Abandoned backpack uncomfortable feeling

Here’s one of those sad “that’s the way the world is now” stories. I was sitting in an arena last weekend that was slowing filling up with around 17,000 people.

My wife and I had found a couple of seats in one of the higher-up sections and were waiting for the event of the day to begin. Others coming in were from across the country and around the world. Because this was going to be a daylong event, people had cases and bags of varying sizes with them to get them through the day.

Eventually, the guy sitting one row in front and one seat to the right of me who had been playing games on his cellphone for over an hour must have felt the call of nature.

He got up from his seat, turned around to me and asked, quite politely, if I’d watch his bag for him while he stepped out of the arena. It was first-come, first-serve seating and he was using the bag, in part, to save his seat.

Being the amicable, down-home Nebraska boy that I am, I said, “Sure.” So, he took off.
That’s when my wife and I took a closer look, and on the now empty seat in front of me was the small backpack I was asked to keep an eye on. That’s right, a backpack. An innocent-looking, seen-them-a-thousand-times-in-a-thousand-different-places variety of backpack.

You know it, the backpack you sent your kids off to school with full of books and No. 2 pencils. The backpack you yourself perhaps filled with drinks and treats and headed off to the parade downtown, or the pool or the park. The kind of backpack I’ve taken as a supplemental pack to camp-outs and hikes and even on vacation.

But now, notoriously, also the same backpack you looked at in grainy surveillance videos of a couple normal-looking guys walking down the streets of Boston a few weeks ago. Normal backpacks that we now knew had explosive-packed pressure cookers in them that shattered a festive day.

So there we were, looking at this backpack on the seat in front of us. After a few seconds of silence, my wife said, “You know what I’m thinking.”

Of course I knew.

I knew because I was thinking the same thing.

Here we are in an arena full of people, some household names you’d recognize in a heartbeat, and this guy puts down his backpack and heads into the hallway. He seemed like a nice enough guy. We all can’t help but have terrorist stereotypes in our heads, and he didn’t fit them. But still.

So what do we do? I’ll admit, I leaned over and lifted the bag, hoping to find it empty. But it was pretty heavy. Heavy enough, I said, for … well, you know.

We laughed at our predicament, as is our nature. I got chewed out for being so trusting. My wife was starting to compose the text message in her head she was thinking of sending to our son. We wondered how long do you let the backpack go “abandoned” before finding a security person.

In airports, they talk about not doing this all the time.

What seemed like an hour, but in reality was probably about two or three minutes, came to an end when the owner came back, thanked us for watching his bag and reclaimed his seat.

Crisis averted. We laughed a little and knew we had a tale to tell when we joined others for lunch.

The sad part is that it has come to this. When terrorists wreak their havoc in New York or Boston or Washington, I think we’ve always felt pretty safe out here in the middle of Nebraska. With today’s mass media, we see and feel the terror.

Yet, come on, we’re in the middle of nowhere. We’re safe.

But now we know that in one sense or another, it touches us all. Nowhere near the level of those who were there.

But what if a perfect stranger asks you to watch his backpack in a crowded place?

It touches us all.

Russ Batenhorst

Don't expect to detect a common topic or theme in Russ Batenhorst's weekly column in the Hastings Tribune. Usually it's whatever slice-of-life observation pops into his head just in time to make the deadline for it to appear each Friday.

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