The next time you're waiting at the airport baggage claim, thinking maybe you'll treat yourself to a little spin on the conveyor belt—feel its twists and turns as you watch the world slide by—I suggest you think again. Because those bright red signs that clearly say "Danger! Please Stand Back" and "Do Not Sit or Play on Baggage-Claim Machinery" are there for a very good reason.
Today those signs seem commonplace. But there was a time—before I hopped on that carousel for a quick go-around, got my pant leg caught in the rubber slats, and was dragged, screaming in agony, past all 200-plus dumbstruck travelers awaiting their luggage and through a set of swinging doors—when they didn't exist at all. You know how I know? Because I did it all the time back then and there was never a sign or security camera in sight.
Thirty years ago, baggage claim was a friendly place where you'd go to pick up your suitcase and, if the mood struck you, maybe cruise around sitting on top of it for a while.
But those halcyon days could never last. Looking back, I suppose that afternoon I got tugged around DFW by my hair was probably just the straw that broke the camel's back.
There was a prior incident in Nashville, where, had I been warned explicitly not to play on the luggage conveyor belt, I might not have popped both kneecaps as Carousel 6 suddenly sprang to life. And of course Denver, where a well-placed caution sign might have prevented me from splitting my head open while riding golf bags down the luggage chute like it was Splash Mountain.
After that came Syracuse, Phoenix, Tampa, Fresno, Paris, Nairobi, Tel Aviv, Heathrow, Sydney, Bangkok, LAX, Papeete, et cetera.
Every time a fire department was called in or I had to be medevacked by chopper, the airport would scramble to put up warnings as fast as possible. Soon it was "Caution! Belt May Start Automatically" this, and "Keep Hands and Feet Off Carousel" that. Yeah, whenever you see "This Area Under Video Surveillance" printed in big, can't-be-missed letters, make no mistake: Barry Clempson was there.
Some say I ruined a good thing for everybody, and frankly, I can see where they're coming from. Riding around on conveyor belts can be one hell of a good time. In my defense, though, my sacrifices have prevented a lot of folks from getting injured the way I was, multiple times—and not just in airports.
In my younger days, I'd get off a plane, pick up my bags, rent a car, and the next thing I knew I had entered a perilous world of nonstop hazards waiting to ensnare me at every turn: curves I could only navigate by slowing down my vehicle, flooded bridges that left me marooned in rising water, children at play. Deaf children at play.
Now they've got signs for all of these things, but I was the one who had to learn that stuff the hard way.
Ever heard of a little one called "Objects in Mirror May Be Closer Than They Appear"? That was me. What about "Caution, Fork Lift Area"? Yours truly. "Do Not Operate Chainsaw While Intoxicated"? To be honest, that was me and two other guys, but mostly me.
I also played a large, though incidental, role in the invention of the defibrillator.
I was scalding myself with hot coffee long before anyone ever sued McDonald's. I pioneered the concept of reaching out to feed crocodiles behind poorly secured fences. And if any combination of age, weight, attire, or tendency to pick fights has gotten you ejected from a moon bounce, you know exactly whom to thank.
If you ever see me around—I'll be the guy minding his own business, dutifully obeying all posted warnings—feel free to come over and shake the hand of a true living legend.
And look for the "No Lava Within 50 Feet of School" signs coming soon.