Growing up in Port Huron, Michigan, I was fortunate to have many natural benefits located nearby. There were lots of woods to explore, plenty of open land available where we could throw together a baseball or football game at the spur of the moment, and water. Lots of water. The mouth of one of the five Great Lakes, Lake Huron was there; pristine as it opened up wider and wider until it was no longer possible to see the other side. It was a great place to fish, swim, boat and, if you just wanted to gaze over it, was very calming. Flowing from the mouth of Lake Huron was the St. Clair River, swift and powerful. Depending on the season, it churned up grays or emeralds, whitecaps, ice or foam. It was both violent and peaceful at the same time.
One of the biggest benefits of all, though, was situated right on the opposite shore of the St. Clair River. Canada. Sarnia, Ontario, Canada to be exact. Sarnia was very much like Port Huron in population, economy and geography, however, they had one advantage – Canadian Beer. Throw in a nineteen-year-old drinking age when Michigan’s was twenty-one and, well, I think you know the rest. My buddies and I would make regular runs over to Sarnia to pick up a case or three. My favorite beer was Molson Brador, sporting a 6.2% alcohol content. Not quite as high as Molson Extra Stock weighing in at 6.5%, but much smoother. And I could make up the extra .3% with a shot of whiskey or two.
Part of the fun of drinking the Canadian beer was the journey to get it. First off, you had to get to Sarnia, and the way to do that was to cross the Blue Water Bridge. Back then the toll was a quarter each way, just in case you were thinking of asking. Since you would be entering a “foreign” country, you would have to pass through customs. It was usually just a formality, especially if you lived in Port Huron. There were a few stock questions they would ask you; what’s your citizenship, where do you live, where are you going, what is your purpose in Canada and how long will you be there. I’d usually say I was going to a restaurant or something else fairly generic and untraceable and that I would only be there a couple of hours. Sometimes they’d have you open your trunk or maybe lean into your car and take a quick peek, but mostly they’d just wave you through. Except this one time.
On this particular trip I was driving and my friend, Todd, was in the passenger seat. Todd was one of the most interesting people I’ve ever known. He was very intelligent, quick-witted, darkly funny and had a certain “British” proper that none of the rest of us possessed. He wasn’t British, though. However, he was very mischievous. The car I had then was a dark green 1971 Buick Skylark, a pretty sharp car before I got my hands on it. I tended to drive cars into the ground. It had its fair share of dents, a cracked windshield and other war wounds. I didn’t clean it very often and one time when my dad drove it, he said it smelled like a brewery. I took that as a compliment. The floor in the back usually had ten or more beer bottles rolling around, clanking together, sometimes ending up beneath the front seats. It was trouble waiting to happen for a nineteen-year-old boy.
The day before this particular beer run, however, had been a beautiful Michigan summer day, and I decided to take advantage of it by cleaning my car. I washed and polished the outside and redeemed the beer bottles and threw everything else out from the inside. I vacuumed the floors, the floor mats, under the seats – even the ashtray. It was clean. Even Todd was impressed.
I had been through the “customs” routine probably more than a hundred times, but I still prepared myself to be the proper citizen: to say, “Yes, Sir” and “No, Sir” and all good things that would whisk me past the custom man’s booth. So, as we were two or three cars before our turn, I was psyching myself up. Todd was probably thinking about the beer.
Oh, I almost forgot one tiny little detail. Painter’s pants. They were very popular at that time and quite versatile. They had little pockets and pouches all over the place. I was wearing a pair of white painter’s pants that day and I had utilized most, if not all, of those little pockets by filling them with… let’s just say “contraband” that “probably” was not allowed to cross the border.
We pulled up to the Canadian-side booth and I already had my window rolled down. The uniformed customs man looked down at us from his booth for a moment, giving us the old once over, then leaned down until we were at face level. “So, where you headed today?” he said. Then, without warning, the whole scene shifted into slow motion. My mouth had just started to open as I was about to tell him the name of one of my favorite restaurants, when I heard Todd, in a very clear and unwavering voice say, “Canada.” I looked at Todd in disbelief and I don’t know if he wore that impish grin because he thought he was clever or because he saw my reaction or both, but I wasn’t grinning with him.
If you’ve ever been through any customs you’ll know that customs officials do not have a sense of humor. If they do, they leave it at home during their shift. Customs officials also have more, and more disturbing powers than the I.R.S. Customs officials can perform cavity searches. I slowly turned my head to look at the customs man’s eyes. They were almost gleaming, as if he was thinking, “Oh, you poor kid. Your friend’s a real funny guy and now you’re going to pay for it.” He stepped out of his booth, stuck a piece of paper under my windshield wiper and waved us over to the “special” area. A place where I had never been and didn’t particularly want to be, especially at this moment.
Todd and I waited in a small holding room that couldn’t have been much more sparsely appointed. There were a few metal and vinyl-covered chairs lined up against one wall and a small table off to the side. That was it. It was dank and dark and very uninviting. I suppose they didn’t want us to get too comfortable.
I kept worrying about cavity searches, but more importantly, painter’s pants searches, and how glad I was I had cleaned out my car the previous day and, if we got out of this without going to jail, how I was going to drink lots and lots of Molson Brador that night. I told Todd he was not even allowed to look at the U.S. customs man on the way back. I knew that did no good. I just hoped he wasn’t that evil.
There we sat in that little room, waiting. I fidgeted and asked Todd if he thought they were listening to us. I told him not to say anything in case they were, but it was already too late for that. I was nervous and didn’t want to move. Just don’t check my pants, I kept repeating in my mind. I had visions of gravity working in reverse and the “contraband” in my pockets falling up and out. I fidgeted and worried more and more. Todd just sat there, amused by me.
I don’t remember how long we waited in that room that day, but when they called us out, it was obvious that the customs guys had a lot of fun with my car. They didn’t do any permanent damage (they could have cut open my seats if they so desired), but they did remove them. They emptied the contents of my glove box on the floor and messed up a few other things.
Ultimately, they didn’t find any unsavory items and said we were free to go. It was probably the only time in my life anybody has ever trashed my car and I was happy about it. No cavity or painter’s pants search. A feeling of relief and freedom rushed over me.
As Todd and I maneuvered the back seat into place, one of the customs men looked in and said, “You boys be careful now, okay?” I told him yes, sir and we will, sir and thank you, sir and you sure have a beautiful country, sir. Todd just grinned.
Todd and I finished putting my car back together and headed to Brewer’s Retail, or, as we knew it, The Beer Store. I don’t know if it was this way in all of Canada or just Ontario, but you could only buy alcohol at bars, restaurants and Brewer’s Retail. It was quite an experience, but one to share at another time. We spent several hours in Sarnia that day, just hanging out by the Blue Water Bridge, drinking Molson Brador, disposing contraband and whiling away a warm summer day.
It’s been over twenty years since I last saw Todd, and I probably got rid of those painter’s pants the very next day, and the Skylark… I think it finally just quit. However, I’ve told that story many, many times. “Canada,” he said.
Steve Mancini is co-author of the best selling satirical novel “Weeping Willow: Welcome to River Bend“