I crossed the U.S.-Canadian border a few times last week and there was a profound change at the crossings in the manner and temper of the border guards.
You've probably experienced or heard about the pleasantries of Canadian guards over the years. You know, with their accents and a ``have a nice time in Canada, eh.'' They've always been friendly and courteous, with hardly a suspicion beyond meat products and that you might have an extra bottle from the duty-free.
The American ones were always more unpredictable, but since 9/11 the nation's terrorist concerns had forced the guards, who now worked for the Department of Homeland Security, to become hard-nosed, armed and unfriendly.
Questioning, with an aggressive tone, usually proceeded along the lines of ``what's your citizenship? Where do you live? Why were you in Canada and for how long? Are you the only people in the car? How about weapons or explosives? Pop the trunk and we'll have a look.''
You felt sorry for anyone of Arab descent, because you knew how they were being grilled and probably pulled over and searched.
But last week, you could tell there was a major change as we approached the Canadian border at the Thousand Islands crossing. There was a lengthy line-up and wait to get into Canada, and you could see nearby that traffic was moving quickly at the U.S. crossing with hardly a wait.
And the questioning, after a 30-minute wait, was not pleasant at all. It was so intense, you felt if you joked that, yes, you had a trunkload of weapons destined for the Taliban you'd get a rifle butt in the side of the head. But finally we were waved through without undergoing a search.
We unloaded on Howe Island, and about 90 minutes after crossing into Canada, I went back to the border to meet some friends on the U.S. side.
The technological advancements and manpower enhancements at border crossings since 9/11 are astounding, and the passport requirement went into effect June 1. Maybe that's why there was just one vehicle sitting at the checkpoint as I approached.
I was aware of being watched as I, without a wait, pulled up to the booth. Cameras were taking photos, videotape was being shot, and who knows what other surveillance equipment was at work. And that's before you even get to the checkpoint.
After stopping, I handed my passport to the guard who, as he scanned it, asked why I was coming back so soon. He knew I had just crossed a while earlier. I explained we had a place on Howe Island and was heading back to play some golf at T.I. Country Club.
Have a good game, he said, smiling.
I couldn't believe it. What had changed in the past few months to loosen up these American guards? Could it be the increase in sophisticated surveillance and tracking technology?
No doubt, it was a major factor. But is feeling more secure that some alarm might go off if I were a terrorist any reason to start being more friendly?
On my way back to the island the next morning, I appreciated my experience at the U.S. checkpoint all the more, when I again sat in a traffic jam at the Canadian crossing. Up ahead, it seemed like every fifth vehicle was getting flagged for a search.
The guy in the booth wasn't quite as ornery as the one the day before. But you can imagine me trying to explain, without raising suspicions that I was Osama's cousin, how I had crossed over yesterday, dropped Susan off on Howe Island and headed back to the U.S. for a golf outing that turned into an over-night.
After a five-minute grilling during which I was asked everything but my golf score, the guard told me, without a twitch, OK, go ahead.
On Howe Island, I related border-crossing details to my sisters-in-law. They weren't surprised, they said, because they always thought the American guards were friendlier to them than the Canadian ones.
The trip back to the U.S. a week later had to be the smoothest, funniest and strangest one we've ever experienced.
Again with no wait at all, we pulled up to the booth and the guard, scanning our passports, asked where we lived and where we had been. I told him.
He asked how the week was. When I mentioned the rain, he started laughing like a jolly ol' guard.
``Oh yeah, the rain. It's sure been rainy,'' he chortled.
And off we went.
Cary Brunswick, managing editor of The Daily Star, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.