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Learning the Customs Inspector Is Always Right

<i> O'Sullivan is a los Angeles free-lance writer. </i>

My first encounter with airport security was at London’s Heathrow a few years ago. My wife, Joyce, and I hadn’t been traveling very long and lacked something in sophistication.

But what we lacked in sophistication we more than made up for in excitement. And in the excitement and crush of passengers at Heathrow we walked right by the carry-on luggage X-ray machine.

We were waiting in line at Passport Control when a British policeman approached. “Pardon me, sir,” he said. “Would you and the lady walk this way?”

Almost before I could think, I said, “If we could walk that way, we wouldn’t need the talcum powder.”

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“Sir?” the policeman asked.

“Sorry, it’s an old vaudeville joke,” I answered. “A fat man goes into a drug store on a hot day and asks the clerk for talcum powder. When the clerk says, ‘Walk this way,’ the fat man says, ‘If I could walk that way I wouldn’t need the talcum powder.’ ”

Joke Was Funny

The officer didn’t laugh but he said my joke was very funny. We stopped at the X-ray machine. “ First X-ray, then Passport Control, all right, sir?”

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Joyce and I apologized and the officer smiled and said it was all right. As we collected our bags at the other end of the machine, the officer was talking to his co-worker.

“James, did you hear the story about the fat gentleman. He was walking about on a hot day . . . well, warmish, no, it was hot when apparently he began to chaff. He saw this chemist’s shop. . . .”

We were out of earshot for the rest. All but the laugh. His co-worker apparently thought the joke was pretty funny.

“Guess you just have to know how to tell ‘em,” Joyce said.

First the X-ray, then Passport Control,” I said.

We may be a little more sophisticated now, but thank goodness we’ve still got the excitement. We’ve come to recognize it as just the crossing of a border from one country to another.

That in itself is exciting. It puts a little more electricity into the air, a little more adrenaline in the bloodstream.

I believe it kind of kick-starts the adventurer in most of us.

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And then there are some who can’t resist adding a little excitement.

A few years ago, after touring some of Western Europe, Joyce and I were at Dublin Airport with time to kill before our flight home.

She had gone to the duty-free store and I had introduced myself to the young Irish policeman at one of the X-ray machines.

His name was Luke Collins. We chatted while passengers’ carry-on bags rode the conveyor belt through the machine.

Items of Interest

The pictures looked like negatives of black-and-white movies. He pointed out a few items he thought might be of interest--a wired bra, spare set of dentures, coins and bottles, items that might have come from hotels along the way.

The young officer leaned toward me and lowered his voice. “When they’re wearing that guilty look, you usually see spoons in their cases.”

“Spoons?”

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“It’s a mystery,” he said. “I think maybe people take them just for the excitement and then, when they get here, it occurs to them that maybe they’re after getting caught.

“Someday, when I see a lot of spoons, I’d like to jump up and announce that I’m Constable Collins of the Spoon Police just to see what happens. I bet there’ll be people fainting and running all over the terminal.”

“Is that why so many people don’t seem to want to put their bags through these machines? The spoon thing?”

Said Luke, grinning: “I believe a lot of people feel we’re somehow tied in with customs, that we’re trying to catch them smuggling, if you follow me.”

A couple from our tour group, Brian and Louise Sanders, were approaching. They had been a lot of fun on the tour but now Brian was looking at the conveyor belt as if it were a chopping block.

His wife, Louise, was shaking her head. “These airport machines have spooked him so bad he stopped wearing his truss because it sets off so many bells and whistles.”

“Woman,” he said with a moan, “I haven’t worn a truss in 20 years.”

“Now, didn’t I just say you’d stopped wearing it? Put your dumb bag on the dumb conveyor.” He did.

Because I knew the couple I was a little obvious about not looking at the monitor.

Brian smiled as he picked up his bag. “You could have looked. You wouldn’t have seen anything anyway,” Brian said. “Just a sweater, some papers, a can of oil and some candy bars.”

“A can of oil?”

