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It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad Summer - Part 1

Well, here we are again, another fall. Not that I mind, of course. I’ve always loved fall; leaves turning, a sudden nip in the air, a new school year starting. When I was a kid, going back to school often meant being confronted with a loathsome first assignment - the dreaded “What I Did On My Summer Vacation” essay. Even though I’m sixty-two years old and long out of school the weight of writing that essay still lingers. So, here’s mine for 2018.

This summer, my wife Marion and I decided to forego a vacation. Instead, we moved - to England. If you have followed my facebook posts or read this blog in the past, you will know we like to travel. Mark Twain said that travel was the cure for ignorance and prejudice. I don’t think I’m particularly prejudiced but I’m still pretty ignorant, so I figure I better do all the traveling I can before it’s too late. Traveling usually means being gone a few days or weeks and then returning home; rested, restored, and ready to hit the ground running - or at least resigned to the old grind. This was not that, not by a long shot. In June, we sold our car, our RV, said goodbye to our Maine friends and neighbors and watched as everything we own was loaded onto a truck bound for Boston. From there, it was scheduled to travel New York harbor to be loaded on a ship bound for the English port of Southampton, and finally, to Cornwall, at the southwestern tip of the United Kingdom. Little did we know as we watched the truck pull away that we wouldn’t see our belongings again for over three months.

“Three months!” you say.

Yep, three months. That’s what can happen when you decide to move halfway around the world with two budgies and ship a cargo of musical instruments; in particular a bunch of elderly guitars and other instruments containing rare woods that have been put on endangered species lists. These lists, compiled by CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) are geared to assuring that “international trade in plant and animal specimens does not threaten their survival.” Sounds like a pretty lofty and worthwhile cause, right? Of course it does, at least until you decide to move your own personal musical instrument collection to the other side of the planet. Then it becomes a royal pain in the ass.

At this point, I should mention that another part of our cargo was the entire inventory of the “" shop. My apologies to everyone who ordered personally autographed photos or CD's during this period. At the time, we had no idea what was about to happen or how long it would be before the merchandise would again be available to ship. If it’s any consolation, while you were waiting for your signed copy of my “Goin’ To Clarksdale” CD, Marion and I were waiting for, well, everything we own.

I read somewhere that the shortage of Brazilian rosewood (Dalbergia Nigra) was caused by the Chinese’ love of rosewood furniture. I’ve never been to China, but I do know there are an awful lot of Chinese people there, and if they are all buying rosewood furniture I guess this explanation is plausible. What I do know for sure is that Brazilian rosewood is a hell of a nice wood to make guitars from, and it’s not difficult to find a lot of guitar players willing to testify to that. Whatever the cause, a shortage of Brazilian rosewood caused guitar makers to turn to other materials years ago, around 1969 or thereabouts. This didn’t stop the demand however, and, as with other things in short supply, there are always people willing to spend a lot of money to have them. Unfortunately, this led to a black market, much like the one for elephant ivory and other contraband. As difficult as it is to imagine, there have been all-out gun battles between authorities and smugglers over rosewood and people have lost their lives, so this is no joking matter. It didn’t help that some U.S. companies, like Gibson Guitars, were a little less than diligent, shall we say, about restricting their use of endangered woods. A few years ago, the company was raided by U.S. Customs officials. Inventory and computers were seized, and the resulting loss of business (along with other ill-advised creative and business moves) has brought Gibson to the brink of bankruptcy. Overall, it has been estimated that the musical instrument industry has lost millions of dollars in sales of guitars, new and vintage, due to trade restrictions. Government red-tape resulting in months of waiting for export permits has caused some vintage dealers, like George Gruhn in Nashville, to simply stop shipping vintage instruments outside the U.S.

