Stopped At The Kasserine Pass

Norman Rockwell — Saturday Evening Post

Tell me what is your reason for entering our fair state What is your purpose of crossing the border here today What is your business in this beautiful country What are your reasons for entering the USA Guns and Heroin — Art Bergmann

I learned to cross borders early in my life. My mother had married a divorced man (it may have been in Uruguay) but since divorce was not allowed in my birthplace of Argentina, my mother’s name was Filomena de Irureta Goyena while I was Jorge Alejandro Waterhouse-Hayward. Because of some bureaucratic mistake my real hospital birth, August 31, 1942 was listed as April 18, 1943.
This meant that by age 8 I had been trained by my mother to keep my mouth shut, not ask questions and to sign my name as listed above. The birthday was a problem but I soon learned to “lie” about it. It was sometime in the late 50s when I left Mexico City by air in a Comet 4-C (my first jet flight) for San Antonio and from there I traveled by bus to Austin to St. Ed’s High School in Austin. Either by some quirk of an oversight nobody stamped my leaving Mexico in my Mexican immigration document. When I returned to Mexico the agent at the airport told me, “It seems impossible that you are arriving from the United States since you never left Mexico.” That mistake cost my mother lots of bribes and we went to the terrible bureaucratic Departamento de Gobernación until the discrepancy of my Mexican document was straightened out.

