The Pan Am check-in counter was cordoned off with rope. A West German officer in khaki and green stood by, cradling a submachine gun. Next to him, a colleague sported a sidearm.
None of the other counters at the Frankfurt airport resembled battle stations. The previous week, boarding an Austrian Airlines flight from the same airport for Salzburg, I encountered no armed officers, no item-by-item inspection of my hand luggage.But this flight Thursday was special. It was Pan Am 103, originating in Frankfurt with a brief stop in London, then on to John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York. Eight days earlier, Flight 103 made it only as far as Lockerbie, Scotland, where it exploded in the air, killing all 259 aboard and an estimated 11 people on the ground. And the previous day, authorities announced that they had concluded that the explosion was the work of a bomber.
Just to reach the Frankfurt check-in counter, I had to get past two airline security guards, backed up on their left by the German police officers and on their right by three other unidentifiable observers.
"Did you pack your own luggage?"
"Do you have any gifts or packages whose contents are unknown to you?"
"Where are you going. Where have you been?"
As I tried to check in, it was discovered that a checked bag had been mistakenly sent from Munich only to Frankfurt, instead of through to New York. This was enough out of the ordinary to cause someone wearing an official-looking plastic badge to lean over the clerk's shoulder and read about my reservations.
My hand luggage was gone through. Out came my house shoes, the white ski hat, then the cosmetic kit that everything falls from as soon as the zipper is touched.
The day had only just begun. We went through the usual walk-through metal detector and X-ray check as we entered the international boarding area, along with a personal frisk with a hand-held detector.
We were quizzed again at the boarding gate about what we were carrying and who had packed for us.
At London's Heathrow Airport, the 26 of us continuing on Flight 103 to New York aboard a Boeing 747 jumbo jet were walked in a group to a holding area with British security guards leading, walking alongside, and bringing up the rear.
At an X-ray machine guarding that area, my giant handbag didn't pass muster. Out came the blue house shoes, the slippery cosmetic kit - this time my nail brush clattered out onto the counter. It was decided the metal hooks of my apres-ski boots had sounded the alarm.
The guard who escorted me to the next boarding area seemed uncomfortable with questions about the extraordinary security.
"Lightning usually doesn't strike twice in the same place," he said reassuringly.
Five minutes after my handbag was searched, item by item, and a security guard had escorted me to the new area - he, English and a gentleman, carrying my bag - the bag was gone through again.
Out came the blue house shoes. This time, my nasal spray was opened, the pages of my paperback copy of "Prince of Tides" were riffled, my datebook was examined, and I had to show the guard how to work the spring on my leather coin purse.
Finally, we boarded. As we began to lift off, I opened my book and wondered how long it would take us to be over Lockerbie. Authorities there were still identifying the bodies and collecting the wreckage of Clipper Maid of the Seas, that other Flight 103, blown out of the sky Dec. 21 by a bomb apparently brought aboard in luggage.