Retired Customs Official Tells Tales From the Border

March 3, 2010 Updated: March 25, 2010
The cover of 'In Safe Hands,' a collection of short anecdotal stories from the life and times of a U.S. Customs officer. (Michael Cunningham)
The cover of 'In Safe Hands,' a collection of short anecdotal stories from the life and times of a U.S. Customs officer. (Michael Cunningham)

Purchase book online. Proceeds go to charity listed in the book.

Michael Cunningham has a lot to say about his 28 years of experience in the United States Customs and Border Protection.

"So many people say, 'Oh, you work at Customs, so you work at the airport?'” says Cunningham. “But we are boarding ships in the middle of the night in storms, we're working at the northern border, at the southern border, in the middle of the night. We are all over the place doing the job."

In his books Walking Point and In Safe Hands, Mr. Cunningham describes his experiences as an infantryman with the United States Army during the Vietnam War from 1967-1970, and his experience as a customs officer.

Regarding his motivation for writing the books, Cunningham said, "It’s a tribute to the men and women who are doing their job on a daily basis."

Cunningham is part of a group of customs officials who served in the Vietnam War that he describes in his first book, Walking Point.

Cunningham said he feels lucky he emerged from the war in one piece. He called writing the book “scripto-therapy” as he recalled his friends, and how many were killed and wounded.

What stands out most are his anecdotes in his second book, In Safe Hands, the story of his life as a U.S. Customs official. Through them, he reveals his remarkable willingness to do what is right.

"That's why we are on the face of the earth. We are human beings. We are supposed to be helping each other," says Cunningham.

There is much more to customs than checking people’s luggage when they arrive from abroad, he explains. In addition to making large-scale drug seizures, he has chased down people with pending arrest warrants. "We had some huge drug seizures,” he says, recalling seizing marijuana, ecstasy, heroin, and cocaine.

"And then there are human stories too,” he said, mentioning the book’s first story about the FBI National Crime Information Center officer and his family.

It’s a story of a military family. The husband was on leave and the couple and their two young children were returning stateside for a Christmas family reunion. As they tried to cross the border, the wife was flagged for some minor financial charges against her, but the law dictated that she be sent to another state to face charges.

“It was right before Christmas," Mr. Cunningham said, adding that the woman was still nursing their youngest.

After listening to all the details of their circumstances, Mr. Cunningham did what he could to help. He was able to get the charges against her reduced, after the woman promised to deal with her financial problems.

"Luckily, she was able to go and spend the Christmas with her family," he said.

There are many other moving stories Mr. Cunningham dealt with during his long career.

“The last story was another human story, it was about a young Chinese girl, that we were able to—she was actually kidnapped—and we were able to find her,” he said. “And she’s living here in the United States of America right now.”