In 2001, we moved from Leipzig to Fairbanks. The customs required to make a list of every item that we brought into the country. The moving boxes had to be labeled in Arabic numbers, and each item in the box had to be listed. When preparing for our move, we had given away many things because air cargo transport is a complex formula of volume taken by the freight and the weight of the freight itself. Thus, every item of no personal value, for which its price of replacement was lower than the price of transport had to go. This (brutal and hard) procedure made many of our colleagues and friends including some of the moving guys in Leipzig happy as they got these items. This big “giveaway” left us with about 2205 lb (1000 kg or 1 metric ton) of belongings that had to make it over the pond and a continent by air.
We had contracted an international moving company to do the job. They were supposed to pack the boxes and wrapped furniture into containers save for air cargo. Doing so required them to craft wooden boxes that would fit into the cargo section of air planes. The load was supposed to arrive a week after our immigration, which had given us a week time for house hunting.
About a bit more than a week after our arrival in Alaska, I got a call at work from a very friendly Alaska Airline agent. She introduced herself and explained that Alaska Airlines is contracted by Lufthansa to manage and handle their cargo. Then she told me that our freight had arrived with Condor the day before in the late afternoon. “You have to come and unpack the three wooden boxes to go thru customs” she said. “It is best you come as soon as possible as we need the pace. There will be a fee if the cargo stays longer in the hangar than 3 days. These boxes are huge and take a lot of space.” she insisted in a very determined way. “When will the custom officer go home?” “No problem, there there will be someone all the time. You better worry about how you get rid of the wooden boxes. We can’t keep them or trash them for you. You have to take them with you and discard them yourself.” she insisted with an urgent tone in her voice.
Of course, Murphy’s law applied, meaning it was Friday. Furthermore, at that time, we hadn’t yet figured out how the trash system including bulky waste worked in Fairbanks. We just had moved into the house we had rented a couple of days before. Prior to that we had lived in a motel with our tom cat.
Being worried about having to pay additional fees for the move I called my husband right away. “You need to rent a U-Haul and drive to the airport. We’ll meet at Alaska Airline’s cargo terminal at 1615 when I come from work. Bring me a pair of jeans and a Tee. We have to unpack everything for customs. Apparently, everything is in three huge wooden boxes that we have also to remove asap to not be charged a fee.” “How high is the fee? How big are the wooden boxes?” “I didn’t ask,” I replied “but the maximum size can’t be larger than those air freight container boxes.” “Great, half the size from the aisle to the wall, a bit more than man’s height.” he replied with a laugh. “I will be there.”
I hadn’t even thought about how he could manage to get into town from Goldstream to rent a U-haul. We just had managed the challenge of buying a new car without having credit reports. However, we hadn’t the car yet. We still had a rental car and that said rental car was standing in the parking lot at work in front of the Geophysical Institute.
At 1615, I arrived at the Fairbanks International Airport Alaska Airlines cargo terminal. I met the agent who had called me, a beautiful tall blonde woman in her early forties. Her well cut hair was lightened, but showed no sign of damage. She looked very groomed and elegant despite she was wearing a cargo overall and flat loafers. She opened one of the heavy loading doors while we were talking about the customs procedure. Then she urged again that we have to remove the boxes asap. At this moment, it occurred to me that my husband was 10 miles (16 km) out of town somewhere in the middle of nowhere, without a car. My heart rate accelerated and I became nervous, felt stressed out, and became angry at myself. I had totally forgotten that he didn’t have a car! I was about to panic.
At that very moment, a U-haul entered the parking area in front of the cargo terminal. The sunshine reflected on the windshield so one couldn’t see the driver. The truck turned around and backed into the spot of the open cargo door in one shot like the driver did that maneuver every day. I instinctively knew it was him.
“Wow” the woman said with admiration in her voice and face “Is your husband a truck driver?” “No. He is a scientists like me. But he served in the Army as a truck and tank driver. Later, he earned money as a truck driver for a brewery when bringing himself thru college.” I replied. My husband stepped out of the U-haul, greeted us, opened the back doors of the U-haul, and then jumped up the stairs at the side of the loading zone.
“The boxes are on the other side of the hangar. I will have someone haul them here.” Then the woman pointed out again that we have to take the boxes with us. “Where can we get rid of them?” “At the land fill” she said trying hard to sound determined and unforgivable. Then she took her radio out of the side pocket of her clean blue Alaska Airline overall and radioed for help while walking away. From far one could overhear that someone answered her call.