As it happened, several of my instruments, made by the Gibson and Martin guitar companies in the 50’s and 60’s fell into the CITES - protected category. It helped my case a little that my guitars were not part of a commercial sale but a “transfer of residence,” but that still didn’t get me off the hook. I had to prove to the United States Department Of Agriculture (the U.S. watchdog for the CITES convention) exactly what instruments I owned, what kind of wood(s) they were made from, and when they were made. I submitted all sorts of documentation - photos, serial numbers, appraisals, written testimony from musical instrument manufacturers and vintage dealers, and photocopied data from my collection of Martin and Gibson history books (thank God I had held on to them) - to the U.S.D.A. office outside Washington D.C. early in 2018, and waited… and waited…

Knowing that a move of this magnitude was not going to be simple, we started preparing early. Moving animals between countries can be a tricky proposition. We had experienced this in 2016 when we decided to take our two parakeets, Charlie and Sissi over the border into Canada for a couple of days during a summer RV trip. My wife, being the attention-to-detail person she is, had made a bunch of phone calls, and, per government regulations, ordered forms, had the birds examined by our vet, and made an appointment to have the birds re-examined by a U.S. vet at a border-crossing station when we re-entered the U.S. in Vermont. The Canadian guards we met going into the country had never experienced anyone bringing parakeets into Canada, and weren’t exactly sure about how the procedure was supposed to work. Luckily, Marion had her ducks, erm, parakeets in a row, and was able to explain it to them. After a quick call to a superior, the guards confirmed that Marion had indeed done everything correctly and the birds and we were admitted into Quebec. Unfortunately, I wasn’t quite as prepared. I had bought some booze in the U.S. for our summer tour and wound up having to to pay Canadian duty on the liquor. Duh. Who knew? (Travel advice: People do actually drink in Canada. Buy your booze there).

Transporting birds overseas is a similar but even more complicated proposition. Again, lots of forms and a couple of vet exams, this time with a thirty-day home quarantine in-between. The timing was critical. The last exam had to be given within forty-eight hours of departure. On the day our vet gave the birds their final once-over, we scooted from Kittery Point, Maine down to Sutton, Massachusetts, where we picked up a certificate for travel from the U.S.D.A. (Yep, them again.) That was the easy part. The other issue was how to get the birds over the Atlantic. Researching pet travel, we learned that animals flown as cargo have a pretty poor survival rate. Some have been left behind at the point of departure, some flown to the wrong country, some simply arrived dead. So, we started looking into carrying our fine-feathered friends on the plane with us, as carry-on luggage.

Bringing an animal on a plane can be tricky. Every airline has different rules. Every country has different rules. So we began to do some research. United Airlines allows animals in-cabin. Great. We wanted to fly from Boston to London. Here’s where it gets complicated. We learned that, unlike many other places, the U.K. doesn’t allow animals to fly other than as cargo, period. Ugh. So, we started looking at alternatives. We briefly looked into sailing. The idea of a trans-Atlantic crossing immediately appealed to me. I had visions of Marion and me strolling along the deck of the Queen Mary II like Cary Grant and Myrna Loy. Unfortunately, Cunard’s rules for bringing animals on board were only slightly more favorable than the airline’s, so Cary and Myrna went back to looking for a flight. If we can’t land in Britain, how about Germany? Well, when you fly from Boston/Logan to Munich on United Airlines, the flight is actually operated by Lufthansa, and guess what? That’s right, Lufthansa doesn’t allow birds in-cabin. Dogs, yes. Cats, yes. Birds, no. Foiled again. Ok, so what if we flew from a different airport? It turned out if we flew from, say, Newark, we would actually be on a United flight and the birds could be carried on. Perfect! Since Marion is German, and her family are there, we could fly to Germany, make a family visit, then rent a car and drive across Europe to the U.K. It would be an adventure! Marion contacted the airport in Munich to make sure there wouldn’t be any unforeseen hiccups. Not surprisingly, the Germans have it all figured out. Once off the plane, we would take or birds to a vet, right there in the airport. After a quick exam, we’d be on our way. With an EU vet certificate, there would be no problem driving through Germany and France, to England.

At this point, someone is saying,”Let me get this straight. You decided to travel to another airport to take a flight to a country you didn’t intend to visit, just to drive half-way across the continent for the sake of two little budgies you could buy at Petco for $21.95 a piece?”

“Yep, ‘fraid so,” I say. In my Walter Mitty-ish fantasy, I become the great trial lawyer, Clarence Darrow Walmsley.