Heavy Bag

Luke nudged me as a large woman behind Sanders put a heavy bag onto the belt.

“Now this is bad. Very bad,” he whispered, nodding toward a shadow on the monitor.

Ah-ha, I thought . . . cocaine. Maybe he caught a dope fiend.

“It’s a ham in there,” he said.

“In a carry-on? A ham? That’s bad?”

She took the bag off of the conveyor belt and waddled off.

“She really doesn’t need all that salt,” he said.

At the notions counter at the Bangor, Me., airport, where our flight stopped for customs inspection, they sell a kind of fudge that beats about every other fudge I’ve ever tasted. I bought a couple of bags and went back to the coffee shop and offered some to Joyce.

She motioned me to silence. She was tuned in to a conversation at the next table. The subject was smuggling and the Sanders couple were talking to a middle-aged man. He had no jacket or insignia, but his blue pants and shirt looked as if they might have been part of a U.S. Customs uniform.

“It’s fake, you see, like a hollowed-out book,” Brian was saying. “It looks exactly like a can of Pennzoil. You can’t even see where the bottom unscrews, and you can hide things in it and no one’s the wiser. But those boys downstairs--they were on it like flies.”

“Anything in it?” the man asked.

Louise shook her head. “He chickened out, thank the Good Lord.”

It turned out that her husband had intended to use it to “bring” in a few “little old diamonds” he had picked up in Amsterdam for his granddaughters, but his wife talked him into paying the $36 duty instead.

“Never even considered,” she said, “that the customs people might think it was a little weird that someone coming home after a tour abroad would be carrying a can of motor oil in his hand luggage.”

Some other people from our flight were beginning to pay attention to the conversation. “That’s how people get caught,” one of them said.

“No, it’s not,” said the man in blue. “It’s mostly when people bring in the big stuff that gets ‘em caught.”

Fake Oil Drum

“Well, then,” Louise said, “I’m glad himself, here, didn’t want to bring anything big. He’d probably buy a fake oil drum for the big stuff.”

“Damn,” said Brian.

One of the other people spoke up.

“But you read about people getting caught with just a few little gems that maybe they pushed down into a toothpaste tube or a makeup jar or had taped under a bandage or something. Stuff you can’t even see on an X-ray. There must be some awful sharp inspectors working customs.”

“What gets people caught is a thing called ‘moiety,’ ” said the man in blue. Except for the noise from the kitchen, the coffee shop was getting more and more silent.

“Now, suppose,” he said, “Mr. Jones is touring and buys some diamonds or some gold chains. The merchant, if he’s a little greedy and thinks maybe Mr. Jones is going to try to avoid paying the duty, calls customs and tells them about it.”

“That’s mean,” someone said.

“Customs officers and the merchant make a deal and he or she gets a share of the value of whatever contraband the customs officers find. That’s moiety, huh?”

Our flight number was called on the public-address system. As we were settling in our seats on the plane for the final leg of the trip home, Brian and Louise Sanders were making their way down the aisle. “It didn’t have to be a fake oil can. They had fake soda-pop cans, too.”

“And that makes a difference, huh?” his wife asked. “An old man gets off an airplane that’s so full of soft drinks it sloshes on the runway and hardly can get off the ground, and the old man’s got a can of warm Coke in his bag. Most natural thing in the world.”

“Well, he could be carrying it for medical reasons, you know.”

“Medical reasons?”

An Old Joke

“A good soda-pop brings up the gas.” He waited for a few seconds as they continued on down the aisle. “I was making a joke. It’s just an old joke.”

“I should have recognized it,” she said. “I married one.”

“Funny,” he said. “So did I.”

“Damn!,” said Louise, but she giggled.

When our plane arrived and we were walking to the baggage claim area we passed the X-ray inspection point for outgoing flights.

A few security people stood around as a guilty-looking gentleman was waiting for his bag to clear the monitor.

There must have been 10 spoons in his bag. I considered introducing myself as Inspector so-and-so of the Spoon Police, just to see what would happen, but I didn’t.


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