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Confessions of a Teenaged Smuggler

The following is a free excerpt from Dave Fox’s award-winning book of travel humor essays, Getting Lost: Mishaps of an Accidental Nomad.

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Getting Lost: Mishaps of an Accidental Nomad - Travel Humor by Dave FoxUSA ~ Finland ~ Norway, 1986

I was off to Norway, back in the days when they’d let you take a baseball bat through airport security.

My bat was at home, in a safe place where it couldn’t hurt anybody. But another passenger on the same flight from Washington, DC, to New York had his bat with him. He also appeared to have a lot of drugs with him — not hidden in pockets or a travel bag, but concealed in a much more stealthy place — his bloodstream. The man paced around the airport, murmuring things I suppose one had to be intensely stoned to understand. The handle of his bat peeked out of his duffel bag.

In the 1980s, airport security went something like this: You’d check in for your flight, and they would say, “Mr. Fox, do you have anything in your possession that could be used to bring down an airplane? Knives, guns, cassettes by the J. Geils Band?”

You, the hypothetical passenger and/or terrorist, would chuckle, “Nope, not me.” Then the ticket agent would thank you for your honesty and send you and your baseball bat to the security line, where uniformed high school drop-outs working for minimum wage would tell you to please proceed, if they had the necessary English skills to do so.

They were more peaceful times, the 1980s. Terrorists were expected to turn themselves in on the honor system.

So my fellow passenger, strung out on a cocktail of interesting substances, or perhaps just one too many baseballs to the left side of his skull, made it through security, no problem, and proceeded to wander around making comments that were completely unintelligible, but which appeared, based on his surly expression, to be of menacing intent.

I tried to ignore him. I had just said goodbye to my parents and brother and was officially on my own in the world for the first time. If I was going to die, I told myself, it was going to happen in a more exotic locale than at the airport, trying to get out of town.

I had a long night ahead: an hour-long hop to New York, an overnight flight to Helsinki, Finland, and then a U-turn that would deposit me in Oslo, 25 miles north of the Norwegian fjordside village where I would spend the next year. A 20-minute delay was announced. Then there was a commotion. Then I saw five police officers escorting my all-American baseball-and-LSD-loving co-passenger out of the terminal. Five minutes later, there was an announcement. My flight to New York was canceled due to a “mechanical problem.”

PanAm instructed us to catch the Eastern Airlines shuttle in an hour. We’d land at LaGuardia Airport and catch buses to Kennedy with plenty of time to make my 9 p.m. Helsinki flight.

Then the storm blew in. Thunder. Lightning. Hailstones the size of guinea pigs. The airport was closed.

I was an uptight teenager. Worrying was my hobby, but for once I was unusually calm. I had said goodbye to my family. I didn’t want to go home to Bethesda and replay the goodbye drama the next day. I tried to just let things fall into place. I was on an adventure.

Five hours later, my adventure had still not left the runway in Washington. We had been told to get off the plane, back on the plane, off the plane again, back on the plane — three times in all. There was no food. Hunger was turning to surliness in some passengers, who were yelling at the flight attendants to quit standing around and DO SOMETHING about the thunder and lightning and gale force winds.

Finally at 11 p.m., we landed in New York. We were met by a PanAm agent who told us all flights from Kennedy had left for the night. I would later learn this wasn’t true. The Helsinki flight I was scheduled on was delayed until 2:30 a.m., but it was cheaper for PanAm to stick me in the same scummy hotel as the other stranded passengers than to transport me alone across town. So they offered me a room, which I was to share with an Iranian lawyer named Joe.

Joe was a pudgy man with a deep voice and hairy back. I guessed he was in his mid to late 40s. Looking back, I have to wonder: Did they do the same cursory screening here as they did at the security checkpoint before deciding to room a 17-year-old boy with an unknown man on his way out of the country?

“Sir, have you ever molested or been tempted to molest a teenage boy? No? How wonderful! Here’s your roommate. His name is David Fox. He’s young and naïve, so please take good care of him.”

Fortunately, though, Joe was an okay guy. We stayed up till 3 a.m., chatting and watching M*A*S*H.

The next afternoon, one of the escorts from the exchange program found me at the airport. “Dave,” she said, “I’m glad to finally meet you. We were worried about you yesterday.”

“I was worried about me yesterday too.”

She assured me everything was taken care of. I was rebooked on a flight the next day to Oslo. I’d just have to endure a seven-hour stopover in Helsinki.

