The Adventures of Billy Possum


The Travels of the Prodigal Carburetor

By Bill J. Castenholz

Copyright 2008, Castenholz and Sons

An RJH-08, the carburetor used on all 1929-1931 Chevrolet vehicles.

When the 1930 4-door Chevy on eBay closed I was the high bidder. The car was located near La Crosse, Wisconsin.

My plan was to inspect the car and, if satisfactory, to close the sale and return home. Later my partner Mike and I would return to Wisconsin and drive the car home.

I know these cars well enough that certain spare parts are always carried with us on our trips. Therefore, in anticipation of a successful purchase, a box of spare parts was taken with me on the flight.

On the night of Sunday, September 7, I arrived at LAX at the Northwest Air departure area, obtained my boarding pass, paid for my one check-in luggage (the box of automotive parts) and preceded to the adjacent X-ray station. The time was about 11:00 pm. I told the gentleman at the entrance to the X-ray machine that the box would probably have to be opened and I wanted to speak to whoever opened the box. The gentleman told me to go around to the back of the inspection area. The box was plainly marked “Auto Parts” in large black letters.

My wife had dropped me off at the departure counter and then stayed at the airport waiting a phone call that everything was alright. If there was any problem with anything in the parts box I would simply take either the objectionable part or the whole box out to her car.

When the box exited the machine a woman looked at me and said that she would have to open it. I said “Certainly, but please be careful as there are some very fragile parts in the box.” She put it on a counter and cut our tape and opened the box. I could not see what she was taking out because of a shield at the end of the bench but I could see her lifting out parts and opening some of the small boxes that were inside. When she finished she said “Everything was OK” and I watched her seal the box with several bands of TSA (Transportation Security Agency) tape. I thanked her and left as the box was put on the conveyer belt.

Our parts box clearly marked “Auto Parts”

My flight on Northwest Air departed LAX at about 12:19 am (Monday, 8 September) for Minneapolis. On arrival I picked up the box at the luggage carrousel and put it in the trunk of a rental car. After a beautiful drive down the Mississippi River to La Crosse I reached my destination.

The parts box with the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) white tape on it.

There were problems with the old car and no purchase was made. I returned to the Minneapolis airport, checked the box and picked up my boarding pass and waited at the gate. Flight time was 9:20 pm. When I arrived at LAX (at 11 pm) it was still Monday! It had been a long day. I picked up the box at the carrousel and met my wife at the curb for the drive home.

It wasn’t until Thursday that Mike came in and suggested that we open the spare parts box and put things away. The original TSA tape was intact. Presumably that made it unnecessary for the inspectors to open the box in Minneapolis.

We opened the box and emptied the contents. The smaller box that had contained the RJH-08 was empty! “Where’s our carburetor?”

It was clear to me that the carburetor could only have been taken out during inspection at the LAX X-ray station.

Thus began the effort to recover the RJH-08 (the carburetor used on all 1929-1931 Chevrolet vehicles.

I immediately phoned the number on the TSA inspection slip that was left in the box. Actually there were two copies of the slip - they must have stuck together when they were inserted into the box after inspection.

After talking to a representative at TSA I was connected to Mrs. Falls, a manager. She listened to my story and said she would check into the matter and try to phone me back the next day (Friday). As I found out later, she had her hands full with the hurricane “Ike” and wasn’t able to phone back the next day.

I don’t like to lose things. I mean I REALLY don’t like to lose things! The matter really bothered me, and even though I had caught a cold a day or two after my flight I decided to go back to LAX Sunday night (exactly a week after my departure). It was earlier in the evening and the airport wasn’t nearly as crowded as it had been the week before. Thus began an incredible series of events.

“Is there a TSA supervisor here?” I asked at the NWA ticket counter. The woman took me down to a group of TSA agents. I was introduced to Scott. I started to tell him my story, stopped and handed him a letter detailing the story. He read the letter and then said “One thing isn’t correct - We have not used white TSA tape at LAX for over a year.” How could I be wrong? I was so sure I saw the white tape being put on the package in Los Angeles.

We walked over to the inspection area that the box had passed through. It was not in use at the moment and I showed him exactly what I observed. Then he went with me to the Northwest Air Lost and Found and checked there. No carburetor! I showed him pictures of the box with the white tape on it. “The box is in my car in the parking structure if you want to look at it.” We crossed the street to the parking structure and I showed him the box. That’s when he told me that he was certain the box had been opened in Minneapolis! He said that even if the box were sealed at LAX it would positively have to be inspected again upon its return from Minneapolis. “There were two inspection slips found in the box but I assumed they had simply stuck together,” I told him.

I had to concede that, as sure as I was that the white tape had been applied in Los Angeles, I must be wrong. (Why was that so hard to do?)

Monday morning I received a phone call from Kendra at TSA. She said that she worked for Mrs. Falls and that she was following up on my lost carburetor. I explained that the supervisor at LAX was sure that the carburetor was removed in Minneapolis, not Los Angeles. Kendra promised to keep me informed of any progress they made in the search. I then phoned Mrs. Falls to tell her of my trip to LAX the night before and the revelation that the white tape must have been added in Minneapolis.

A short time later Andrea phoned. She said she was with TSA in Minneapolis. She asked for some information from the Northwest Air trip label on the parts box. Then she asked exactly where the box had been checked in.

Earlier someone said that the carburetor might be considered hazardous material because it would have tested for gasoline fumes (even though we always dry the carburetors after use). That put urgency to the search as hazardous material is picked up and disposed of regularly. Andrea also said that if something is removed from checked-in luggage it is always given back to the carrier.

About an hour or two after the first call Andrea phoned again. “We found your carburetor!” She gave me a number to phone and said that Mr. Childers from Northwest Air Lost and Found had our part. It was Monday afternoon, Los Angeles time. The carburetor had been “lost” for exactly one week.

The recovered carburetor.

I was astonished! Transportation Security Agency. 75,000 employees. Part of the Federal Government. Concerned with homeland security. Instead of treating me like a serious nuisance, every employee of TSA that I came in contact with was not only helpful but personally concerned for my loss. And their extraordinary diligence resulted in a successful mission.

My thanks to Scott for his great help at LAX and for the key clue that turned the search in the right direction.

My thanks to Kendra for getting the search in Minneapolis on track.

My thanks to Andrea for weaving through the maze in Minneapolis all the way to the finish line.

And my thanks to Mrs. Falls for the overall success of the search.

Thank you TSA!