The Tooth Caper

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One of my past positions was that of being vice president of operations for a major tour company based in Los Angeles. I had a reservations staff of several hundred and had under charter, nine aircraft for our worldwide operations. We also used many regularly scheduled airlines to move our guests from one part of the world to another. I also employed two cruise ships on charter, which were based in the Caribbean and Mediterranean.

This job gave me more than a few gray hairs during my tenure with the company. One was the grounding of all DC-10 aircraft in the 1970s, which not only stranded many of our passengers in several parts of the world, but also made us unable to move passengers to begin their vacations.

Another was when our cruise ship in the Caribbean, with 600 passengers aboard, suffered major engine problems and was only able to move at the speed of 4 knots per hour. I had to charter a 747 aircraft to rescue these people from the Dominican Republic in two movements. This is another story, which I will relate another time.

In the position I held at the tour company, I received various invitations to visit tourist destinations around the world. I remember one was from the director of tourism of Ethiopia, stating the King, Haile Selassie, would like me to be his guest for a visit to their country for a five-day tour plus a day of lectures and presentations depicting the best of the country. I thought this might be most interesting, so I RSVP’d a “yes.”

There must have been 30 people who accepted the invitation and we all met at the JFK airport in New York for the long flight to Addis Ababa. Upon arrival we were taken to the Addis Ababa Hilton downtown and checked into our rooms. In the days to follow we were shown the important historical parts of the country as well as the towns and the cities. Ethiopia is a very poor and struggling country as you might know and the tourism opportunities are little if any. Of the many countries I have visited, this is one of the most poor and filthy I can remember. The government has held the people back and there is little opportunity for them to scratch out a living. It was a sad place to visit. Perhaps today things are better for the population — I hope so.

I should point out that Haile Selassie was considered a god/king. He was revered and also worshiped by the population. He appeared the last night at the farewell dinner and spoke the lines one would expect from the king to a group of travel leaders from the United States.

The next morning was the time to depart the country, check out of the hotel and be driven to the airport for our return flight to the U.S. Even 38 years ago, security in Ethiopia was strict and as I was checking in with the airline I was asked, “Who packed your suitcase?” For some reason, I uttered the unwise retort, “Haile Selassie, the King!”

Well, I was stared at by two people behind the counter for a few seconds while they pressed a button to alert security.

The security personnel appeared at my side within a minute and asked me to step aside and follow them to an office. Inside, I was told to sit down, at which time three security agents grilled me regarding my statement that the king had packed my bag. Being surprised at all the fuss, I simply told them I was joking and that my story was not true. I was given a five-minute lecture about how bad I had been and that I should be ashamed.

As I was sitting there, taking it all in and looking very serious, I poked my tongue into the hole where a false tooth had resided and it was not attached to the other teeth. I had left it on top of the sink in my hotel room! I thought, now what am I going to do. Upon checking in for our flight home, the agent informed me that the inbound equipment was late and there would be a two-hour delay in our departure. So, I took a chance and asked if I could leave the security area, as well as the airport, and return to the hotel to see if my tooth was still lying on the bathroom sink. The security people scratched their heads, looked at each other and finally gave me permission to leave.

I bolted to the taxi stand, jumped into a cab and rushed back to the Hilton. I ran up to the front desk, explained my mission and they assisted me up to the room I had occupied for several days. Upon entering I saw that it had not yet been cleaned. Yes, the tooth was still on the sink. I washed it off, placed it back in my mouth and rushed back to my waiting taxi and hurried back to the airport for my flight home.

I have never returned to Ethiopia and have no plans to do so in the future. God save the King!

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