Radioactive on the Derby Line: A Meeting with the U.S. Border Patrol

By Greg Ruggiero

After going camping in Quebec with my family last weekend, I rolled up to the U.S. checkpoint in what appeared to be a remote and rural area. Having recently worked on such books as Border Patrol Nation, Spying on Democracy, Dying to Live, and Mexico Unconquered for the City Lights Open Media Series–all of which to some degree discuss U.S. borders and surveillance–I decided to snap a few pictures of the cameras and sensors that were clearly taking pictures and capturing information about me. As we got close to the surveillance sensors, I did not realize that we were approaching a section of the border that Todd Miller writes about in Border Patrol Nation, the most recent release in the Open Media Series.

haskell library.jpg
“At the Haskell Free Library, a line on the floor marks the border between Canada and the United States.” From the New York Times article, “Quebec and Vermont Towns Bond Over a Sleepy Border”.

As Miller describes in his chapter titled “The Not-So-Soft Underbelly of the North,” Derby Line, Vermont and Stanstead, Quebec have the distinction of not only being neighboring border towns and home to the U.S. checkpoint I was attempting to cross, but also places where the two countries share public spaces, infrastructure, and institutions.

Todd Miller writes:

Derby Line, Vermont, and Stanstead, Quebec, where the international border bisects the local library with a thick black line on its floor, yet has 20,000 books in French and English that citizens of both towns—and countries—share. They also share the same water service and sewage system, which, unlike the library, are both out of sight and inaccessible to the public. The library’s front door is in the United States, but the majority of the backside, and its books, are in Canada. Canadians can use the entire library, but they have to return to their country after checking out a book, or risk arrest. The same goes for the opera house, located in the same historic building, where a brochure encourages all visitors to return to their country of origin following performances. There are no walls yet, but Homeland Security has started blockading some streets with gates, flowerpots, and large signs that say with red letters: YOU MAY NOT ENTER THE UNITED STATES ON THIS STREET. Now friends and neighbors in both towns express the same astonishment at these sharp, policed lines of division that people in many small U.S.-Mexican border towns once did in the mid-1990s.

I didn’t realize I was entering part of the political geography that Todd Miller writes about. And, unbeknownst to me, I had apparently stashed somewhere in my car U.S.-issued military hardware with enough radioactive power to be detected long before I reached the control position where U.S. border authorities were waiting for me.

As we approached the position–my wife driving and me in the passenger seat, my son in the back–one of the sensors to the left of our approach path pulsed a deep blue light. When we rolled to a stop at the agents’ window, one fully armed officer exited the booth and communicated to other officers on his walkie-talkie. A Taser weapon gleamed on his hip.

After a somewhat standard list of questions, he asked if we had recently been to a doctor. I thought it must be a way of investigating if we had come into possession of prescription drugs or something along those lines.

“Have you received any stress tests?” he asked.

“No, and we haven’t met with any Scientologists,” I said. The agent shot me a look. I was thinking about how Scientologist recruiters lure travelers with the gimmick of ‘free stress tests’ in the New York City Subway.

“You haven’t received any medical treatments?” he asked again.

“No,” I repeated.

“Do you have a compass?” he continued.

“Yes, somewhere buried in our stuff is an old U.S. Army compass my dad gave to us years ago, it’s probably from World War II.”

“You need to find it.”

“It’s going to take me a long time,” I answered.

“It’s in Leo’s toy bag,” my wife said.

“Park you car over there,” the agent pointed to a spot a few meters away and walked to the spot.

Sure enough, my dad’s old U.S. Army-issued compass was in my son’s LEGO Legends of Chima backpack. The agent seized it and, speaking only to my wife, ordered her to get out and go to the border authority building. He then ordered me to drive the car through a massive detection device of some sort.

“Take your son with you and then park over there and go into the building,” he said.

As we were doing all this, other cars were approaching the checkpoint and other people were being detained. I overheard an agent asking, “Have you ever been arrested before?” A question they did not ask us.

Greg Ruggiero at the U.S.-Canada Border

When my son and I joined my wife inside the U.S. border control facility, the agent informed us that the cardinal points on the old compass had been painted with the glow-in-the dark radioactive element, radium. “That’s the only glow-in-the-dark technology they had back then,” he said. “You may not want to sleep with it under your pillow.”

The matter resolved, I thought we could leave, but we were ordered to stay put. As our detention continued, my wife and our six-year-old son looked at the FBI posters for missing people and hunted suspects, watched Border Patrol videos, and looked at literature about nasty-looking insects that were destroying trees and forests. After what seemed like at least a half-hour, I asked the agent, “Why do we have to wait so long?”

He answered, “This is not long.”

As we exited the station in freedom, my son, who graduated from kindergarten last month, said, “Everything in that place is disturbing.”

As we got back into our car and slowly rolled back into the United States, the quiet Vermont road, the trees, and the sky all looked so much more inviting and open.



As Todd Miller told me when I got home, even the former governor of Arizona had been detained for testing positive for radioactivity.


Thanks to Joe Nevins, author of Dying to Live, for sending me the article Quebec and Vermont Towns Bond Over a Sleepy Border.


Greg Ruggiero founded the Open Media Series in 1991 as an act of war protest, as well as an act of solidarity with social movements promoting greater freedom, justice, and democracy. He edits the series for City Lights Books.

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