By the time Jim Floersch reached St. Louis, he and his family had driven a ten-state loop from Kansas to South Carolina. Ten days earlier he parked the Ford F-150 in his barn, packed the kids in a rented white minivan and headed east to attend his daughter's graduation from Marine Corps boot camp in Parris Island, South Carolina.
The Eudora, Kansas, family decided to make a vacation of the April trip, stopping off in Myrtle Beach and Atlanta along the way. The Floersches also planned on visiting the Arch but decided to save it for the final leg of the journey. "Our youngest son...wanted to save the 'best for last,'" Floersch wrote in a letter to the Riverfront Times.
One driving-day away from home, the Floersch clan arrived at the St. Louis Gateway Arch and came upon that staple of modern life, the security checkpoint. The incline leading down to the Arch's entrance is smattered with signs warning the terror-weary public of the monument's zero-tolerance policy for weapons. There's a National Parks Service guard posted outside and another six or so manning the x-ray equipment. These guards may be slouching against the doorway and machines, but don't let that fool you -- behind their languor lies a concern for the safety of our city's most notable monument.
Slumped at the ready, the guards are on the lookout for the usual suspects -- guns, knives and explosives -- and they take their job very seriously.
No problem, thought the 48-year-old Floersch as he approached the Arch's entrance with his wife and four kids in tow. The Sprint service technician had just seen his twenty-year-old daughter graduate to four years' active duty with the Marines. He'd had a great time tooling across the country with his family. He'd loved the coast and thought the pinning ceremony "was one of the most moving ceremonies I've seen in my life." In short, Jim Floersch was feeling good about his daughter's future and his nation's security.
Like water running downhill, his family eased through security, and Floersch didn't think twice as he dutifully voided his pockets of keys, cell phone and change. For good measure he even offered the gray tub his well-traveled coffee mug and the two-inch pocket knife his children gave him for Christmas.
But upon seeing the offending pocketknife, the guards bristled to attention. "Sir," Floersch recalls one of the guards saying, "you're carrying an illegal weapon."
Floersch was confused. His family had already passed through the x-ray gauntlet and was waiting for him on the other side. "Oh really," Floersch said to the guard. "Where's it at?"
The guard motioned toward the pocket knife. Recalls Floersch, "They said that it had a spring-loaded blade on it and that made it an illegal weapon. [And] they [were] gonna have to write me a ticket."
He then recounts the guard saying, "'Oh yeah -- and it's a good one.' And I says, 'What do you mean by that?' And he says, 'Oh, it's 150 dollars.' And I said, 'Well, just throw the knife away and I'll leave.' And he says, 'Oh no, I have to be consistent.'"
A call to the National Parks Service finds that the Arch's security guards are indeed very consistent. "It happens pretty frequently," says Joel Musick, chief ranger at the Arch. "It's since [the 1995 bombing of] the Murrah Building, we've had extra security measures in place. It's well into the hundreds of knives that we take annually."
The confiscated weapons are not returned to their owners. The fines end up in the National Treasury, though the National Parks Service, the Department of the Interior and the Department of Treasury were unable to track the revenue generated from such confiscations.
But surely, thought Floersch, isn't confiscating the knife enough? He didn't see any sign warning of a fine, and most of the signs don't specify what qualifies as a "weapon."
"Heavens, I walked in there and handed it to them," sniffs Floersch. "If I'd walked in there and concealed it, or tried to conceal it, that'd be a different story -- but I never even gave it a thought. I don't even think of it as a weapon. It's not that kind of knife. I think they got it at Wal-Mart."
But where a blade comes from or what its owner thinks matters little, says Musick. "Logically you could say you can buy a shotgun at Wal-Mart, too. But you can't bring it down here," he reasons. "You could certainly slice a jugular vein with that two-inch blade, so to say it's not a threat is not exactly a true statement."
Musick says he and his rangers take all threats very seriously, and a knife -- even a penknife -- is a possible threat. "We've found over the past few years that whatever can be used as a weapon will be used as a weapon," he says ominously. "Our focus has been on preventing the illegal items from going inside the Arch."
But Floersch, who paid the fine, is unconvinced. "Do you think a little-bitty pocketknife like that has anything to do with national security?" he asks. "I don't. I mean, heavens, my coffee cup that I handed him was more dangerous than that little knife. It's stainless steel."
But Musick insists that signs prohibiting any and all weapons are clearly posted at the monument's entrance. "I might be able to understand somebody's ire with us, but there are signs posted on the door, and prior to entering the Arch there are signs aplenty that say, 'Knives Prohibited.'"
Floersch has to concede the point, and the knife incident has clearly thrown the Kansan off his game. "Maybe you want to say, 'You're just stupid and you should know this stuff,'" admits Floersch. "You know, I told that officer, 'Of all things, you've made me feel like white trash. You've brought me down to a level I didn't think anybody would do, and you did it legally.'"
Nonetheless, Floersch wishes the signs were more explicit about fines involved with carrying weapons at the Arch. "Whether they're government or not, I don't give a damn," he says. "They've got a license to steal. That's the way I look at it."