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Letter from Matinicus - Aland Island, Home Sweet Home?

Aland Island, Home Sweet Home?

By Eva Murray

Illustration by Ted Walsh


It seems everybody around here is hassling about their required TWIC card. The Transportation Security Administration is striving to make sure that “port workers” are background- checked and issued their Transportation Worker Identification Credential. This, according to our local passenger boat captain, and the engineer on the Sunbeam, and a couple of former island schoolteachers who happen to be licensed captains, and all sorts of other friends employed in the maritime trades sounds to be a bureaucratic process approximately as convenient as petitioning the old Soviet Union for permission to sell American Guns-N-Roses records to the Chinese. I can sympathize.

Aland Island FlagThe flag of the Aland Islands. A Swedish speaking,
neutral, demilitarized archipelago with
a long history of independence.
My experience was as a land-based “transportation worker,” but by all accounts it’s much the same. I sat in the institution-green office with a half a dozen delivery drivers and underemployed pimply-faced farm-boy truckers. The examiner handed back my completed written tests for my class B driver's license...air brakes, tank truck, hazardous materials. He looked at my Matinicus address and made a face. “What do you drive?” I said something vague about propane, something about the electric company bucket truck; he didn't need to know how rarely I got to drive anything bigger than a U-Haul pressed into service as a garbage truck. I was handed another form and given stern instructions to fill it out at home and call the number on the bottom. I filled out the paperwork and called the number from a friend's house on the mainland. Answering the call was a machine, with half the recording obliterated. The intelligible part instructed me to go to a certain website; the tape then just repeated itself again and again...no menu, no way to speak with a human being. I brought up the website and, sure enough, there was a mandatory electronic version of the same form I'd just filled out on paper...plus, of course, mention of the requisite fee. The instructions commanded me in no uncertain terms to fill it out again, and to include a credit card number for payment. I did...name, address, country of citizenship, previous address. I'd lived at the same address on Matinicus then for nearly 20 years, and my old address in South Thomaston was a fire road number which no longer existed; I couldn't recall my old post office box number, so I left the line blank and hit “submit.” This was a mistake; up popped a scary-looking page of incomprehensible computer programming dialect, the only sort-of-English words I could recognize, buried in a page of what appeared to be Martian, were “Apache wildlifepermit” (I wondered what sort of license they thought I was processing for.) I eventually located my former address and completed the form again, fearing mostly that I'd be charged the rather exorbitant fee twice. The next step was the fingerprinting. As any “transportation professional” can tell you, the Federal government strives to protect us from terrorism. Chain link fences now stand between us islanders and certain perfectly good mainland dumpsters; tourists from Indiana have been threatened with having their luggage detonated because they inadvertently left it near the waterfront in Rockland while going to get a taxi, and all of us who might deliver a 100 lb. cylinder of propane must be fingerprinted (even if we've already been fingerprinted and background-checked by the government because we happen to be schoolteachers. Evidently one agency can't share their fingerprints with another.) There is only one place in Maine, I was told, where I could be fingerprinted for this purpose, an occupational health center in Portland (bring your passport, social security card, birth certificate...) After waiting for quite a while, I was told that the technician I needed had gone to lunch. I asked to use the bathroom. The woman behind the desk obligingly pointed. When I came out, I said something about the fact that no water came from the tap; I assumed a call to a plumber was in order. “Oh, sorry,” she said, “that's the drug-testing bathroom.” Live and learn. Eventually the technician got back, and ushered me into the room where my prints would be recorded. This is not your ordinary ink-pad police-station fingerprinting procedure. This is Homeland Security; this is done on a computer, a sort of a scanner. I was present when my husband went through the same process a year before...it took the computer eleven tries to collect an image of his left thumb. After some initial struggle with the software, the technician brought up the electronic form I'd filed and paid for at least once that morning, and sure enough, the form indicated my name, address, previous address, and country of citizenship. Aland Islands. “Huh?” asked the technician. “That can't be right. Where is that?” “Beats me.” (I was tempted to smile and mutter something about “I'm just a dumb truck driver.”) I quickly jotted the name of this obscure country on the back of some paperwork, eager to look it up later. I'd never heard of “Aland Islands.” That's “Aland” with the little circle over the first “A,” evidently Swedish. The computer had hiccuped and made me an Alander. (Next I figured I'd be receiving an Apache wildlife permit of some kind.) She changed my citizenship to USA, managed to electronically record each of my fingerprints, and left me once again relieved that our government has the technology needed to keep any suspicious Scandinavian foreigners from delivering propane. Eventually, my new driver's license arrived in the mail, indicating my endorsements to drive dynamite around in any single-unit vehicle except a school bus or a motorcycle. I looked up Aland Islands; Aland is a cluster of islands between Finland and Sweden, an autonomous district of Finland where everybody speaks Swedish, a scenic, neutral, demilitarized archipelago with a long history of independence. I also found, on-line, an “Aland Island flag auto-decal.” I couldn't resist. Now, each time I see that red, yellow and blue flag sticker, I am reminded of my “homeland,” thanks to Homeland Security. It suits me. It is a region described as “autonomous;” I love that. It is a place which defies simple explanation; I certainly sympathize with that. It seems beautiful, at least from the photos on the website; I even like the primary-colored flag. June 9, I learn, is “Aland Autonomy Day.” Perhaps I'll bake something.
The End