A Present for Spielberg: a Courier’s Christmas Tale

By Robert Croker

On or about Dec 22, 199_, C______ F___ A___, Inc., a New York fine arts transportation company, contracted me to do an “airport supervision” for an Article of Extraordinary Value (“AEV,” or sometimes “NVD” — No Value Declared — in the parlance of the trade). This means that I’m to ride shotgun on an Exclusive Use vehicle to an airport cargo terminal, help offload the AEV and take care of the paperwork. I stay with the article until I see it go aboard the aircraft, and then watch the aircraft until it leaves the ground. I then report “wheels up” to the dispatcher and go home. It’s about a 4-6 hour job, ordinarily, and it usually happens at night. It’s easy money, and requires little or no creativity or physical effort, though some diplomatic skills are often necessary.

In this particular instance, the crated AEV (which is otherwise unidentified; most often I don’t even know what it is) is intended to fly on a passenger airliner as cargo, to be met at the other end by another fine arts shipping company, then taken directly to its destination, unpacked, and hung in time for Christmas dinner at Steven Spielberg’s house. It’s scheduled to go wheels-up about 2:00AM on December 23rd. The client is one of the highest-flying galleries in New York.

The cargo closeout time is 5:00PM, and, by design, we arrive early. At first, all goes normally. I do the paperwork, check in with JFK Security, receive my tarmac pass, and make contact with my police escort. Fortunately for the next three days’ activities, I had just started reading Clay Blair’s epic The Forgotten War: The U.S. Army in Korea, 1950-1953, and hadn’t yet gotten to the Second Battle of the Naktong Bulge, so the baby-sitting part is painless. I have no idea that by the time I see home again, I will have read all 1152 pages, the bibliography, and the endnotes. At about 12:30AM, the loadmaster makes up the baggage-train, my escort picks me up in a squad car, and we follow the AEV to the aircraft.

In the fine-arts trade, you’re supposed to protect artworks, especially paintings, from abrupt or excessive changes of temperature. Fine-arts crates, in addition to being sturdy, are very well-buffered against such changes, as they are against shock and vibration, but it’s always worrisome if they’re exposed for too long — and it is taking a long time to board this aircraft on a windswept tarmac in the middle of a December night. I finally get nervous enough to ask the loadmaster how long we’re going to be, and he nonchalantly replies, “Oh, your cargo’s been bumped. You’re not going on this flight.” I said, “Really? Why’s that?” or words to that effect, making liberal use of Steven Spielberg’s name, to no avail. FAA regs, Buddy: passenger luggage first, U.S. Mail second, everything else is everything else, and this aircraft is loaded with Christmas travelers, Christmas presents for all their children and grandchildren, and about 250,000 Christmas cards. Guess Mr. Spielberg’s just gonna hafta wait.

What’s a boy to do? Beg, plead, threaten, offer bribes? Doesn’t work. There’s only one rational course: Panic.

First, we get the AEV back into shelter; then we examine the alternatives (which are few). We can leave the painting in a lockup, in which case I stay with it and try to put it on another flight in the morning, but no guarantees, or we can take it back to the warehouse and try to find some other course. I call the domestic transportation dispatcher (who’s responsible for this kind of gig), newly a father with a colicky baby (and therefore still awake), and lay it out for him. Then I call the local trucking dispatcher to see if we can get somebody to the airport in any event. He’s at a Christmas party and is driving-impaired. (His exact words: “Crow-kerr, umada Kizmuz poddy, ‘n’m drungza skungkh. I cain’ dryvuh goddam’ truck.”) It’s becoming apparent that Option One is a non-starter: there’s only one flight with even a remote chance of making it to Seattle on time. It’s almost fully booked, and probably just as chucky-jam full of presents and mail as the previous one. The domestic dispatcher, grasping the only straw available, says, “Croker, can you fly to Seattle?”

I have a long book and I’m on double overtime for every hour I’m awake until I get home. My wife is out of town. How can I not? He buys the last two remaining first-class seats (one for me, one for the AEV — passenger name: “Painting Croker”) — and books one item of personal luggage. The president of the company, who had thought he was going to have a quiet evening at home, goes to the truck yard, picks up a truck, and drives to the airport, BUT not having driven a truck himself for a few years, he forgets that trucks can’t use the Queens-Midtown Tunnel, so the cops turn him around on the approach (no mean feat in itself, but better than trying to drive a 13’1” truck through a 12’9” tunnel) and he has to use the Queensboro Bridge, so he doesn’t get to JFK until about 3:00AM. In the meantime, the dispatcher has called the gallery owner (!), obtained permission for our cockamamie scheme (!!), gone to the warehouse, and opened up the crate shop. It is now about 4:00AM; check-in time for our flight is 8:30.

Somewhere in here, I manage to arrange a dog-sitter for Pickle and Chesty, my two miniature dachshunds.

