Rants and Raves

Opinion, commentary, reviews of books, movies, cultural trends, and raising kids in this day and age.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Boyhood dreams - how I ran away from home and joined the smugglers

Note: a shorter version of this article appeared a few years back in Liberty magazine.

Five and twenty ponies
Trotting through the dark-
Brandy for the Parson’
“Baccy for the Clerk.
Them that asks no questions isn’t told a lie-
Watch the wall, my darling, while the gentlemen go by!

A Smuggler’s Song
Rudyard Kipling

It occurs to me, that as I get older the most cherished dreams of my boyhood and early youth are becoming fulfilled. Much of this I will immodestly attribute to boldness and persistence.

It is very satisfying to see years of work bear fruit, especially when nobody else really believed in you, and you yourself were frequently racked by self-doubt and discouragement. I got my Master’s degree in Anthropology after going to grad school part-time for six years while working relief shift in the city sewage treatment plant.

I attained my boyhood dream of getting black belts in a few different well-respected arts from distinguished teachers.

I’ve been taken seriously as an academic in a few Eastern European universities and institutions – something that could never have happened at that point in my life in America. I’ve even achieved modest success as a writer.

I’ve participated in some small way in the rebuilding of society on the ruins of the Soviet Empire and have been welcomed as a comrade by heroes of the struggle against tyranny. I’ve had travel, adventure and the honorable chance for a good scrap from time to time.

These are the fruits of persistence and the willingness to move halfway around the world to seek my fortune.

Then there are the rewards deserved but un-hoped for, those you long for but have given up hope of ever achieving. For me it was meeting the woman who became my wife and the birth of our son, events which happened at precisely the time I had given up all hope that I would ever have a family of my own.

These are not the rewards of virtue but happen as a special grace. If they don’t happen for you, you must learn to be content with the rewards that living the virtuous life as best as you can bring.

But I must confess, the rewards of virtue pale when compared to the rewards that are undeserved, unworthy, accidental and un-hoped for.

Remember the time you nobly succeeded in giving up a desire for revenge after much inner struggle – and then got it anyway? Say, the time you ran into the girl that dumped you and the guy she dumped you for – and you had an even better looking girl on your arm? Remember the look on both their faces?

Did you ever get to do something that you really wanted to as a kid? I mean something that adults are supposed to have grown out of? If you’re a cowboy or a fireman, you know exactly what I mean.

Well, let me tell you how it happened for me, the dream I’d had since I was twelve years old and my favorite book was a story called Jim Davis by the poet John Masefield. It is a marvelous tale of a young boy in England during the time of the Napoleonic wars, who goes off with the smugglers and has all kinds of adventures.

Though I won’t say I’ve never taken anything illegal across an international border, I strongly advise you against doing so. (Though if you should choose to do so on trains, put it under the towel waste in the wastebasket of the toilet. Even customs agents find it distasteful to go through that stuff and if they do find it, it’s not in your possession.)

Nonetheless, the drug war made smuggling just too hard-core for my taste. With profits and penalties so high, the racket is now run by murderously ruthless thugs not at all like the jolly smugglers of tobacco and French wines and lace that once made England “a small body of land entirely surrounded by smugglers”. Good idea to grow out of that particular dream.

But it happened for me! I did it. I ran away from home and joined the smugglers.

Well, OK, I didn’t run away from home exactly, my wife let me go off for a few days to attend the 13th American Studies Conference in Minsk, Belarus. Prof. Ivan Burylka of the University of Grodno and I were to do a joint presentation on American vs. Belarusian humor and I was going to talk about American utopian communities of the 19th century. My wife would have liked to have come, but work and the baby limited travel those days. She’s an awful good sport about these things, particularly given the expense involved and the fact that it doesn’t pay a thing.

