Traveling in Mexico is often an adventure. But in my case, it was getting into Mexico that was the adventure. Or, more specifically getting out of customs.
The year was 1984 and I was involved in shooting a series of commercials for Kool Cigarettes. As Exec. Producer of a production company in Hollywood, I had put together an ambitious package of TV commercials that would take us to, among other places, the primitive wilds of Palenque in deepest Mexico near the Guatemalan border – to shoot the spectacular waterfalls at Agua Azul.
We were bringing our own cameraman, but shooting with an all-Mexican crew. So, normally all I’d have to do is get myself on an airplane, fly into Mexico City, and meet our production representative at the airport. Something I’d done many times before. But this time was different.
“Why”?, you ask…
The dictates of the Kool’s storyboard, and the requirements for where we planned to shoot the waterfalls made it necessary for me to bring – in my luggage – a 1×3 foot clear plastic “Kool” sign that we had specially made for the job. But to complicate things, for safety sake I also had to bring a pair of life vests, six “walkie-talkie” radios and a rubber raft, all stuffed into my luggage.
Yet somehow I still had to get through customs without the authorities believing I wanted to start some kind of a revolution.
When I got off the airplane at Mexico City International Airport, I began to get concerned. But by the time I reached customs, I was really nervous. How the hell was going to get through this?
Fortunately, I was met at customs by our local producer, an American woman by the name of Mary Dean Pulver, who spent years in Mexico putting together film productions for us “Gringos”, whenever we needed to shoot south of the boarder.
With her years of experience she knew better than to try to have a woman talk sense to the Customs Authorities. So, she brought along some heavy muscle in the form of a retired Mexican Air Force Major. He was a large and formidable gentleman with a strong, military bearing, but spoke little English.
As I was standing in the customs line, waiting for the inspectors to reach me, the three of us caucused, trying to come up with a strategy that would get my luggage through serious scrutiny without having anything confiscated that was needed for the shoot. And without getting me thrown in jail.
But my two would be protectors were stymied by the sheer audacity of what I was attempting. Meanwhile I was sweating bullets as the inspectors moved ever closer. Having no idea how we were going to deal with this, I looked pleadingly toward Mary Dean. But all she could do was look down at her feet and shake her head.
Then just in time the Major intervened with a last ditch attempt at a classic form of miss-direction. His goal was to divert attention AWAY from my luggage, especially my big B-4 bag, which contained our rubber raft, life vests and radios.
The first thing he did was engage the inspectors in conversation and then invite their attention to a large flat, cardboard box that was another piece of my luggage.
That was the box that contained the clients’ prize – a very carefully packed clear lucite KOOL sign. But I had absolutely no idea how diverting the inspectors attention by inviting them to look at that first would bail me out of my predicament.
As the inspectors opened the box and unwrapped the sign, I was paralyzed, having absolutely no idea how they would react. But somehow the Major got them to come closer to him and away from the telltale plastic icon.
Then drawing them even closer, he pointed at me, while saying something in very rapid Spanish that I couldn’t understand. Suddenly they were all laughing heartily at whatever joke he he’d made at my expense. But I couldn’t believe what happened next. As the Major and the two inspectors continued to look at me and laugh, they all shook hands.
Then the inspectors turned away and moved down the line to the next passengers.
As they parted, the Major turned and walked back to me with a big smile on his face. Somehow, whatever he said got them to totally ignore my other two bags, letting me through without a hitch.
Mary Dean was as flabbergasted as I was. But the mystery remained. While she understood what the Major told the inspectors, I still had no clue. So, as soon as we were out of GLOATING range, I asked what had he said to them?
She replied, “He said that he knew you casually but described you as one of those crazy Gringo artists who creates weird things – and that you were taking this particular work of art to a gallery showing in Mexico City”.
Since he was an ex-air force major, and the customs inspectors were mere government employees, they took his word for it, proving once again that rank has its privileges.