Saturday, August 11, 2018

The silly (and almost tragic) saga of the hand-painted animal plates

I saw a news clip today about a quick-thinking TSA agent who noticed a smoking bag as a passenger was going through the security line at the Savannah airport.  A battery in a vaping device was on fire. It brought to mind one of my favorite family stories.

In the early nineties, my wife, two young sons and I flew to London for Thanksgiving. My wife, who has an eye for rare and beautiful things — which is why she married me —  spotted in the window of a china shop some colorful, whimsical, hand-painted animal plates. She announced they would look great hanging in our kitchen. There were, if I remember correctly, probably thirty or forty different plates in the series. She and the boys picked out 16 of them.

The shopkeeper wrapped the plates individually in newsprint, and placed them in two corrugated boxes he stuffed with excelsior to provide extra padding and keep them from jiggling around. He sealed the boxes with tape and wrapped twine around them to create handles.

The next day we went to Heathrow for our return flight to JFK. Back then, I was a United frequent flyer. This, of course, was when the friendly skies were still friendly — two decades before United started dragging passengers off planes and suffocating puppies. As a frequent frequent flyer, I belonged to the United Red Carpet Club. After check-in, we proceeded directly to the lounge where we placed our carry-ons, including the boxes containing the plates, on the floor, and headed for the free food. We didn’t notice we had placed one of the boxes atop a heat vent.

An hour or so later, as we were going through the security line, a fellow passenger noticed that one of our boxes was emitting smoke. The security agents went ballistic, ordered everyone to stand back, and pulled us out of the line, accusing us of trying to smuggle a bomb. I pointed out that if I were doing that, I wouldn’t be bringing my wife and kids, and told them the box contained plates. An agent ordered me to carry the smoking box into a nearby room and demanded I open it. 

The heat hadn’t ignited the excelsior but it was, indeed, smoking.  If we had boarded the plane with that box, the excelsior would have continued to smolder and would have eventually burst into flames — probably in the middle of the ocean. A jumbo jet would have disappeared and nobody would have known why.

But the cardboard box, amazingly, was just slightly charred so, once the security agents calmed down, we were able to repack the plates, wrapping them in dirty underwear from our carry-on bags, and allowed to board our flight. We placed the boxes in the overhead bin and settled in.

Halfway across the Atlantic a passenger opened the bin and the boxes tumbled out and crashed to the floor. We assumed all the plates were smashed to smithereens. When we got home, we were amazed to learn they had somehow survived intact.

For years the plates were displayed in our Connecticut kitchen and today hang above the cabinets in our Florida kitchen where almost everyone who sees them comments on them. We always tell the story of their bizarre journey to America, a tale I have now told for probably the 100th time. 

Postscript: As I was taking the above photo, my wife asked if I noticed anything different. Looking at the plates, as I have every day for twenty-some years, I realized there were a number of new ones. There are still 16 plates hanging there, but some I had never seen before.

A few years ago while changing a light bulb, the top of my ladder struck one of the plates.  It fell to the floor and broke into 100 pieces. My wife was heartsick. While the plates aren't particularly valuable, we love them, not only for the playful artwork but because of the story associated with them. She began scouring the Internet for a replacement and, months later, found one -- not the same one I broke -- at an antique shop in England which I dutifully hung in place of the one I had broken.

What I didn't realize -- and, knowing her as I do, shouldn't have been surprised to learn  -- is that she has continued buying more plates as she finds them online, one or two at a time, from individual sellers and shopkeepers on eBay UK.  She says she even struck up an email correspondence and friendship with one of the sellers, a woman who bought her plates the same time we did. My wife has been taking down old plates and replacing them with new ones for more than a year. I didn't notice. She now owns more than two dozen plates but there are still only 16 hanging in the kitchen. 

What'll we do with all those plates? The same thing we'll do with all the stuff we've accumulated over the years -- leave them for the kids and grandkids to deal with when we're gone. Not our problem.

In the meantime, they're kind of cute. And the silly saga continues.

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