By Larry Miller
Joe. The dog’s name was Joe. And he didn’t come unattached, for he came along with a handler.
I was working a summer job, as a U.S. Customs Officer at the Blue Water Bridge in Port Huron, Michigan. And Joe came to us with his handler, Dennis, as the first canine unit to serve at our port.
Joe was a one-man’s dog. He had been trained rigorously by Dennis. He was a high-strung German shepherd, with a demeanor that told everyone that they were to stay clear from him. And who was I to argue the point? His growl could get anyone’s attention.
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In those days, back in the 1960s, our station at Port Huron was just beginning to see small amounts of marijuana coming through on cars and trucks and trailers. Hence the canine unit. For, after all, we were the guardians of the border, protector of the American Way, defender of….well, let’s get rid of the clichés and get on with the story.
Interestingly not one officer at the port had ever had a seizure of any significance. Oh, we came up with hidden bottles of Duty-Free booze, and occasionally that carton of DutyFree cigarettes. And there were times when some poor soul brought purchased clothing across the border, without declaring such.
But try as hard as we might, we vainly searched for that huge stash of drugs that we were warned must most certainly be in one of the tens of thousands of vehicles that crossed our bridge. All to no avail.
But the small amounts that did show up were, apparently, reason enough for us to warrant having Joe, and Dennis. I don’t know who makes such decisions. Probably some mucky-muck at a desk in far off D.C. Please don’t ask me where the name “mucky-muck” comes from. The word “muck” is offensive enough.
The problem for Dennis was that there really were not many vehicles that required Joe to search. Most of the searches that we conducted came up empty. A few scattered weed seeds from time to time, but nothing that created much more than a stir. Still, Dennis needed to keep Joe alert, so it was that an occasional vehicle was sent over to the search area, merely for the chance to put Joe through his paces.
From the search area, the occupants of the targeted vehicle would be escorted to the nearby office, where their identifications would be checked by our automated computer system.
Meanwhile, back out at the search area, if a resultant search of the vehicle failed to produce any signs of drugs, Dennis sometimes would take the opportunity to hide a bait-bag(i.e. a bit of marijuana in a tightly rolled up towel) somewhere in the vehicle. At that point, the inspectors would back away, and let Joe go through his paces.
It was fascinating to watch Joe at work, from a distance. He would be led quickly in a perimeter search of the vehicle, and then Dennis would open the car’s doors so that Joe could inspect the interior.
I happened to be one of the two inspectors working the search area, one day, when a most unforgettable experience happened. A very expensive luxury car was sent over, with the customary yellow slip under the windshield wiper, it having been placed there by an officer manning an inspection line.
The occupants of the car were a dignified looking couple, probably in their fifties, and well dressed. These were not the scrummy types-please excuse what might be taken for a bit of snobbery-that so often a little displeasure for having been chosen for inspection. They probably construed the whole operation to be an imposition, at best. It was an attitude we were used to, for no one, especially the truly innocent, likes to be thought of as a criminal.
Anyway, they were escorted to the office by my work-partner, and I proceeded to make a cursory search of their vehicle. I did not expect to find anything of importance, and thus I was not disappointed when that proved to be the case.
After I finished, Dennis took over, putting the rolled towel, with the tiny amount of marijuana inside it, under one of the front seats. Then Dennis went to work, quickly walking Joe around the outside of the car, Joe’s nose sniffing at everything.
But it quickly became apparent that Joe did not sense anything. He seemed almost serene.
But when Dennis opened the doors of the car, and then let Joe inside, it was quite obvious that Joe was quickly on to something, for his anxiety level grew tremendously, and it did not take long for Joe to locate the bait. He put his nose under the seat that shrouded the bait, and came out with the towel in his mouth, his eyes lit up in triumph, his face shaking excitedly back and forth with the towel in his jaws.
Unfortunately, Joe became so excited that he lost control of his bowels, and he…well, the more polite terminology is, he defecated. Yup! Right there, on the floor in the back-seat area. It was a somewhat greenish-brownish blob of wet….I am sure you don’t need a more descriptive picture of it.
What made matters worse was that it smelled. Joe must have had an awful bit of lunch in him, for the smell wafted through the air like nothing that I had ever experienced, from dog or man.
Needless to say, we had to delay the people who owned the car, so that Dennis could get hold of the bridge’s janitor, in order to gather the necessary equipment to clean up the mess.
Shortly Rich, the janitor, arrived, with a pail of soapy water, a stiff brush, and heavy-duty cloths. And both Rich and Dennis went to work. Meanwhile, Joe had already been put back into his cage, hidden from any viewing public.
We received a call from the office, wanting to know when the couple could return to their car. We had to ask them to delay the couple, for Dennis and Rich needed more time to clean the area. The smell was still obvious.
Eventually the mess had been cleaned up as thoroughly as Dennis and Rich could manage, and while it is true that there seemed to be no lasting image to be seen of the mess, there was some anxiety on everyone’s part about how it all would be perceived by the owners, since the odor was still obvious.
When the couple arrived back at our search area, they were coolly polite, but seemed no worse for wear for having been detained for such a long time, but their conversation told us that all was not exactly well.
“Mildred,” the man said after getting into the driver’s side, “did you happen to step into something?” He could be seen sniffing tie air, turning his head in all directions.
“No, I didn’t, I am sure, Harold,” his wife answered, obviously miffed at being suspected of soiling their environment.
“Well, check your shoes, just to be sure,” he ordered, a bit of vexation in his voice.
At that, both of them got back out of their car and began to examine the soles of their shoes.
“You must have stepped in something, Mildred,” he said accusingly.
“Well, I checked my shoes, and there’s nothing wrong with them, Harold,” she retorted.
And with bafflement on their faces, and an atmosphere of anger in their temperaments, they got into their vehicle and drove away.
I felt badly for them, but I was even a little more disappointed with myself for not having said anything to the couple. A simple explanation about what had happened would have been the right thing to do: a matter of integrity. It was a moment of learning about what it means to be courageous and virtually honest. And I had failed.
Of course I did not want to embarrass Dennis. After all, he and I were fellow-workers. Still, an explanation to the couple would have been the right thing to do.
It was not the last and only time that I was to face circumstances that required honesty with myself, and I am sure there were more failures. It is hard to confront one’s self Such is the process of human growth.