Essay

Pick Up That Bag, Ya Big Lug

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By Steve Hendrix
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 15, 2004

Am I the only one who looks at a concourse full of passengers dragging around those wheeled bags and sees an anemia ward? A departure gate these days is like a dayroom full of patients pulling along IV dollies hung with B12 solution and iron supplements. Everyone seems so . . . feeble.

Am I the only one who wants to shout, "They're carry-ons, people! Carry them!"

This isn't a rant, folks. Okay, it is a rant. But it isn't just a rant. It's also a measured, clear-eyed warning that roll-aboard bags are a full-fledged, mark-of-the-beast sign that, well, civilization is in free fall.

Rome had its gluttonous orgies and generals who couldn't peel their own grapes. We have airport Cinnabon stands and fliers who can't pick up their own luggage.

I can't explain William Bennett's silence on this, but roll-aboards clearly spring from the worrisome twin moral declines of physical frailty and material excess. At the same time that we've labor-saved and super-sized ourselves out of the ability to walk upstairs without an escalator, we can't go on a weekend getaway without a month's wardrobe.

I'm telling you, there is a strong whiff of decay around a society that can't even shoulder its baggage as it glides along a moving sidewalk for crying out loud!

Now I don't begrudge a little wheeled assist on the jetway to those folks who don't have a lot of upper body strength to spare. But if you're a grown-up, healthy male-type person between the ages of, say, 17 and 70, then I'm talking to you.

You know who you are, men. Take a stand. Stiffen your spine.

Pick. Up. The. Bag.

Geez, we've already lost our ability to wrestle down the evening meat by brute force. We no longer use our own arms to raise high our roof beams. We don't have to chop wood or haul water, and the hardest thing about raking leaves anymore is dragging the extension cord around. Fine. But can't we at least muster the strength to wrangle a change of underwear and a mini-tube of toothpaste down an air-conditioned hallway?

I know you're thinking this must have less to do with a harmless trend in air transport than it does with my own shaky sense of manhood -- which, no doubt, is about as secure as the Russian nuclear stockpile. To be sure, no one will ever confuse me with the Marlboro Man (who -- admit it -- would never drag around a wheeled bag). More bluff than buff, I'd be a pretty good candidate for the role of Mac before Charles Atlas made a man out of him. But hey, at least I can carry my own luggage.

Maybe that's why I cling to an ideal of the Travelin' Man that has more to do with worn leather coats, sweat-stained fedoras and -- dammit! -- battered old knapsacks than with generic black nylon bread boxes on squeaky plastic wheels.

Put simply, it matters how you carry your load, through life and through the airport both. Every freshman male learns that slinging a JanSport backpack over one shoulder makes him a cool campus stud, while cinching it over both channels him straight to the computer science building. Manhood 101.

Well, where's the swagger in a roll-aboard? Would Jack Kerouac have written "On the Road" if he'd gone a'tramping with a wheeled bag at his side? Could David Carradine's Kwai Chang Caine -- the ultra-cool wandering hero of TV's "Kung Fu" -- have kicked so much Wild West butt if he'd walked into town dragging a Samsonite carry-on? I think not. Caine carried his worldly all in a blanket roll; real monks don't do retractable handles.

Still, I admit that you see more and more airline pilots -- cool customers all -- succumbing to this distressing modern failing. Most of them are presumably tough ex-Air Force fliers who can (or could) do 300 pushups before breakfast and shoot down bogies all afternoon. If they're not ashamed of tugging these little black boxes through the airport, why should I be?

It has something to do with my basic belief that you should think twice before packing along any more than you have the strength to haul without help. Part of that is practical -- you never know when you'll have to lug everything down the road as your rented Land Rover belches steam under a blistering Gobi sun -- and part of it is philosophical. Couldn't it be that your personal carrying capacity is God's -- or maybe Buddha's -- way of saying: Enough! Happiness, whatever it is, is not having four pairs of shoes on a two-day trip.

I hope we serious wanderers can all agree on this: How you comport yourself during travel has a huge effect on the quality of your trip. We know that whiners, prima donnas and scaredy-cats don't have much fun on the road; they are too easily buffeted by the inevitable little turbulences of travel -- the canceled flights, the alarming toilets, the rooms that have a better view of the dumpster than the ocean.

Well, for me, the basic steeliness that travelers need starts with the packing -- which should be light -- and is sealed at the airport. They can make me take off my belt and empty my pockets and violate my personal space all they want with their squawking little wands. But they can't make me check my dignity -- my rugged, self-reliant dignity -- at the curb. Give me that venerable old L.L. Bean duffel with the worn but trusty shoulder strap, and I'll be on my way, ma'am, thank ya kindly. I'll stride into the sunset at Gate 42, tall and proud and unbowed by my little burden.

Just let me put my shoes back on first.


© 2004 The Washington Post Company

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