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Reflections of a former Customs inspector…

I wrote this article soon after I began a three-year assignment, 1983-1986, at U.S. Customs Headquarters in Washington, D.C. It was published in the 1984 fall issue of Customs Today, the official magazine of the U.S. Customs Service. The Customs Service has changed dramatically since that time. The number of ports on the southern border may have changed, some added and some deleted, and staffing has been increased and titles have changed, but the mission of Customs inspectors has not changed—I made no effort to reflect the changes in the article for this posting. It is reproduced here exactly as it appeared in the 1984 winter issue of Customs Today. Click here for an article published in the winter of 1986.

Reflections of a former inspector

This year some 300 million people will enter the United states. Whether they enter by air, land or sea each will be greeted by a uniformed Customs inspector. There are 5,000 of us covering the international airports and scattered along 96,000 miles of land and sea borders. Each year we clear for entry travelers whose numbers far surpass the total population of the United States. Expediting the entry of so many people leaves little time to visit, and everything must be strictly business. In this article I want to say some things that the lack of time usually prohibits, things that I hope will promote a better understanding of the Customs Service—its mission, its people and its history.

Our mission is to protect the revenue, industries, economy and environment of the United States, a large order by any standard. In addition to Customs statutes and state and local laws, we enforce more than 400 provisions of laws from 40 other federal agencies. We realize that very few travelers are lawbreakers, and of those few only a minute fraction break the law intentionally. Unfortunately, whether the law is broken intentionally or inadvertently, the lawbreaker cannot be identified by appearance, occupation or position in the community.

Since we cannot visually single out the offenders, completely innocent persons are often caused some degree of inconvenience on their entry into the United States. Such people sometimes feel that they are being checked because we suspect them of smuggling, that we are accusing them of dealing in illicit drugs and narcotics. In most cases we are simply trying to protect them. Our questions and our inspections may reveal something they have overlooked in their declarations or something they may have felt it unnecessary to declare, something that could adversely affect their health, their business interests or their environment.

Our job requires us to be able to meet and deal effectively with persons of widely divergent backgrounds. That divergence  includes the well known and the unknown, the rich and the poor and the in-between. It includes kings and consorts, consuls, clergy, congressmen and cabinet members. It includes priests, popes, premiers, presidents, pimps, prostitutes and fugitives from justice, and thieves, rapists and murderers. It includes drug dealers and pushers, addicts, derelicts and drunks. We are required to meet and deal effectively with people of every conceivable occupation, education level and age, race, religion, creed, color, nationality, ethnicity, ideological bent and political affiliation.

In each of these contacts our employer demands that we be professional, firm, fair and courteous. Courtesy is defined as being “pleasant, polite, respectful, considerate, helpful and patient, and the mandate for courtesy insists on strict adherence under difficult conditions and personal stress, and in the face of extreme provocation. In its efforts to inculcate such moral excellence The Customs Service continually stresses professionalism, courtesy and objectivity.

There are undoubtedly times that we lose our objectivity in conducting an inspection. We bring to the job our private problems, fears, frustrations, aspirations and prejudices, and these sometimes surface unbidden. However, we face the same characteristics in the people with whom we deal. The difference, of course, is that our conduct is officially mandated and proscribed, while they are free to vent their feelings and express their opinions with virtually no restrictions on attitude or language. We cannot respond in kind. They complain to our superiors and their complaints are heard. Investigations are conducted and if warranted, corrective and sometimes disciplinary actions are taken. We have no such recourse available to us.

We consider complaints, to a certain degree, to be an inevitable part of our job. People complain in order to correct a wrong, either real or imagined, and sometimes they complain in an effort to impress or to intimidate. We realize that most complaints are neither vindictive nor malicious, and simply require assurance that the situation is being investigated to determine if a problem exists and if so, assurance that corrective action will be taken to correct the problem.

Most of us have also accepted the fact that verbal abuse is part of the job, a hazard of the occupation. We usually manage to maintain at least a thin veneer of courtesy and patience through frequent and extreme instances of name-calling and suggestions, very explicit, on what we should do with our badge, and in some instances offers are made to do it for us.

That badge, our Service tells us, is best worn with some degree of humility, a dictate noble in concept but not easily followed. It is difficult to feel humble when so much pride is present—pride in being allowed to represent our nation t its borders, pride in being the first line of defense against the flow of illegal drugs and narcotics, and pride in the traditions and rich heritage of the United States Customs Service.

Our heritage began just fifteen years after this nation declared its independence. On July 4, 1979 George Washington signed the Tariff Act, and Customs was born. In the first year of operation our collectors raised $2 million, and by 1835 had made the nation debt free. For 125 years, until the federal income tax act was passed, Customs revenue was virtually the sole source of income for the United States.

The collection of Customs revenue has been entrusted to some illustrious Americans. John Lamb, hero of the battle of Fort Ticonderoga, was an early collector, as was the poet Edwin Arlington Robinson. Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Chester Arthur, twenty-first president of the United States, and Pat Garrett, the man that ended the career—and life—of Billy the Kid, Matthew Henson who, with Admiral Byrd, planted the U.S. flag at the North Pole in 1909—all served ably in the United States Customs Service.

Since their time we have grown with the nation. The Customs Service now has some 15,000 dedicated employees distributed among seven regions, 45 districts, 300 ports of entry at our nation’s international airports and land and sea borders, and foreign field offices in ten major world capitals. Since 1955 our total work force has doubled, but has in no way kept pace with a workload that has quadrupled and is still expanding.

