A while back, I got a letter from Toronto signed Ifty Nizami. Maybe it was the odd name, but somehow I couldn't quite accept the new legend category that the writer proposed - Customs Legends.
I guess you could say I thought Ifty's suggestion was iffy, although he said he had heard this story about the Canadian-U.S. border many times:"Every night for a long time a teen-age boy would ride up on a bicycle to the border at Niagara Falls. The next night he would ride up from the other side.
"The customs officials on both sides always found that his backpack contained only sand, and they were obliged to let him through.
"Years later, one of the retired Canadian Niagara Falls customs officials ran into the boy in a local bar and put the question to him, `We always figured you were up to something, but what was it?'
"The boy answered, `You never noticed that I never rode the same bike twice. You see, I was exchanging stolen Canadian bikes across the border for stolen American ones."'
Ifty Nizami expressed doubt that much profit could be made from this scam, and it also seemed unlikely to me that such a stolen-bike trade was worthwhile.
Besides, I too have heard variations of the story, although instead of bikes, they usually involve someone who daily walks out a factory gate and past the guards pushing a wheelbarrow filled with nothing but sand.
It turns out, of course, that he was stealing wheelbarrows.
Customs legends came up again recently when I got a clipping from Prof. Rhonda Hammer of the University of Windsor in Canada. Windsor is just across the border from Detroit, and here's the story as told recently in Jim Cornett's "Windsor Beat" column in the Windsor Star:
"A Windsor woman learned the hard way that it doesn't always pay to make a major purchase at a Pace store or other Michigan stores drawing business away from Windsor-area businesses.
"When the woman returned to Windsor, a customs officer asked the customary `Anything to declare?' and she replied in the negative.
"She was asked again, and once more the answer was no. A form was affixed to her windshield, and she was directed to `pull over there.'
"Over there, she was asked twice more if she had anything to declare, and again the answer was no.
"At that point she was directed to an office and asked a fifth time. When her answer remained unchanged, she was asked to have a seat for the viewing of a videotape which might interest her.
"It did. There was film of her identifiable car on a hoist being outfitted with four new tires. The next scene, not on film, was the impounding of her car."
Cornett reports that Canadian Customs and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police both denied the story, and he concludes, "This one could become a Windsor candidate for addition in urban folktales."
If there are Canadian customs legends, it only stands to reason that there must be some from the Mexican border as well. And sure enough, I found a candidate in a booklet of columns written for the Camp Lejeune (N.C.) Globe by retired Marine Corps Capt. Robert H. Russell.
In a column titled "Flipped His Lid Over a Little Pot," Capt. Russell described one time when he was returning from a trip to Mexico with a package containing a large enameled cooking vessel bought in a border-town hardware store.
When a customs agent asked what was in the package, Capt. Russell replied, "You won't believe this, but its a kind of pot," and suddenly he had everybody's attention:
"The office went suddenly quiet. The other inspector drifted over and blocked my route of escape north into the United States. A Mexican official, visiting from across the street, slipped behind me and closed off retreat into Mexico. The first inspector stood up and took a hitch at his gun belt."
Once the officials inspected his "pot," Capt. Russell was allowed to proceed across the border.
Did it happen exactly like that? Capt. Russell quotes Pappy Yokum: "Mainly it were so."
Which sounds to me like one way to define a customs legend in the making.- "Curses! Broiled Again," Jan Harold Brunvand's fourth collection of urban legends, is now available from Norton. Send your questions and urban legends to Prof. Brunvand in care of this newspaper.
1990, United Feature Syndicate, Inc.