Terror Island

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People come to Kelleys Island to fish, play cards, drink, and watch the grass grow. That's four things to think about, so why clutter the landscape with more?

Not that change is frowned upon in this Lake Erie hideaway, once a summer resort for vaudeville stars. In recent decades, the police force has doubled its ranks -- from one cop to two. The number of golf-cart-rental shops has tripled, to an all-time high of three.

And the electric lights work better than ever, now that the unreliable-guy-with-the-generator is no longer the power company. "He'd get mad at the bartender or somebody and pull the plug on the whole island," says islander Ed Curilla, recalling the dark years before the Hancock Wood Electric Co-op came to town.

The Ohio island is only a few miles away from the Canadian border, so the locals acted swiftly in response to the September 11 tragedy: They took one of their cops off street patrol and sent him to the airport to make sure no suspicious planes landed there.

It was a small gesture extended for the sake of national security. Too bad it didn't stick. Not only does the lonely cop not keep vigil anymore; no one does.

Maybe everybody's caught up in a secret mission and can't be bothered with the obvious. "There's a box [at the airport] where you're supposed to put in a couple dollars," says Curilla, the town gadfly and owner of the General Store. "But there's no people there. It seems to me as though anybody who wants to can land here, no problem."

The War on Terrorism may have infiltrated the furtive caves of Afghanistan and every Arab American corner store in Detroit, but it's passed over this 2,800-acre land mass next to our northern border. Who's making the rules here? Gilligan or the Skipper?

U.S. Customs doesn't have agents stationed on Kelleys, confirms spokeswoman Cherise Miles. But officials have put up some fliers advertising their new, improved Private Boat Reporting system. That way, terrorists can be sure to check in their contraband with the proper authorities after chartering a private boat from Pelee Island in Canada to Kelleys.

The Coast Guard isn't making the island a priority, either. Rather than station officers along the shores, "We rely on the public to keep their eyes on the water and contact us if they spot anything suspicious going on," says agency spokesman Adam Wine. "The Lake Erie Islands don't really have a history as a place people try to cross illegally."

That's not the history residents tell, claiming a proud, 150-year tradition of border-hopping, bootlegging, and harboring fugitive slaves. According to Rob Watkins, longtime proprietor of the Island Market, when the lake used to freeze over in winter, people hopped on their snowmobiles and coasted across the border.

"In the past, Kelleys was an easy way to get into the country," he says. "You used to be able to go back and forth pretty freely," and you still can today.

The well-heeled residents keep a low profile and don't get hassled much in return. Their majestic summer cottages decorate the boulevard like giant wedding cakes laid out on a table of emerald green. Nothing much happens here, which makes it an ideal refuge for people with ill intentions. Mischief is expected only at Kelleys' sister island, Put-in-Bay, which draws about eight times more tourists by ensuring that Jell-O-shot specials and wet-tube-top contests take priority over friendly hands of euchre.

"We see a lot of pleasure boaters [around Kelleys], but someone who's Arab might stick out a little bit," says Watkins, who's pretty sure he could spot a terrorist. "I don't know the ins and outs. Immigration, they got radar; they could track a boat coming in from Canada."

Dan Evans, a 43-year-old musician who has spent summers on the island, isn't so sure. The great-grandson of a vaudeville beauty named Beatrice Himmelein, Evans comes from a long line of insomniacs and people with nervous conditions. Since September 11, the visible lack of security between the island and the U.S. mainland has given him one more reason to toss and turn at night.

Terrorists could charter a private boat or plane from Pelee to Kelleys, he worries, and be greeted only by frogs and trees. Then they'd take a tourist ferry to the Sandusky mainland without having to show a single piece of ID.

He's shared his concerns with U.S. Customs, but he wasn't taken seriously -- maybe because his ordinarily nasal voice sounds especially hysterical and whiny over the phone.

If he'd talked to the agents in person, they might have seen he was actually a perfectly normal ex-hippie. And if they'd actually made the effort to listen to him, they'd see he has a point.

"If I know something is dangerous, life-threatening to people, I have a responsibility to warn them about it," Evans says. "To me, it's a spiritual principle, and I have to live by that."

Karen Moss, an immigration lawyer who teaches at Cleveland State University, says there's only so much U.S. Customs and Immigration can do.

"We share a big, long border with Canada," she says. To get across, "You could charter a boat. You could jump across someone's field, for that matter. Unless you put up a huge wall, you've got a problem. It's impossible for the border patrol to control that border."

Maybe it's best just to accept Kelleys the way it is: a natural playground with no one carding at the door. Odds are, nothing bad will ever happen there.

But a few border guards wouldn't hurt. They could ride go-carts in the summer and snowmobiles in the winter. The world might be a tiny bit safer, and Dan Evans could get a decent night's sleep.

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