Within six months of NAFTA‘s 1994 new year implementation, my father finally decided to make his first trip to Montana. Chef and I had left the Unabomber bungalow behind fifteen months earlier, and were now living in a large ranch house on 10 acres located three miles southeast of downtown Whitefish.
My father didn’t rent a car when he arrived that August. It wasn’t really necessary. As far as I was concerned, it was just as easy for him to drop me off at the office every morning, and pick me up at the end of the work day. I was going nowhere fast and usually chained to my desk all day anyway. He and his granddaughter would then be free to spend the summer weekdays doing all of the local sightseeing they wanted; and after living in big sky country for over two years, my young daughter had become a pretty good tour guide.
My parents had been divorced for 25 years, and up to this point, I would’ve sworn they had absolutely nothing in common except their offspring. But when my father declared early one morning that he thought it would be a shame not to take a day trip into Canada given Whitefish’s close proximity to the Canadian border, the overpowering wave of déjà vu that ensued, caused me to choke and sputter on my coffee.
Let me preface this particular morning with a little history about my father, also known as Mr. Hyde on occasion, especially when behind the wheel of a car on any winding mountain road.
Like Dr. Jekyll, my father was a very intelligent man, sometimes too smart for his own good. So smart, in fact, that he could be dumb. He unwittingly showed me at an early age that there are those who exist in this world who are so intent upon cerebral expansion and scholarly pursuits that they somehow miss out on the common sense part, and the street savvy that comes with it. He also had an innate ability to get caught, even when everyone else around him was busy doing the same thing without repercussions.
When it came to play time though, my father could emotionally retrogress to the mentality of a 15-year old in an instant; and like any 15-year old adolescent boy, his better judgment could often become clouded, with little thought given to the long term consequences that may result from his actions in the heat of the moment.
Case in point took place in the mid-1980’s when he went out for a day of four-wheeling fun on the eastern plains of Colorado with my brother-in-law of the time. It wasn’t enough for them to whoop and holler with exhilaration as my brother-in-law raced his truck across a limitless landscape covered in sage brush and prairie dog holes. Or even to spin the occasional dirt donut at top speed. No, they had to go extreme when my father, at his son-in-law’s suggestion, pulled a shotgun off the cab’s back window rack. The man who was supposed to be my parent instantly turned into a 15-year old, then proceeded to hang out of the truck’s passenger window while it sped over the erratic terrain, and began to excitedly shoot at the prairie dogs popping up and down from their holes in the ground like prairie dogs do, as if he were a kid at a carnival shooting gallery trying to win a cheap prize.
Fortunately prairie dogs are quick critters, and to my knowledge, no prairie dogs were harmed in this reckless pursuit. We probably have the Colorado Game Warden patrolling the area to thank for that. My father was promptly arrested, and my brother-in-law appropriately shamed enough to bail him out. He ultimately ended up with a felony on his record for the incident, and had some serious ‘splainin’ to do many years later when he made a career change that required specialized licensing.
Now back to Montana and my father’s anticipated day trip into Canada. Since I expected him to be back in Whitefish in time to pick me up at the office after work, I understandably felt it necessary to advise him about the challenges I’d experienced two years earlier when taking that day trip into Canada with my mother. I never expected there to be any complications as long as he didn’t travel too far north.
Well, the old guy almost didn’t get past the Canadian border guard at Roosville, and I heard the distressing details of his interrogation when he picked me up that evening.
He’d left Whitefish that morning with my daughter who, at the last minute, decided to bring along a girlfriend from school. They picked up the girlfriend on their way out of town, and the two girls sat together in the back seat of my urban-mobile as the three of them leisurely cruised north along Highway 93 to Canada for a fine day of sightseeing.
When they stopped at the Roosville border crossing, the border guard took one look at my father innocently sitting in the driver’s seat and the two 5th grade girls sitting together in the backseat (neither of whom bore any physical resemblance to him), and began probing suspiciously. My father naïvely tried to explain what he thought was obvious, and the girls corroborated when asked directly, but the border guard would have none of it.
Unlike today, it’s important to remember that back when this event occurred, the girls had never been provided any form of photo identification, not even a school ID card. And with NAFTA, passports were not a requirement for Americans crossing the Canadian and Mexican borders, and vice versa. Neither were notarized permission slips when traveling out of the country with minor children sans both parents.
In this, my father had done nothing wrong or illegal, but the border guard wasn’t taking any chances. He instructed the car be parked at the guard house and took them all in for questioning – in separate rooms.
My father tried to explain to the leery border guard why none of the surnames matched. His granddaughter (in the other room being questioned) had the last name of her father. His daughter (me) had remarried and now had Chef’s last name which was reflected on the Montana licensing of the urban-mobile he was driving. And then there was his last name, my maiden name, which was fortunately reflected on the Montana vehicle registration as well.
Apparently the little girlfriend was a non-issue in that everyone understood she wasn’t related and simply along for the ride. What seemed to bother the guards the most was the fact that they couldn’t find anything to support what they were consistently being told during questioning, something that would connect my father to my daughter and me as her mother.