“In our defense, your honor, let me say these birds, Charlie and Sissi, aren’t just any birds. These are birds we took under our wing (he winks at the jury) when my mother, who was battling Alzheimer’s, was unable to care for them anymore. These birds have traveled all over California with us, camped at Yosemite, visited the Gold-Rush country. They accompanied us across the United States from coast to coast, California-to-Maine in 2015, and then traveled all over Northern New England from 2015 to 2018. These aren’t just birds, your honor, they’re family. They’ve led exceptional lives, seen more of the world than most people. They’re accustomed to a twenty-foot-long room in our Maine home in which to fly to their heart’s content. What would you have me do, simply leave them behind in a cramped little cage to wither away, broken-hearted, never again to feel the rush of the air through their tiny wings? (By now there is not a dry eye in the courtroom. Even the judge is reaching for a hanky.) Your honor, I rest my case.”

Things were beginning to fall into place. We scheduled a pick-up for our shipment. We booked flights, and a rental car in Germany big enough for ourselves, a bird cage, and a bunch of luggage. We arranged the two aforementioned visits with our vet, and ordered a specially-made collapsible canvas travel cage designed to fit under an airline seat.

Still, I didn’t have an export permit for my instruments, and I was beginning to get a little nervous. Finally, just days before our scheduled departure, my permit arrived from the U.S.D.A. Hallelujah! I immediately fired off an email with an attached copy of my permit to the U.K. CITES office in Bristol, U.K. I knew it would take them two or three weeks to issue an import permit (rather than the three to four months I had waited for the U.S. permit) but our stuff probably wouldn’t arrive in Britain for five or six weeks, so no problem, right? Wrong. I followed my email submission with a phone call. The response was very proper, very British, and very much not what I had hoped to hear.

“Hello, Mr. Walmsley. We’ve received your application. I’m terribly sorry, but there is no possibility to issue an import permit before your shipment is underway.”

“Uh, okay… but, the ship won’t actually arrive for another six weeks, so we should have the permit in plenty of time.”

“Normally, yes, Mr.Walmsley, but, you see, there is another problem. Your permit is for Brazilian rosewood. Your inventory clearly states that your instruments also contain mahogany. There is no mention of mahogany in your U.S. export permit. I’m a bit puzzled as to why the U.S.D.A. didn’t address this. I will speak to my supervisor, but clearly, if your shipment contains mahogany you will need a permit for that.”

The U.K. agent went on to explain that, unlike the U.S. permit, which lists all CITES instruments to be shipped, along with with descriptions of the species of wood they contain, the U.K. issue a separate permit for each wood specimen. This meant that each of the seven instruments under CITES protection would require two U.K. permits, one for rosewood, one for mahogany - fourteen permits in all. But, before that could be completed, there was now this question of mahogany. Did the U.S. not care about mahogany? Though I had listed it in my application, it was never discussed in any of my many phone conversations with the U.S.D.A. I was beginning to have a nightmarish vision about starting the whole permit process again, from scratch.

“I see. So, what happens now ?”

“Well, Mr. Walmsley, the worst case scenario is - if the U.K. permit is delayed, and your container arrives at the port without permit, your instruments may be seized, with no possibility of recovery.”

I had read horror stories about traveling musicians having their guitars confiscated by customs officials at border crossings. They never got them back. I could feel my pulse quickening, and my mouth was getting dry.

“Right, okay… Well, then what would you do in my position?”

“Of course, the decision is yours, Mr. Walmsley, but in my opinion, to ship your instruments without permit and risk the possibility of confiscation would be extremely reckless.”

The blood drained from my face; I was stunned. The tickets were bought, the shipment scheduled. We were booked to fly in a few days. We had spent months co-ordinating every aspect of our move, ironing out every minute detail so everything would run smoothly, and now, at the last moment, all our plans suddenly ground to a halt over a few bits of old wood. We began to have doubts - after all the years we had spent planning, dreaming about this move - what if this was a big, fat sign from the universe that we were making a mistake? We talked it over. Even in our ideal scenario, we knew we would arrive in England before our shipment, and we had prepared for that. But now… the thought of leaving everything behind, not knowing when or if we would see our belongings again, made us extremely uneasy. We thought of all the good reasons we had for going, and all the good reasons for staying. But, the wheels were in motion. It was now or never. We felt like we were teetering on the edge of a cliff. We decided to jump, hoping that a net would appear. Our shipment stayed in Boston. We took a deep breath, drove to Newark, waved goodbye to the U.S. and hopped on a plane for Munich.

To be continued...




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