Column Date 2006-03-12

Human heads & cuckoo clocks

They found a human head in Myrlene Severe’s luggage last week.

Ms. Severe, on her way home from Haiti, told U.S. customs officials that the head was supposed to ward off evil spirits, and it was part of her belief in voodoo (which, incidentally, was recognized by Haiti as an official religion several years ago).

Strange as it may seem, I understand why Ms. Severe brought a human head back into the USA.

I would have done the same thing. Let me explain.

My wife and I were once stopped and searched at JFK airport in New York because we hadn’t bought anything on our trip to Europe.

“You mean you’ve been traveling in England and Switzerland for two full weeks,” said the customs inspector, raising his eyebrows, “and of neither of you bought anything?”

“That’s right,” I said. “We toured around a bit, did some hiking, ate some good food with good friends, and just plain enjoyed ourselves.”

He shook his head in disbelief. I should have remembered that “shop ‘til you drop” is the American mantra, and people who don’t buy things have seriously failed their country.

So, defending the American way of life, he slowly and painstakingly searched every inch of every single piece of luggage we had.

Yes, I know -- we pay our customs people to be suspicious. But for not buying things?

A few months later, it was déjà vu all over again.

We were coming back from another trip to Switzerland, and they handed out customs forms on the plane. “Damn,” I said, “we did it again! We haven’t bought a thing and customs is going to hassle us for sure.”

So we did what any red-blooded Americans would do: we filled out our customs forms with fictitious things we figured tourists in Switzerland might buy. We declared that we had bought a cuckoo clock, a large cowbell, a Swatch, and, just for good measure, a dozen dark chocolate bars.

Suddenly, we realized that this was a ‘lose-lose’ situation:

If we told the truth (“Nothing to declare – we haven’t bought a thing, sir”) we’d be stopped, and our luggage pulled apart again.

If they asked to see all the fictitious purchases listed on our card, we’d be caught, red-handed…with nothing. (Is it a criminal offense to declare things that you haven’t actually bought?)

Fingers crossed, we handed the customs officer the form with all our “purchases” on it. He smiled and waved us right through .

Which brings us back to the human head.

You see, Ms. Severe was returning from Haiti, a poor country where there’s simply not a lot to buy.

Looking for a way to get through customs without a hassle, I suspect Ms. Severe might have stopped at her friendly, neighborhood voodoo charm store and, in a moment of appallingly bad judgment, bought a human head.

She simply had the bad luck to be searched.

Come to think of it, since she bought the head to ward off evil spirits, kind of like a good luck charm, I think she ought to ask for her money back.

©2006 Peter Tannen