Jewish World Review Oct. 21, 2004 / 6 Mar-Cheshvan, 5765

Rheta Grimsley Johnson

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Consumer Reports

And now, representing the United States ... | JACKMAN, Maine — For three or four days I had bumbled through the Ontario and Quebec provinces in Canada with my foldout maps and limited French.

Everyone — from Canadian customs to motel maids — had been cordial, friendly, eager to help a tourist. I couldn't have asked for better treatment.

That's why it came as a cruel shock to meet the Barney Fife of U.S. Customs, a man whose name shall remain Deane Chamberlain because I don't care who knows it.

It was about noon, and I was leaving Canada, coming back into the United States. I put my passport in my lap and pulled the van dead even with the doorway of the customs house at a remote border crossing near Jackman. It was the picturesque part of Maine you see in calendar pictures, lakes and cottages and signs warning motorists to watch for moose.

I killed the engine and waited. No other car was in front of me, none was behind.

A uniformed man appeared in the doorway and barked an order in a startling cold voice. "Move the vehicle up to the line!"

I inched up the additional yard or so that brought me exactly to the designated waiting line, and again turned off the motor.

"Where have you been in Canada?" he demanded without a hello.

"Quebec City, and, uh, Ontario before that. I spent most of my time in Quebec, though, except the night I stayed in Brighton; that's in Ontario."

When I'm rattled I tend to run on.

"How long were you there?" he asked in the nastiest tone I've ever heard outside of a courtroom.

"Four days?" I hesitated, wanting to get it right. I turned to consult my husband in the passenger seat. We'd been having such a pleasant vacation I'd lost track of time.

"Have you decided if you're going to answer me or not?" Barney snapped before I could turn back around.

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"Four days," I repeated, swallowing my anger. It wouldn't do to let it show. This clown had the clout to order strip searches — maybe worse. And my husband recently had heart surgery and didn't need aggravation.

"Did you buy any alcohol or food products in Canada?" he asked.

"A bottle of Jack Daniels right back there at the Duty Free," I answered (a liter per person is allowed by law to be brought back across the border).

"Open the car," he said.

He proceeded to rummage through our dirty clothes and postcard sacks and a cooler with bread and leftover luncheon meat.

"Roast beef?" he said, holding up the evidence. "That came with us from Mississippi," I explained.

"Are you related?" he demanded while still fishing about in our picnic cooler.

"Well, we're married," I said, a bit peevish-sounding myself by now.

"Then you're related. And how would I have known that?" he said sarcastically. "Unlock the back."

He did not say "Aha!" literally, but he might as well have. He'd found another bottle of Jack, this one mostly empty.

"Why did you tell me you had one bottle when you had two?"

"That came from Mississippi," my husband answered. "You asked what we bought in Canada."

Barney didn't like being wrong. Once again in a rude voice, he told me to move the car, this time out of the path of others trying to get into the United States. He ordered us inside.

A courteous female officer had us fill out forms, typical customs declarations but only required of those who were selected "randomly" for the second level of questioning.

We finished the paperwork, sat down where we were told and waited. We had plenty of time to try to figure out where we'd gone wrong. Was it our Mississippi accents this representative of the U.S. government found offensive? The make of our car? Was coming into the country at this remote site in and of itself suspicious?

I try never to use this column to get even with people. But somehow I'm guessing we're not the first to get on the wrong side of this officer for no good reason. Jackman's jackass needs to save his ire for terrorists and illegal aliens and druggies or be gone from a job that makes him the first person you meet in the Land of the Free.

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07/02/04: I fuss and cuss but know where my heart is

© 2004, Rheta Grimsley Johnson Distributed by King Features Syndicate