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During my lifetime I have lived on the Mexican border, the Canadian border, and the then-walled city of Berlin. What can I say? I’m evidently drawn to the edges of things. I was a toddler in Arizona, though, so my father’s job put us there. And the Army decided on Berlin, and I’m not sorry they did! But the northern borderland was a choice my husband and I took together.
Mexican borderland ca. 1956
Long before 9/11, we had comfortable borders with our neighbors to the north and south. My family lived in southern Arizona, in the late 1950s. As a child I loved to run out into the desert beyond our back yard, much to my mother’s dismay. She wanted my ruffled outfits to stay clean and pretty. I didn’t care.
What was out there was more important: wild horses. I loved to visit them when they grazed nearby. I would walk right out to them, pet their noses, and play with their young. The herd, of course, had sentries that watched for humans. They didn’t care if I came; I was obviously a baby. In fact, they seemed to like me all right. But if my mother came after me, the sentries started whuffling and shuffling, and soon the herd melted away. Mom never got within a rope’s length of them.
My father and I liked to walk the desert together. We watched vaqueros drive cattle north across the border to market. Sometimes we would go to the Mexican town opposite ours and visit. Dad says the ladies down there thought I was a vision in my ruffles and made much of me. I called them all “mama.” Apparently I had more Spanish than my father did at the time.
My father taught in an Arizona elementary school. The pupils came from both sides of the border. The support staff did too. My father made friends with the janitor and the janitor’s wife used to give us tamales for supper occasionally. There were many families that straddled the border, marrying across and visiting back and forth. The two towns were extensions of one another socially and commercially.
Canadian borderland ca. 1989
My husband and I moved to our little town of Canaan in the summer of 1989 to run a hydroelectric site and finish off a partially-finished house. The house still has finish work to be done but it’s got central heat now and all the systems work. The hydro…Well, the State regulators kept cutting the price of our electricity and high maintenance costs put it out of business. We still have our woods and stream to enjoy.
When we got here we found a situation similar to what I’d known on the Mexican border. Cross-border families abounded. People were back and forth all the time and everyone knew everyone else in our “community.” Our stop signs featured the word “Arret” beneath “Stop.” French mass was celebrated in Catholic churches, alternating with English. Families stretched across the border with Quebec.
People from both sides of the line worked at the furniture factory just upriver. They had their own port of entry right by the plant. Logging was a big business and logging trucks from one country routinely carried logs to sawmills in the other, depending on what kind of wood they carried.
In our towns south of the border, we had little or no choice when it came to professional services. There was one dentist in our market town down in New Hampshire; he had a reputation for pain. So I avoided him for years and finally connected with a painless and very clean Canadian dentist office in their bigger market town about half an hour away. I still go there.
I’m writing this the week of the 9/11 anniversary, a sad remembrance of a horrifying day. People doing the best they could under unimaginable conditions with tragic outcomes more often than not.
Since then, we tightened up border life quite a bit.
My driveway used to be the highway to Canaan village from the lake. There was once a customs post on it as it curved up into Canada. During the Vietnam War a Quaker gentleman used to bring “sincere” conscientious objectors to that spot to get them into Canada easily.
Then came “PeeWee’s Fence.” When we got here it was a blaze-orange metal post-and-cable affair blocking vehicles from driving up to Canada. It got looking leprous from flaking paint and they came and painted it white a few years after we got here. It’s due again.
It turns out the Fence is a hotbed of activity and has been for years. The bridge, built in 1929, was used to smuggle booze into the States. Since we’ve been there we’ve had smuggling on foot, lots of illegal crossings, and even one near-miss as a couple of drunk Americans drove home through the yard east of the Fence, an inch away from taking out our porch. The Canadians later moved their road; cars can no longer get through.
I was accosted in the woods once by a huge man who was trying to get me to agree to take money so he could bring people into the US across our property. That’s when I started carrying a gun to check on our hydro plant, a quarter mile from the house. We have caught people in our driveway trying to get across and sent them back. Some of them understood Russian quite well.
Most of the crossers seem to be fairly well-off people who are dissatisfied with things where they’re from or who have some kind of business here. One has to wonder what kind in post-911 America.
We have cordial relations with the Border Patrol. They’ve been watching electronically and physically for years, and got to know us pretty well. They are a serious bunch with an impressive arsenal in their new building in our town. Border Patrol agents see us come and go. Their number is on our fridge. We cooperate because they accidentally give us 24 hour armed security.
Another benefit is that we get waved at at some of the checkpoints on the Interstate on holiday weekends, when BP sets them up. Every holiday weekend they bring out the dogs and all, and screen southbound traffic. For some reason this is a huge insult to the driving public. I figure if they don’t like it they can take the US highway for a while. The guys are doing their job, pulling overtime to do it, and if the public doesn’t like it they can liberalize the laws in Congress.
Real bad borderland
Unfortunately for some who desperately need an education about humane border administration, Berlin’s wall is history. But some of us remember what that wall was like.
It was absolute. Families cut apart by that wall stayed apart for about 30 years. People died trying to cross it. Little memorials where they tried to cross were put up, with flowers and pictures.
The death was largely thanks to guard towers, all within sight and gun range of one another. If someone tried to cross in your sector and you didn’t shoot him, the guy in the next tower shot him, then you. Nobody on either side of that wall tried to get too near it for fear of getting shot.
That model is just not suitable for American borders. Certainly we want to keep out the bad actors who are capable of wreaking havoc. We have plenty of home-grown ones already so we don’t need more from away. But I would hate to see families walled off from members and proven positive contacts restricted. That’s a loss for us, and for our neighbors.