Over the next few hours, 90 other kids showed up. Most were headed to Sweden for the year. Eleven were going to Finland. I was one of two Norwegian outcasts.

*     *     *

In Helsinki the next morning, a woman named Tiina met us at the airport and got the Sweden-bound students onto their connecting flight. She was left with the 11 Finnish students, plus me and Lisa, the other student headed for Norway who had missed the same flight as me the day before. Tiina looked at the two of us, not quite sure what to do.

“We’re taking the other students to the language camp,” she said. “If you’d like, you could come with us, and I can bring you back here in the afternoon. There’s no sense in sitting around the airport for seven hours.”

I eyed Tiina skeptically. “Are you sure you’ll get us back in time? I don’t want to miss another flight.”

She promised.

Lisa thought it was a great idea. I wasn’t so sure, but I tried to convince myself seeing a bit of Finland, even through my jetlagged haze, would be a nice bonus. So we started toward the customs checkpoint. That’s when I stopped Tiina.

“I can’t do this,” I said. “I’m not legally allowed to enter Finland.”

The problem wasn’t me entering Finland. The problem was me entering Finland with my ham radio transmitter. My amateur radio station had become my security blanket. For several years, it had quelled my cravings for contact with foreign cultures. Never mind that soon, I’d be experiencing more foreign culture than I knew what to do with just by getting out of bed each morning. I had insisted on lugging the whole damn station to Norway.

Most countries require a license to operate a shortwave radio transmitter, and importing such equipment without permission is illegal. I had taken care of the paperwork for Norway, but I hadn’t anticipated this stop in Finland. My radio wasn’t allowed into the country, and there was no place in the airport to store it without clearing customs first.

Tiina looked at my bag. “It’s just a radio, right? They probably won’t even know what it is.”

I explained that yes, she was probably right, but they could confiscate it if they did catch me bringing it in illegally.

“Well, here’s what we’ll do then,” Tiina suggested. “You go through customs in front of me. If they stop you, I’ll explain the situation, and maybe they’ll be okay with it. If not, you’ll just have to stay here, but it’s worth a try.”

I wasn’t accustomed to breaking the law. Not in America, at least, but I was starting a new chapter in life. I needed to quit worrying so much. So I put my bag on the X-ray belt. They waved me through, no problem. Officially in the country now, we found a locker for my bag and hopped in one of four cars convoying students out to their language camp.

Soon we were cruising through a lush forest of birch trees. This was a moment I had anticipated — that first sense of having arrived in a very different place. More than the obvious and expected differences, like the language or currency, little things jumped out at me — road signs, license plates, even the lines painted on the roads. Everything looked just a little bit different.

The students staying in Finland structured their arrival differently from the Norwegian program. They had their language camp right away — at a real camp, a spot in the countryside with cabins, a lake, and a sauna. They’d meet their host families in two weeks. In Norway, our host families would be waiting at the airport to take us home. Our “camp” would be at a school in Oslo four weeks later.

We sat outside and introduced ourselves. Welcoming us were some Finnish teenagers who had just returned from a year in the US or Canada. They cracked jokes about how impossible their language was. They laughed when the Americans tried to pronounce their host families’ names. The American students looked discouraged.

Tiina drove us back to the airport. She wished us luck and dropped us off at the curb.

“Damn,” I said to Lisa as Tiina’s car vanished into traffic. “What am I going to do now if they ask about my radio?”

Lisa laughed. “You worry a lot, don’t you Dave?”

We went to the security line. “Just be cool,” I told myself. Running through my head, however, was the scene from Midnight Express when the American gets caught with several pounds of hashish taped to his body and gets the crap beaten out of him in one of Istanbul’s notorious prisons. I wondered what the jails were like in Helsinki.

Lisa went first. She made it through, no problem. I set my bag on the X-ray belt.

The man watching the screen stopped the belt as my bag went through. He stared at it for a moment. I was beginning to sweat.

“Don’t sweat,” I thought. “That’s what the guy in Midnight Express did and they nailed him!” The belt began moving again. I thought I was clear. I sighed with relief as I reached for my bag.

An officer stopped me. “Wait please,” he said to me in English.

Then he switched to Finnish. He called another officer over — a young guy in his early 20s — and spoke to him for a moment.

“Do you speak English?” the younger officer asked me.

“Yes.”

“Please come with me.”

 

[What happens next? Order the book and find out!]

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Published on Saturday, March 1, 2008

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