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Why Mom's ugly luggage is the only way to fly

I just read a travelers' advisory that said airport thieves target expensive, designer luggage. That's one thing my family never worries about.

No self-respecting crook is going to be hanging around the baggage carousel waiting for our bags to glide by. Our luggage has the curb appeal of a hitchhiker wearing a ski mask. But who needs a Louis Vuitton for a Wal-Mart T-shirt?

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My family has a long, proud history of carrying cheap, ugly suitcases. It's not that we were destitute when I was growing up, it's just that Mom considered fancy luggage to be wasteful and showy. "Wasteful" because we took one trip a year. "Showy" because the wrapper shouldn't outshine what's inside, a principle she applies to many areas of life.

That didn't stop me as a kid from lusting after one of those three-volume matched sets: the big suitcase for Papa Bear, the medium for Mama Bear, and the little one for Baby Bear.

Instead, every summer our sneakers and shorts made their pilgrimage to relatives in West Virginia packed in three or four mismatched Mama Bears, mostly hand-me-downs and toss-me-outs. These were made of heavy cardboard with the staying power of a cheap padded bra. If they got punched in on one side, you could tap them back into shape from the other side. The suitcases had flip-up locks, easily jimmied in 30 seconds by any five-year-old with a bobby pin. Mom always got dibs on the cosmetic case for her curlers and witch hazel.

The suitcase situation hasn't changed one iota for Mom. She still considers decent luggage to be frivolous. Not long ago, I picked her up for a day trip into Arkansas, and she packed cookies, her windbreaker, and other necessities in a 40-pound plastic detergent bucket.

She saw my grin and explained, "The laundry basket was full."

Frequent fliers should take a lesson from Mom. If everyone packed like a hobo, it'd put an immediate stop to baggage thefts. I can imagine this conversation among bewildered thieves:

"What's this? The Kettles' family reunion?" one whispers to the other as the hodgepodge of cheap, oddball suitcases drifts by. "There's not a Ralph Lauren in the bunch. Get a load of that gunnysack. That thing could have a possum in it."

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His partner sniffs. "That's nothin'. I just saw a Charmin box tied up with twine. Probably has a purple polyester pantsuit in it and some of those pink spongy hair curlers."

A 30-gallon Hefty bag, doubling as a garment bag, glides by. "I'm getting stressed out," the one crook says. "This scene looks more like Greyhound than LaGuardia."

The first thief scratches his head. "Gee, we've never had any trouble before plucking a couple thousand dollars' worth of souvenirs from ritzy travelers."

"Souvenirs, no problem," says the other. "But you're talking plastic back scratchers with this crowd."

Criminal No. 1 punches him in the arm. "Let's beat it. I'm not risking my neck for a pair of lousy flip-flops and postcards of Hootie's Holler."

Sometimes, crime just doesn't pay. And most of the time, Mama Bear knows best.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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