsa’s address so any mail from her television audience was sent to us and every time I visited her I brought the fan mail that flowed in from all over Scandinavia. Many of those who had seen the film wrote to thank and encourage Elsa. One young girl wrote, “When I grow up I want to be just as happy and sweet, and be an inspiration to others just like you are.”

Elsa read the letters out loud for me, laughing and thoroughly enjoying all the attention she received from so many people. Those letters made her so happy. She often told me, “Stefan, I feel like a queen. Despite all the horrible things I’ve been through, I wouldn’t want to change places with anyone.”

I think that is the best payment I’ve ever received for a film – the satisfaction of doing something good, of creating a documentary that transformed a vulnerable, degraded human being, who had grown up destitute and misunderstood, and raise her up to be a queen. This tiny woman, debilitated from treatments and medical experiments, finally gained respect and the realization that she was, indeed, valued.

I asked Elsa, during one of my visits in 2008, if I could get her anything. Without hesitating she said that she wanted a box of After Eight chocolates. I promised to get it for her, but time flew by and I was away a lot that spring. We were going to be working in the USA all summer and the day before we were supposed to leave I suddenly remembered my promise. Elsa never forgot a promise, so I knew I had to rush out and buy a box of chocolates and go and visit her.

When my wife, LaVonne, and I entered Elsa’s room that evening she was already in bed, but her eyes lit up with joy when she saw us. She didn’t care about the chocolates I placed on her bedside table. Her breathing was labored but she spoke loudly and clearly between breaths. It was the first time she didn’t assure me that if she could only start exercising again she would soon be on her feet. She knew, and I could see, that this was probably our last visit together.

We sat by her bedside and listened. Mostly she spoke of the happiness she had experienced the last few years because of the film about her life. She didn’t mention it, but I understood she was saying a loving farewell. We sat with Elsa until late that evening. She didn’t want us to go, but we had an early flight to catch in the morning so we finally had to say good-bye to our friend, Elsa.

The next morning, just minutes before we got in the car to drive to the airport, the phone rang. It was one of the nurses from the senior care unit in Vårgårda. She said, “I thought you would like to know that Elsa left us this morning, you were such dear friends.”

The movie “My Dear Elsa” tells her story from degradation to triumph. See it on DVD and Vimeo .