A sinewy man with a shaved head and a black LIVE TO DRIVE biker shirt guides his 18-wheeler across the Ambassador Bridge from Windsor, Ont., to Detroit. He pulls into the U.S. customs yard, braking next to a National Guard tent festooned with last year's Christmas lights. It's July 1, one of the hottest days of the year, and the stagnant air at the foot of the bridge--the busiest commercial border crossing in North America--is thick with the smell of diesel and hog.
Three National Guard soldiers open LIVE TO DRIVE's trailer and poke about his cargo as a customs inspector, his navy shirt defiantly crisp in the pounding heat, peers at the paperwork and peppers the man with questions. The driver answers stoically, in halting English. Scrap aluminum. Picked it up in Quebec, due at a recycler in Missouri. Heading down I-75, hoping to get there tonight. The inspector appraises the man's story and body language and waves him on for final processing.
Ben Anderson, 55, chief inspector for commercial operations at the Ambassador Bridge, is watching from about 15 ft. away. "Inspectors typically have 25 to 30 seconds to make a judgment about whether a driver is telling the truth," he says. "A lot of what we do is just common sense. It's looking for things that are out of place, a story that doesn't make sense, or if he's evasive or won't look you right in the eye." Since Sept. 11, the Customs Service has been on a Level One alert--the most rigorous inspection regimen and one that, in the first days after the attacks, caused 25-mile, 16-hour-long backups at the Ambassador Bridge. Those delays shut down auto assembly lines from Flint, Mich., to Hermosillo, Mexico--and put Anderson and his 45 inspectors under relentless pressure to keep the commerce flowing while letting neither terrorists nor weapons of mass destruction across the border.
It's your basic, impossible 24/7 task. Fortunately, 31 years with Customs in Detroit has taught Anderson a thing or two about spotting liars. He is a classic American character with a deep faith and a laconic style inherited from his coal-miner father. Colleagues saw zero change in him after Sept. 11. "Doing it over 30 years, he doesn't get rattled," says his friend Bill Wisman, chief inspector for passenger-vehicle operations at the bridge and the Detroit-Windsor tunnel. "All I've seen in him," says his wife Linda, "is greater determination." On April 26, Linda awoke around 4 a.m. to find Ben sitting up talking on the phone. A suspicious briefcase had been left in the middle of the parking lot. "Call the bomb squad," Anderson said. "I'll be right in." Before she had wiped the sleep from her eyes, he was up and dressed and heading downtown. By the time he arrived, the bag was cordoned and the bomb dogs were circling it. They didn't alert. The bag contained only paperwork. "In these times," Anderson says, "you don't assume anything will turn out to be a false alarm."