The journey to Belarus was uneventful and the conference was fun, even alone. I got to sound out the reaction towards America on the heels of Gulf War II. (Among most of the Balts and Belarusians, largely pro-American and pro-Bush. George dubbya evidently made a speech in Vilnius promising, “There will be no more Yaltas.” To say the least, it played well.)

I also had my ear bent by a crusty but charming lady professor from Lithuania about how could we Americans have let the lunatic Left dominate the humanities in American universities? And how it had made her sick when she was there.

"What is this gender nonsense? Tell me what gender is!"

I tried to tell her I was on her side but she just had to rant to somebody about how damn stupid we were to have let this happen.

I attended a concert of traditional folk music and saw the ballet Spartacus at a theater in Minsk, festooned with the hammer and sickle all over the walls. This contained the most unintentionally hilarious moment in high culture I've ever seen. Imagine if you will, several dozen pairs of ballet dancers acting out a mass rape, buttocks rising and falling in unison...

Later we went to an embassy party held for an American professor of literature from the Midwest on her first trip to Eastern Europe. (Though somebody had to gently tell her that rhapsodizing about Liberation Theology and the “bearded Christ-like figures” of Castro and Che doesn’t play at all well in Eastern Europe.)

But the real treat of my little holiday came on the trip back. I fortunately had a sleeping compartment all to myself. The conductor came by and asked me if I had any tobacco or alcohol.

“No.” I replied.

“Well then, may I put some in your compartment?” he asked. “It won’t cost you anything.”

Ah-ha. “OK, no problem.”

He brought a carton of Pall Malls and a bottle of Belarusian vodka and put them in the cabinet above the sink. So, the conductor is running a little business of his own across the border. Enterprising fellow, I thought.

Now usually the customs inspections at the borders are rather perfunctory affairs. I think I’ve been asked to open my baggage twice in over ten years – and when they see you aren’t nervous about doing so, they usually stop you before you’ve unloaded much. Generally they ask you to step outside the compartment while they look under the mattresses and that’s about it.

Well this time was different. After the hour and a half at the Belarusian side of the border to change the undercarriage of the cars (the territory of the old Soviet Union has a different track gauge) we were held for more than two hours on the Polish side while customs went through the train with a thoroughness I’d never seen before. They looked in everybody’s baggage, in the spaces above the ceiling, in the radiator covers and took screwdrivers to several panels. Afterwards I saw them walk off the train, one of them carrying a big sack full of cartons of cigarettes. I’d never seen that happen before. My wife said they must have had a tip off.

Fortunately my little stash was well within the duty-free limit and caused no comment, not even a request for an explanation. As we pulled out of the station I asked the conductor if he’d like his stuff back and he thanked me nicely.

So as I stood in the corridor, I saw one of my neighbors with a screwdriver, taking off a panel next to the car door. He removed the panel and took out several cartons of cigarettes.

“They didn’t find them!” I exclaimed.

“Yeah but they got the rest of my stuff” he shrugged philosophically.

Hey you win some you lose some. You meet a better class of people smuggling tobacco and alcohol, and the nice thing is that they don’t arrest you when they catch you, they just take your stuff or give you the option of paying the duty.

So that’s how I ran away from home, joined the smugglers and lived my boyhood dream. Now I think I’ll try and find a copy of Jim Davis to read again and give to my son when he’s twelve.

To be drowned or be shot
Is our natural lot,
Why should we moreover, be hanged in the end –
After all our great pains
For to dangle in chains
As though we were smugglers, not poor honest men?

Poor Honest Men
Rudyard Kipling


  • At 3:08 PM, Blogger gun-totin-wacko said…

    Every time you write a post like this, I think "I wish I was like Steve, and had lived this kind of life". I guess there's still hope, since I'm only in my mid-40s.

    I hope you weren't the one to educate the American woman about the whole Castro/Che thing. I personally would have enjoyed seeing her get torn limb from limb.

    But anyone who worships that idiot Che deserves it. Best thing about him is his distant relative that I knew vaguely in college. What a little cutie!


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