November 1, 2011
My wife, Meg, grew up on a farm where livestock and pets came and went at a dizzying rate. She even raised a pig, Emily Jane, that the family eventually enjoyed with mashed potatoes and applesauce. So it’s no wonder she introduced a rotating cast of foreign exchange students to our home—not that we killed or ate any of them. We’ve had an Austrian, three Germans, and one Italian boy named Francesco.
“I want to go to America,” he’d say.
“Because it’s America. They all have guns.”
“Not the best of reasons,” we suggested, but the boy simply had to go—based, I think, on some genetic encoding dating back to Vespucci and Columbus, not to mention the countless Italian mobsters who sailed in past Ellis Island and helped mould the psyche of that great, gun-toting nation.
“I want to go to America,” he insisted. “Fine!” we said. “We’ll go to Blaine and buy a wheel of cheddar.”
Bit of back story here. For 10 years I acted in a television show called Stargate SG–1. It was a sci-fi hit that opened up another avenue of income for me: travelling all over the States, meeting fans of the show at conventions and signing autographs. The upside was free flights and hotels; the downside was that I attracted the attention of customs. When I first got asked if I’d spent any time in jail, I had to stop and think.
“No! No, I haven’t,” I told the agent. “I have not been to jail. I have spent zero time in jail. Ever.”
“Go into that room there.” Above the door was a sign: “Homeland Security.” There is absolutely no point in mentioning to a customs guard that you’re “kind of late” for your flight.
“Mr. Jones, have you ever been in trouble with the law?” the guard asked from behind a wall of riot-proof Plexiglas.
“Have you ever been arrested?”
“No. And I’ve spent no time in jail. Like, zero. None.”
When he handed my passport back, I asked, “So why was I brought in here?”
“There’s a Gary Jones on the Top 10 Wanted list in the States.”
It happened often enough that Meg finally said, “You have to do something about your name.” Not change my name, just add a middle name. Less cost, less hassle, and I’d breeze through customs. She brought the forms home and filled everything out except the line for my new middle name. Who would I be? I grew up in Britain, and Paul McCartney lingered in my mind as one of the fabbest guys ever. Me: Gary Paul Jones. When the documents came back from Ottawa I tore open the envelope.
“Gary Paul Von Jones?” I said in horror. “Von?”
“Babe, I thought it would be funny. Don’t you think it’s funny? Plus, at least customs won’t think you’re some serial killer now.”
“No, they’ll think I’m a Nazi war criminal.”
So it was that Francesco piled into the Mini along with Gary Paul Von Jones and Megan McCormick and Oscar Elvis Jones, and off we headed to the land of cheap gas and cheese. We hit the Peace Arch logjam and settled in for the crawl.
“How y’all doin’?” asked the border guard when we finally pulled up to the kiosk.
“We’re all great, thanks.”
“Where y’all headed today?”
“Just going to Blaine for a visit.” I handed him our passports and he swiped them one by one.
“And who all’s in the car with you today, sir?”
“This is my wife, that’s my son, and the older boy is an Italian exchange student who insisted that we bring him to America before he goes back.”
“Well, that’s just great,” he said, glancing at his computer screen after finally swiping my passport. The air density suddenly changed.
“Remove the keys from the ignition and put your hands on the wheel! Now!” I did as I was told. “Everybody, hands on the ceiling! Now!”
Oscar was only eight, so he couldn’t quite touch the ceiling. About 20 Homeland Security guards in combat gear closed in. More guards peered at the screen. “Is it him?” “I’m not sure.” “I think it’s him.”
I glanced in the rearview to see Francesco beaming. Everything he’d hoped for had come true. We were surrounded by guns. Finally, after the blood had drained out of our arms, the guard relaxed enough for me to ask, “So the addition of Paul and Von to my name didn’t make any difference?”
“Your passport has been red-flagged, so no amount of name-changing will change that. Sir, could I ask you to head into that building to your left?” Inside, three Homeland Security guards assured me they would fix my passport, though the sergeant did counsel me to be prepared. “These things are time-sensitive,” he said. “Sometimes they revert back.”
We got back into the Mini to discover that our half-drunk coffees had been poured onto the carpet. This, to Meg and me, was the real international crime. Maybe the bad-ass Gary Jones was known for smuggling drugs in Starbucks cups. If so, he’s not only dangerous, he’s annoying.
Surged with adrenaline, we laughed hysterically all the way to Blaine, where we bought more coffee and a bag of jellybeans, then headed back to the Canadian border, which was a different story. If memory serves, the guy who waved us through had his feet up and was reading Hello! magazine. I don’t think we even came to a full stop.
We’ve recounted our story of drawn guns and spilled lattes a few times, and our friends always have one distinctly Canadian question: “Did they apologize?”
Yankee border guards have more power than the president. Granted, he can take us to the brink of nuclear war, but that’s kind of an abstract idea. A border guard ordering a cavity search, well, that hits a little closer to home. So, no, there was no apology, and I did not request one. Instead, I got my clenched ass out of there.
A few months later, Francesco was replaced by Marius from Germany. Marius mentioned that he might like to take a drive across the border. We told him the story. His eyes lit up. “Please! Couldn’t we driving there and maybe when we get to the border, you say something to make them pull their guns and hands-up you?”
“No. I am not mouthing off to a border guard just so you can have your Once Upon a Time in America experience.”
“But, if they not shoot you, wouldn’t it be the fun time?” I really couldn’t answer that. Instead, I stared at Marius, imagining him on a platter of kartoffelpuffer with a side order of applesauce.