Before going to Argentina from Mexico when I was around 20 I made sure I had all my needed vaccines and documents proving I had them. When my VARIG Convair 990 (much faster than the then standard issue Boeing 707) arrived in Río I spent a lovely evening at the Gloria Hotel. The next day at the airport the official demanded my vaccination certificates. He told me they were not valid in Brazil. Knowing where this was headed I did as I was told (in a special room they waved me by after I paid a special fee to make my certificates legal). An American behind me yelled at the officials saying, “This is outrageous. We Americans are giving you aid and look like you are treating us.” I am sure that the American’s luggage would have been dispatched not to Buenos Aires but perhaps someplace like Asunción in Paraguay.
In Buenos Aires, just like in Mexico I had learned to show an impassive face with no hint of any emotion when I faced a government official. I have the experience that when a big dog approaches you and has not been trained not to climb on you, the technique is to avoid eye contact with the dog. In some way this tried and true mechanism works just fine with bureaucrats.
Then if you speak Spanish and you have to deal with Latin American border or government officials you must master the obsequious mood (as I call the Subjunctive). In English it would be as follows,” Sir I know you are an extremely busy man and I know what a tremendous favour you are showering on me by attending me. Would it be humanly possible, and I would be eternally grateful to you, if this document could be signed even though I understand that it is probably unlikely?”
In the years that preceded the deliberate crash of two commercial airliners with the Twin Towers I was a skilful practitioner of amateur contraband.
Before we left Mexico City for Vancouver my wife Rosemary told me that stereo equipment in Canada was priced exactly like it was in the US. I sold my very good Acoustic Research AR-3A speakers. I was in shock to find out that what my wife had told me was not true. In Mexico City while getting my papers for immigration into Canada I had met a lovely Vancouverite woman who told me she would show me around Vancouver. In Vancouver when I told her about my predicament with the stereo equipment she told me, “Buy it in the US and have it delivered to my cottage in Point Roberts. Then you can bring it to Vancouver. The Canadian officials at the border won’t ask you anything.
At the time I was driving a Fiat X-19 which had a mid engine. The whole front end was a cavernous trunk and behind the engine (aft the two seats) there was a small trunk. When I crossed the border with the two huge AR-3As in the front the Canadian border official asked me to see the trunk. I popped the back trunk and I was then waved through.
Bringing in plants (mostly hostas) from the US was easy. At the hotel in the Hosta convention we smugglers would place our hostas in the toilet and then flush repeatedly until all dirt had been washed away. We would then wrap the plants in newspaper and put them in the suitcase. I remember arriving at the Toronto airport with plants. I had come from Columbus, Ohio. In Columbus I had purchased a toy fighter jet that made jet engine noises. When the Canadian official faced me I told him I had gone to the Dayton, Ohio Museum of Flight. “Look what I bought there.” The man thought the plane was wonderful and waved me through.
Another time (in those so innocent times) driving back from the Seattle Plant Show I had lots of plants in the trunk. When I arrived at the border I showed the woman border agent a tiny miniature violet. I said, “Look what I bought at the Seattle Plant Show. Isn’t it cute? To feed it you must use this eyedropper. It cost me $12.25.” Had the trunk been opened I would have been in deep trouble.
The very day of 9/11 my daughter Hilary, her husband Bruce and daughter Rebecca were headed for Disneyland. They didn’t leave their home when they found out all flights were cancelled.
It was also at that time that I realized that my smuggling adventures were over. I now used the technique of telling the absolute truth to the point of showing bills of purchase. It was around this time when I almost followed an absurd plan of action to prove a point. I was going to tell the Canadian officials at the border that I had purchased $35 dollars of gasoline, put in two quarts of oil in the crankcase and that I had a bill to prove it. Would they have had to charge me duty? And if they had, would I have begun a precedent? It was about twelve years ago that in our way to Seattle when we reached Blaine the official asked Rosemary if we were bringing any fruit. She said no. Our car was searched and they found some orange slices in Rosemary’s brown bag lunch.
We are then asked to leave our car. It was searched top and bottom and mirrors were placed underneath. We were brought into the office and an official shouted at us and Rosemary was in tears. I appealed to another man who whispered in my ear, “My advice is to say nothing as he has all the power to do as he wants.” It was then that I found out that entry into the United States, the mumbo jumbo reads something like this, “Entry into the U.S. is up to the discretion of the individual border representative.”
And so it was that yesterday I drove the Malibu to the US border. I was taking my daughter Hilary, husband Bruce and daughters Rebecca and Lauren to the Bellingham Airport. They were going for a two week holiday in San Diego. Before we got to the border we warned everybody to not talk unless spoken to. The wait took over an hour. When we finally arrived at the booth we were met by a young woman with very blond hair. I lowered the window (I had removed my sun glasses, but I noted that all US border agents keep their own on) and said, “I am going to take my family,” I was interrupted by a, “Hallo.” I attempted to finish what I had started to say when the woman briskly interjected, “I said hallo.” I replied, “Buenos días señorita.” She fulminated me with, “Just because you think I am German (I only then noted that she had a Germanic name that began with a K) you think I don’t speak the language.” I was given a yellow paper and told to report inside. The room was huge and it had three long line-ups. There was a long wall of border agents all equipped with electronic devices that looked like miniature video cameras and machines that may perhaps read fingerprints. Behind the men (most were men) were signs stating that it was a federal offence to assault a federal officer. The men were wearing enough stuff around on the belts to look like member of the Special Forces that stormed bin Laden’s compound.
I felt guilty and did not now of what or why. I thought of Kafka’s Der Process. In front of me was a Latin American family. On their faces and eyes I could spot that telltale impassiveness I had so often seen in Mexican at US borders or at Mexican government offices in Mexico — do not look at the dog.
I was finally called by a pleasant looking young man who seemed to have a quizzical look on his face as he probably had no idea why we had been sent into the office. He took our passports (all brand new. Was that the problem?) and when he brought them back he told me, “You may go.”
In Spanish we have a word prepotente. It is specially used by Argentines to describe the police and lower government officials. It sort of translates as overbearing and arrogant. But in Spanish we add to the meaning the idea that someone with power will use it because he or she can and will do so for pleasure. My only guess is that Agent K did not sleep well and that she had a chip on her shoulder.
As for me I long for my youth when I first spotted all those quaint houses in Laredo, Texas that had no wall or hedges between them. I can almost imagine the Red Flyer wagons and the kids running after the red fire engines with Dalmatians in tow. It is a memory of a United States that is long gone. The one I perceive now is one that is of a country in a stage of siege.
As I was waiting to cross back to the Canadian Customs (also a one hour wait, and why?) I spotted a forlorn woman outside her stopped Volvo station wagon. I had obviously given out a mere yards from the border. Soon after I saw two smiling male Canadian border agents (all smiles but still wearing those sun glasses) with a female agent in tow. They went to the Volvo and pushed it to the border while still smiling.
I wonder what would have happened had this incident occurred on the other side. Would the area have been cleared with the suspicion that the Volvo had a bomb? Would we have seen smiles? On Being Texan

Link to: Stopped At The Kasserine Pass

Originally published at

Into Bunny Watson. I am a Vancouver-based magazine photographer/writer. I have a popular daily blog which can be found at:

Into Bunny Watson. I am a Vancouver-based magazine photographer/writer. I have a popular daily blog which can be found at: