I took my 10-year-old son Kevin on a father-son fishing trip to Canada a few years back. The week’s catch included 83 northern pike, 133 walleye and—as Kevin likes to put it—a Canadian criminal record for Dad.
Our adventure started with a flight from Chicago to Winnipeg. The itinerary included a quick layover before we hopped on a little puddle-jumper to take us to our final destination. That would be the connection we never made.
During the descent into Winnipeg, I started to rattle off directions to Kevin about which bags I wanted him to carry as we maneuvered on to our next flight. I double-checked his backpack to make sure it was zipped, triple-checked our connecting flight information, and made sure I had our passports and forms ready to get through Customs.
I also gave Kevin a crash course on Customs etiquette.
“These guys are like the police,” I told him. “Don’t screw around. No monkey business.”
Leg one of the journey was almost done and we were right on schedule.
My dialogue with the Customs Officer was by the book.
Officer: “What brings you to Canada?”
Me: “I’m taking my son on a fishing trip up north.”
Officer: “How long will you be in Canada?”
Me: “We’ll return a week from today, sir.”
Everything seemed routine to me. The guy looked at Kevin and smiled. Just a couple stamps were needed and we’d be on our way. But then, he glanced again at Kevin who now was sporting a Canadian goose-in-the-headlights kind of look.
I was no longer a part of this conversation.
“Son,” the Customs Officer said, “tell me who this man is that you’re traveling with.”
Then came those words out of the random world of this 10-year-old that forever changed the course of our trip. “I don’t know who he is!” Kevin cried. “I want to go home!”
Before I could even process what he had said, before I could begin to spit the words out of my mouth that were trapped in my throat, before I could try to help bring some parental explanation to the little joke my son was apparently playing, I found myself bookended by two police officers.
And, I discovered how uncomfortable handcuffs could be.
During the next two hours I learned what drug smugglers go through when they are greeted by officials in foreign countries. Kevin, I later was told, was taken to a room where he played video games.
It’s a funny feeling, being locked up under those circumstances. Job one, I knew, was to convince these folks that this was all a kid’s silly joke, that I’m a loving dad, that life is copacetic, and we should all laugh at this “dumb kid” moment and move on. But they weren’t buying my story.
“Why would he say that, sir?” they kept asking me.
How was I supposed to respond? Was I supposed to say he was a dumb-ass kid and they should be more concerned about what I was contemplating doing the minute I got him alone?
We went round and round. I was their fish at the end of a line. They’d reel me in and then randomly let out the line. This was sport.
They finally got tired. Or bored—I don’t know. Maybe their shift was over. Either way they handed me all of my paperwork before leading me out into the hall where I found Kevin, sitting, holding a slice of pizza.
“You’re free to go,” one of the Custom Officers said to me as she pointed in the direction I needed to walk. “Have a nice trip.”
And Kevin and I were suddenly alone in an empty back hallway.
“Are you out of your mind!?” I screamed at Kevin in the loudest, whispering voice I could manage. Kevin’s face now burst into Niagra Falls.
“Are you, you, you okay?” he managed to ask me through his hyperventilating quivers.
“Alright. Stop crying. Let’s go,” I said as I started pulling all our gear together. “I don’t want to get arrested again.”
We caught another flight a few hours later, which gave us a lot of downtime in the Winnipeg Airport. Though tempted, I never revisited the topic that day. Some lessons don’t need to be hammered in.
And some lessons eventually become great family folklore.