With a workload of such magnitude, it is inevitable that some detentions and searches of completely innocent persons will occur. It is probably also inevitable that some of our actions will be construed as harassment. They are not. We are professional law enforcement officers and direct representatives of our government, and we do not take our responsibilities lightly. In accomplishing our mission we try to consider peoples’ feelings and gain their willing cooperation. We attempt to deal with them objectively and fairly. We are not always successful.

We are sometimes told by persons dissatisfied with their inspection that they pay our salaries, and that without them we would not have a job. We freely acknowledge those truths. American taxpayers do indeed pay our salaries, and our jobs exist because the tax payers, through their elected representatives, feel that we are needed. We are thus indebted and ask only that they cooperate fully to assist us in doing the job for which they hired us—collecting the revenue and protecting their interests.

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Hershel M. (Mike) Dyer is a Program Officer in the Office of Inspection Control, Office of Inspectional Liaison at Headquarters. He spent 12 years as an inspector and supervisory inspector on the Southwest Border.

 
 

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Somewhere over the North Pole . . .

I left Vietnam in April of 1970 on a commercial airliner packed with military personnel, most of whom had finished their combat tours and were returning home. Somewhere over the North Pole, on a flight that took 14 hours to complete, the temperature in the plane dropped so low that I started shaking and couldn’t stop. I quieted my chattering teeth by keeping my jaws clenched shut, and curled up into the tightest ball I could manage in a seat considerably scaled down in order to accommodate more passengers. Seat width and leg room were severely reduced, and when the seat ahead was fully laid back, getting into and out of of my seat was a real chore.

I was a passenger on a commercial airliner, one of a fleet leased by the U.S. military to ferry personnel to and from Vietnam during our prolonged war in that country. Our flight from Da Nang, South Vietnam would take us over the North Pole and on to Los Angeles’ International Airport.

Spring was in full bloom in the United States, but the season was a hard cold winter over the North Pole. When I first began to feel the cold, I asked a flight attendant for a blanket. She said that she would be right back with a blanket, but after a considerable amount of time passed, she had not returned, and I noticed that blankets were being passed out up and down the rows of seats.

The same attendant came by and I reminded her of my request. She apologized nicely, saying that she had been busy and had forgotten my request, and told me she would return shortly with the blanket. I closed my eyes and tried to sleep—it isn’t easy to sleep when one is shivering violently. Another long interval of time passed and she finally returned, minus the blanket. She again apologized nicely, but this time she told me there were no more blankets, that the aircraft’s supply of blankets had all been handed out to other passengers. A quick look around showed that in my immediate area I was the only passenger without a blanket. Apparently they were handed out while I was trying to sleep.

My three-time loser of a flight attendant was young and attractive, attributes that would have, in a normal situation, prevented me from voicing the comments that followed the news that I would not be—could not be—given a blanket. I won’t repeat what I said—Word Press has some rather stern restrictions on the use of vulgarities and some of the terms that I used, terms that I had accumulated over many years in military service, would probably not be well received.

I will only say that, had my verbal censure of the girl been a double-barreled shotgun, she would have received censure equal to being blasted with two full loads of double-ought buckshot, delivered at very close range. Any hunter can describe the terrible damage that would be caused by such loads.

Resigned to my fate—an unnatural fate of freezing solid at 40,000 feet over the North Pole while crammed into a baby seat in a commercial aircraft traveling at some 400 miles per hour—I curled up into a ball again, wrapped my arms around myself as fully and tightly as I could, and tried to sleep—in the words of Hamlet, I sought to sleep, perchance to dream, etc.

And I did sleep—to paraphrase Brother Dave Gardner’s words, I reached for the arms of Morpheus and fell into that somnolent state of glorious oblivion—I slept, and I dreamed.

I dreamed of being warm again. I dreamed that I was covered with something soft and furry, a cover with an aroma that combined the smell of budding roses and lilacs in bloom—an aroma superior to any of the world’s most expensive perfumes, with just a hint of chicken frying in my mother’s kitchen—no, scratch the fried chicken—that was an earlier dream, one that I had the night before I boarded the plane to begin the long journey home—I suppose some residual of that odor remained in my brain.

I know the suspense is gnawing at anyone reading this posting, so I will hold back no longer. While I slept, the flight attendant that failed to deliver a blanket after my repeated requests for one—far in advance of the time blankets began to be handed out to passengers—the flight attendant that I berated so forcefully and fiercely—yep, the same attractive woman that patiently endured my verbal onslaught on her professional conduct, had returned with a full length fur coat and gently placed it over my numb body, tucking it in as well as she could, considering my fetal pose.

The coat was probably hers, but she could have borrowed from another flight attendant—that point is moot. Regardless of the owner, that fur coat saved my sanity and possible my life. I quickly returned to that somnolent state of glorious oblivion and spent the rest of the night gamboling through Elysian fields with Bambi, Flower and Thumper—I awakened only after daylight filled the cabin.

I never saw the flight attendant again. The fur coat had been retrieved while I slept on like the proverbial baby, probably picked up by its owner after we left polar bear territory. I searched for that familiar face, but exited the aircraft after landing without an opportunity to thank her, and to apologize for my boorish behavior during the flight. She may have been busy in the galley or perhaps had business in the cockpit, if you catch my drift.

No matter where she was then and regardless of where she is now, I owe her my thanks for saving me from becoming a curled up block of ice—even though it was her fault for exposing me to such a potential ending.

That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

 

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