Merrily we rollaboard

June 17, 2011

Here’s how it rolls, folks: Baggage on wheels is genius.

Utter, utter genius.

Really, who could think otherwise? Even I think it, and I am, in most things, a crotchety innovation-phobe. Kindle? Pass, thanks. iPhone 4? Old phone does me just fine. But a suitcase that takes the lug out of luggage? I’ll take two, please. Actually, make that three. One in every size, of course.

I know, they’re geeky-looking. I know, that telltale sound of the wheels on sidewalks and concourses can drive you batty. I know, there’s a certain air of the automaton to everybody towing lookalike bags through airports and train stations and down city streets. But there’s a reason why you see them everywhere, you know? It’s because the idea of mobilizing luggage was a stroke of major brilliance, right up there with Ziploc bags and the Cuisinart.

Here’s a snapshot of what I mean:


(Deb Lindsey/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)

On a trip to France a couple of years ago, the bus from the airport dropped my husband and me at the Arc de Triomphe, leaving a several-block walk to our hotel off the Champs Elysees. For me, no problem! I whipped out the telescoping handle on my large (and overloaded) suitcase, tilted it onto its wheels and trundled off, weaving my way among the French folks on the sidewalks with ease.

Beside me, my husband, a holdout against “wimpy” roller bags, trudged stolidly along, huffing ever so lightly as he carried his own (also loaded) wheelless bag the six blocks to the hotel, stopping every now and then to switch hands. By the time we arrived, he was, he confessed, tired, grungy, sticky and, yes, feeling very uncool as the only guest with an old-fashioned, outmoded suitcase sans rollers.

So it’s obvious: The guy who dreamed up this baby deserves gazillions. Maybe even a medal.

At the same time, the whole thing seems like such a no-brainer that you wonder why genius didn’t strike a whole lot sooner than it did. It’s so perfectly natural, rolling merrily along with your worldly goods (well, enough for a week or a weekend, anyhow) in tow, breaking hardly a droplet of sweat, freeing your shoulders, elbows and back from the strain of lifting and schlepping. It’s so second nature that I can’t even remember what traveling was like before the roll-aboard suitcase was born.

Oh, wait. Yes, I can.

I can remember (all too well) heaving ponderous suitcases from the house to the car or the cab, then hauling them out at the airport and heading for the airline counter, your arm threatening to pull from its socket so that you had to stop every six paces or so to rest, or else drag the darned thing along the ground, or shove it forward with your knees and feet (primo technique while waiting in the check-in line).

Sure, there were skycaps and porters. And in Europe, even going way, way back, there were those baggage carts that it took U.S. airports seemingly forever to break down and roll out (and then charge for once they did). But who wants to pay for a skycap? In my footloose student days and beyond, I sure didn’t. For years, I wiled male friends or obliging strangers into taking pity and toting my bag. Sometimes I didn’t even need any wiles. They just took pity.

As for the baggage carts: Well, who wants to pay for one of those, either? Okay, in Europe and elsewhere you mostly didn’t have to. But what happened then was that nine times out of 10, you’d race to baggage pickup to find the cart rack . . . empty. Of course! Everybody knew: It’s so much easier just to wheel your luggage around!

Duh.

And still, the lightbulb didn’t go off until about 1970. That’s when a fellow named Bernard D. Sadow first thought of putting his bags on wheels. Alas, he didn’t get it quite right, putting four wheels on the suitcase’s narrow base and then clipping on a leash to tow it. My friend Lori had one of those. I recall walking through airports with her as she dragged her suitcase behind her like some ungainly, oversize pull toy. And like many a pull toy, it would topple over if she went too fast or hit a bump in the road. Still, I was jealous, lugging an overstuffed carpetbag that I wished I could dump and drag, too.

Which finally became really possible when airline pilot Robert Plath dreamed up the Rollaboard, the prototype of the (even better) bags we know and love today. After that late-’80s brainstorm, everything changed.

Now, you don’t have to search high and low for the lightest-weight suitcase you can find. (No ginormous backpacks or overstuffed duffels for me; I am not a pack animal!) Now, you can have as heavy a bag as you want and it will follow you around — no chivalrous gents required — like an obedient puppy. (Oh, to have had wheels on that leather suitcase I owned; handsome, but it weighed as much as the cow it came from.)

Now, unless you’re one of those carry-on-at-all-costs-no-matter-how-long-you’re-traveling types (which I’m not), you don’t have to worry about packing light. (I don’t believe in packing light. I want to bring my whole closet with me! I’d put it on wheels if I could.)

Now, you don’t have to dread the interminable walk (or jog) from terminal to terminal when you’re trying to make a connecting flight. This, as it happens, is what finally converted my spouse (although it was his innate, er, frugality as much as misplaced machismo that had him clinging to his old bags).

After a particularly challenging, sweaty race from one end of the Minneapolis airport to the other on a business trip, he came home complaining bitterly about his over-the-shoulder carry-on. So on his birthday, I marched him right down to the luggage store and bought him his first set of wheels.

And he’s been thanking me ever since.

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