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Even simplest questions can be difficult to answer

Where are you from, son," the steel-eyed customs agent at the Canada-U.S. border said with a piercing stare.

Four simple words had never sounded so perplexing to me. I stared back at him with a blank look, unsure what he was seeking with his question.

"Where was I from?" It sounds simple but I just couldn't wrap my mind around the answer.

While I never claimed to be the sharpest tool in the shed, I am normally not quite so dense. But you see, it was July 4, 2002, I was at Niagara Falls, N.Y., and I had a lot on my mind.

At that very second I had a hunk of diamonds in my pants pocket that dominated my thoughts. In less than two hours I was about to pop a tough question of my own - "Will you marry me?" - to my longtime girlfriend.

So I was way too caught up with my question to answer his.

"Son, where are you from?" he asked again, with the annoyance showing on his face and his glare burning holes in me.

And even when not preoccupied, it is not the easiest question for me to answer.

Finally my brain and mouth caught up with each other and I stammered something incomprehensible about the Tri-State - which meant nothing to him.

Then it just started pouring out of me and that agent learned more about me than he ever wanted to know.

I was born in Huntington, W.Va., but spent most of my preteen days living in Gallipolis and Franklin Furnace in Ohio. Then it was on to live in Kentucky.

My identity crisis continued as I explained that I live in Ashland but work in Ohio and go to college in West Virginia - crossing the borders daily.

So, in essence, I had spoken the truth. I am from the Tri-State and feel no more allegiance to one state over the other. They are all my home.

I didn't bother to go on to explain to the border guard the rest of my convoluted personal story.

Fortunately, whatever senses I possessed at the time told me that he doesn't care that I was a then 27-year-old journalism major at Marshall University who took the long way through college.

As a 17-year-old Ashland high school graduate, college just wasn't high on the priority list. Several wasted semesters, lost classes and spent tuition bills later I realized, it wasn't going to work.

After nearly four years of the harsh introduction to the real world of bills, debt and responsibility, I returned to college a new person. A three-week hospital stay caused by a collapsed lung and pneumonia only strengthened my resolve.

I resumed class at

Ashland Community College and picked up my first love - writing.

While some young children want to be firefighters, police officers or astronauts, I really wanted to be Spider-man.

Well, that didn't work out so well. So, I then dreamed of being the super hero's alter ego - Peter Parker - a photographer and journalist.

That dream started to come true as I majored in journalism and wrote for several college papers and local publications.

Getting a break at The Tribune as an intern, I took advantage of it and continued to hone my skills and show what I could do, until I was ultimately named the managing editor.

But none of that concerned the customs agent. With a disgusted look he ushered me through and sent me on my way.

Whew, then my focus shifted back to the other question to which I soon sought an answer.

Later that night, beneath the fireworks overlooking Niagara Falls, I asked that question. And, fortunately, my girlfriend did not struggle with her answer like I had mine.

And thankfully her answer of "Yes" did not make me wait nearly as long.

Michael Caldwell is managing editor at The Ironton Tribune. Mike can be reached at 532-1445 ext. 24 or by e-mail at mike.caldwell@irontontribune.com.