I went to the restrooms to change from my Casual Friday office look of blazer, pants, top, and scarf to a work outfit more appropriate for the kind of tasks at hand. When I came back, I was still wearing pumps. All my flat shoes were still somewhere in those boxes. Meanwhile, they had hauled the first wood container with a fork-lift truck close to the loading zone. Of course, the box had the maximum size that the Condor plane could hold in its cargo section. Concretely speaking, the wooden box looked exactly like the air cargo aluminium containers except that it was made of nice wood that showed a beautiful marbling. The entire box was nailed together, one nail at the side of the next nail, and looked very heavy, and very solid.
The scene looked like a beagle boy trying to break open in a warehouse. My hubby was already working on opening the first container with a crowbar. Obviously, the Leipzig moving guys had just gotten a new nail pistol. There were more than 200 nail on each side of the box! I took the second crowbar and worked on the other side. I was still wearing my pumps that I had worn at the office.
While we were pulling nails, a cargo worker with a big beard in an oily, wrinkled Alaska Airline overall stopped by. “Nice box” he said in a friendly deep voice nodding his head towards the container. “What will you do with it?” “We have to bring it to the landfill.” “What a waste. When you don’t need it, I would love to have it as a garage for my snow machine” the guy said. “Sure you can have it” my husband replied. “Can I also have the lumber that you are just taking off? Then I can use it as a door.” “Sure.” One could hear the relieve in my husbands’ voice that there was at least one box less to worry about and to take care off.
About half an hour later, the fork-lift truck delivered the second box. We had just started pulling nails from the bottom (me) and top side of the box. The guy starred at my pumps and said “Where do you want me to put this?” “Right were you are is fine.” The wood squeaked when he put the box onto the floor. The fork-lifter beeped when it backed to pull the fork out. “Do you need the boxes?” he asked in a curious way. “No. We will have to get rid of them” my husband replied, while we both looked up. “Can I have one of them to build a shed for my lawn mover and snow blower?” “Sure.”
Meanwhile the first box was open. The guy looked at my pumps and then walked over to help my husband to put the big piece of wood on the side of the box. “This will make a perfect door when adding a frame” the guy said nodding his head towards the item they had just carried. “Yes, you got it.” The guy smiled all over the face, said “Thank you” and jumped on the fork-lifter truck. The motor sounded like a purring cat while the truck vanished somewhere in the back of the large cargo hangar. Then a sound like a hauling dog disturbed the silence in the cargo hangar.
At the same time, an iron door squeaked and the woman entered again. She informed us that the custom officer will be here in about half an hour. She looked at the wooden boxes and said “When you don’t know what to do with the boxes, there is a co-worker who would like to have one to build a dog house.” My husband said. “He can have it, when he get’s it out of here in time.” “Thank you. Don’t worry, he will” she said with a smile “there are already several of our folks looking at these boxes.” “Yes, we know. We now gave away the last of them.”
About 45 minutes later, the iron door squeaked again. Meanwhile we had opened two of the boxes and were working on the third one. The blonde, tall woman and a customs officer in uniform entered. They were busy talking with each other in low voice when they walked towards us. It nearly sounded like they were whispering.
In his tanned weathered hands, the about 55-years old officer held the original of the list that we had made in Germany. He looked at the three wood boxes, the huge pile of more than 2000 nails, my pumps, and then onto his list. He then started curiously inspecting one of the open containers from the inside. He pulled a couple of our moving boxes outside, asked me to open them, took a look inside, and made hooks on his list. “Four chairs, a book shelf, a table, books, dishes, 30 pairs of shoes, and clothes? Is that all you have or is there another shipment of containers coming?” he looked at my face into my eyes. “That’s all” I replied.
He took a peek into the partly open third box. Once he was finished, he signed some paperwork, and said “you are ready to go.” He and the woman walked slowly back towards the door without talking to each other. The squeaking sound occurred again disrupting the silence in the hangar. The noise failed to be loud enough to blend out him saying “when they don’t take the nails with them, can you please hold them for me?”
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When you liked this story, you may also be interested in reading about when Alaskans’ normal fails to be normal for visitors or scary and happy feelings when moving to Alaska.
Photos of me: G. Kramm
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