What’s in It?

By Ashleigh Brilliant   |   February 8, 2022

Much of our folklore, including Greek mythology, has to do with explaining the origins of things. For example, why are there so many troubles in the world? Well, it seems they were once all contained in a certain neat, secure box. But some naughty female named Pandora, hardly realizing what she was doing, opened the box, and let them all fly out – since then, it has, of course, been impossible to recapture and re-box them.

But our own boxes, cases, trunks, and bags mostly contain the troubles we pack into them. Customs inspectors know all about this. I have been lucky to get through with occasional contraband. Probably drugs are the most smuggled item today (in Prohibition it was liquor, which was much less convenient to transport), but with me it was never more than a little pot, for personal use.

Another most-smuggled class of items is weaponry. In this respect, it is (or was at one time) convenient for the weaponeers that cases built for carrying certain musical instruments were also just the right shape for somewhat less tuneful instruments such as tommy-guns.

(I personally have a horror of firearms, and felt sad, and less safe, when I noticed, on a visit to my homeland, that British police, who had always been famously unarmed, were now carrying guns. But when a friend from Philadelphia – the City of Brotherly Love – who was coming to visit me, announced that he was bringing his own gun, for protection, I had to impose a stern restriction, and insist that the weapon be left at home.)

Probably my own most exciting smuggling experience occurred when I was 17, and still at school in England, but spent one summer hitchhiking with a classmate both ways across the U.S. In Los Angeles, a wealthy family friend asked what we most needed at home. Almost jokingly, I said that my mother would very much like to have a Mixmaster – which in those days was, in Britain, still a very luxurious cooking convenience. 

No more was said at the time, but when we reached New York, on our way home, we found waiting for us a big package which our American benefactor had shipped there. And it contained not one, but two Mixmasters – one for each of our families. In those days, Britain was still, compared with the U.S., a land of “austerity.” We were pretty sure there would be a heavy customs duty to pay on such an elegant import, and, since our only luggage was our rucksacks, we took both machines apart and concealed the pieces wrapped up in our soiled clothing. Somehow, with these heavy loads, we made it on and off the airplane, and at the other end to our amazed relief, got through the Customs without even having to open our bags!

Some years later, I had another narrow escape when on a train leaving the Soviet Union, with a large wad of Russian Rubles, which I knew it was illegal to take out of the country. When the Inspector came around, he wanted to see, in addition to my luggage, everything I had on my person – so of course, I was required to empty my pockets. But it happened that I had put all my Rubles in the pocket of an overcoat, which I had hung beside an empty seat, several rows from where I was sitting. This Official never thought of looking there. (I was able to exchange the Rubles for Francs in Paris, but for an amount so small that it was hardly worth the risk I had taken.)

Sometimes smugglers employ the cavities in human bodies, alive or dead. But even those of us who finish up cremated cannot always avoid being boxed, as ashes. This distinction is not restricted to people. My wife had a whole collection of “memorial boxes,” each bearing the name of one of her beloved cats.

But the ultimate in boxes are surely those huge “containers” which constitute much of the current world’s freight cargo. Every now and then, a stowaway is discovered living in one. The possibilities for comfortable habitation in such spacious circumstances excite the imagination.

However, unless we have a burning desire to avoid burial, most of us end up in boxes called coffins. Which enables me to conclude with one of the innumerable pleasantries I learned from my father:

“It wasn’t the cough that carried him off –
But the coffin they carried him off in.”  


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