For reasons that will soon become clear, I cannot divulge the timing or location of the following story. But I want to tell you about the time that I had to sneak into a military airbase.
I was visiting a remote location that could only be reached by a military flight, and I made it there without a problem. I enjoyed my stay and accomplished what I needed to do. Then came time to depart.
I begin the long trip from town to the airbase. We pass by miles and miles of fields and barren landscape, nothing to stare at through the windows. Approaching the base, there are guards carrying machine guns who stop us to inspect the van while the guard dogs sniff for illicit materials. I suspect we won’t have a problem since we’re on the approved list. And we make it through this and another round of security, where my passport and belongings are inspected and cleared. We’re waived through, plenty of time until the flight.
Then we get to the entrance and unload the van, which promptly leaves to fetch other passengers from town. Walking up to the base with my suitcase in hand, I feel the rigid cold energy that was so intentionally included in the design of the buildings. Outside the entrance are more armed guards. They’re not messing around. I pass through the doors and queue up to check my bag. When I get to the desk they ask me if I’ve paid my embarkation tax, a fee for leaving the country. “I don’t remember. How would I know?” I reply. They tell me, “You would have a slip like this.” It doesn’t look familiar so I say I will pay the tax now. “Do you accept Amex?” I ask, only to be met with the face of a man who thinks he’s speaking with an idiot. “Cash only.” “Oh I don’t have any cash, where’s the nearest ATM?” He again looks at me like I’m an idiot, says “There are no ATMs in the country. The only bank in town is closed until Monday. Haven’t you just spent a week here?” Oh my god, I’m thinking. I know these things, I know I don’t have cash and have no access to it. But I didn’t account for an embarkation tax. The realization that I cannot pay and have no way of paying is beginning to sink in. I have to get on this flight, I have nowhere else to stay and the next flight isn’t for another week.
Heart racing, I try to explain that I don’t have the cash because I didn’t know about the fee, that I’m very sorry. He shows me a slip of paper that does look familiar. “Didn’t you receive one of these papers when you landed? It explains that you need to have cash for the embarkation tax when you leave.” Now I’m beginning to believe him that I’m an idiot. “Oh shoot I did have that but I didn’t read it. I’m so sorry, this is all my fault. I want to pay the tax, I just don’t have any way to do that.” He asks if I have a friend who can loan me money, but I’m traveling alone. I look deflated, I have landed myself in a worst-case scenario and it’s my own fault for not paying attention.
Trying to level with him I ask if there’s anything that I can do. I offer to mail money or a check, to pay electronically, to wire the money, to do something, anything, so I can get on my flight. He tells me to sit and wait while they handle the rest of the passengers. He says he will speak with his manager about it. I sit quietly and ashamed, like a toddler in a time-out. Panicking internally, I try to imagine a way out of my predicament, try to figure out a place I could stay and a way back to town. After a few minutes that felt like a few hours, another soldier approaches me and whispers, “You’re okay. Come with me.” I jump up and follow, trying to look discreet. What could this mean? Where are we going? He walks me through the airbase security, telling them that I am being waived through. I cannot believe it. I scramble and fumble, trying to be quick before he comes to his senses and changes his mind. I thank him several times in an effusive whisper and scurry over to the waiting area. I sit with baited breath for what seems like an eternity before we can board the plane, knowing that until we take off, I could be kicked out at any moment. And as soon as the plane is airborne, I breathe a deep deep sigh of relief. I’m safe, I really lucked my way out of that one!
I don’t know what made him do it, help me sneak through. But I know I learned a few lessons from that fateful day. First, always read the paperwork they give you at the airport. Second, always carry cash when you travel. And third, if you handle difficult situations kindly and without anger, apologizing where you’ve messed up, people are more likely to help you. I hope you never have to sneak into a military airbase, but if you do, please share your story with me!
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