We open the crate, unwrap and measure the painting and OOPS! The painting, in its frame, is too big to qualify as carry-on. Frantic call to the airline: if we unframe it and only wrap it in cardboard, it’ll be ¼” less than the maximum allowable size. Because I’m the only guy in the whole lashup who has actually done this kind of work, I get to pop the AEV out of the frame and encase it in the smallest possible package, where it is now completely vulnerable to climatic change, shock and vibration. The crate, into which the frame now goes, is too big to check as personal luggage; we have to remove all the corner battens and the skids. This is OK, because now it in no way resembles a fine-arts crate, and will not attract undue attention. Call to the recipient in Seattle: can you have a framer meet the aircraft in a climate-controlled truck and reframe the piece on the way to Spielberg’s? YES! (I’m not sure anybody – except the FAA — ever says “no” to Spielberg.) The dispatcher starts writing up waybills. I take up donations from everybody present and clean out all the petty cash drawers in the office in case I need cash for emergency expenses (or, possibly, bribes).

We wake the local trucking dispatcher from a drunken stupor: get in here and take the two Crokers (Robert and Painting) to JFK Passenger Terminal NOWNOWNOW. No, you may not shower and brush your teeth. We don’t care how you smell. Truck routes take too long. Use the GM’s private car — he parks it across the street.

The garage won’t release the car without written authority. Call the GM to fax an authorization form and….

Seven o’clock: Hot damn, we’re off! Pedal to the metal, blitz up Second Avenue, green lights all the way – through the Queens Midtown Tunnel (no sweat) – onto the Brooklyn Queens Expressway –

Bridge Repair. Traffic jam. Residual rubbernecking, Gaper delay. Shit. Shitshitshitshitshit. We can’t even report: no cellphones in those days. Stuck in a sea of cars. Nothing to do but… waaitaminnit! the car is moving — slowly, dreamily drifting into the rightmost lane — towards a sedan. I look at the driver, and HE’S ASLEEP AT THE WHEEL! Alerted by my inchoate screech of panicked terror, he hits the brake within millimeters of a rear-ender.

Suddenly, the gods smile, the traffic jam breaks – run fer daylight, Bubber! — and we get to JFK on time, our relationship a little strained. I bail out with the painting, meet two rentacops, the driver checks the crated frame streetside, and I proceed to the check-in counter, where I am last in line.

The painting’s too big to go through the luggage X-ray.






Rentacops to the rescue. They’re pals with the JFK Chief of Security. I unpack the painting in the security HQ so as not to reveal the contents to the hoi polloi. Having anticipated the problem (for once), I’ve brought a selection of archival and waterproof tapes and a


which I cheerfully surrender after one use, receiving in return an official receipt and several hostile glares. In the meantime, the flight is boarding without me.

Hah! I’m on the aircraft, where there’s some more curiosity about what this thing is that’s causing so much trouble.

“No, I can’t tell you what it is.”
“Sorry, sir, but no matter what the customer representative told you, you can’t strap it into the seat you bought for it; that’s a safety hazard, and they should’ve told you that…. It has to go into the luggage compartment.”

It doesn’t fit. I broker a deal with a flight attendant to store it with her personal luggage. My part of the deal is to tell her what it is when I de-plane in Seattle; her part is to put me in the nearest seat so I can see it at all times and to keep me awake for the duration of the flight.

I’m in my big, comfortable first-class seat. It’s really big and soft and comfortable and warm, and I haven’t been asleep for 24 hours or so, and I’m chucky-jam full of adrenaline, and I’m just about to… “May I have your attention, passengers: due to unexpected weather conditions in Seattle, our flight will be delayed for an indeterminate amount of time. We’ll keep you informed of changes, and we thank you for your patience….”

One of the main rules of being a courier for an AEV is that you must not let the object, unsecured, out of your sight.

I cannot, I will not go to sleep.


I cannot, I will not go to sleep.


I cannot, I will not go to sleep.

“Excuse me, Miss – may I have some coffee?”


I cannot, I will not go to sleep.


My fellow first-class passengers get to drink piña coladas and martinis. And sleep.

“Excuse me, Miss – may I have some more coffee?”

When we finally touch down at SEA-TAC on December 24th (about 6:30PM PST –Spielberg’s dinner is on for eight), as the last — and maybe the only — aircraft to do so that evening, in The Forgotten War, it’s Christmas, too: 1950, and anybody who’s not dead, injured, or frostbitten is more exhausted than I’ll ever be, and I have mentally rehearsed my repertoire of Long, Boring, Obscure English and Scottish Popular Ballads and Unintelligible American Folk Songs to perfection.

The airport is snowed in and shut down. Vehicular traffic is stopped in both directions. Nothing is moving. I’m standing alone in the snow beside a crate on the tarmac with a barely protected — it can now be told — Monet landscape under my arm. It’s Christmas Eve. I’ve had no sleep for 36 hours. I have no return ticket, no hotel reservation, no local transportation, and no change of clothes. I know nobody in Seattle. My bladder is awash in coffee, my nerves ajangle with caffeine, and my mind numb with fatigue, Scottish dialect, and Korean place-names.

On the frontage road, I see flashing lights and hear a distant siren. It’s a Seattle PD Emergency Services vehicle, struggling through the halted traffic. Some poor schmuck’s having a worse Christmas than I am….

A few minutes later, the ambulance breaks out onto the tarmac. Maybe they’ll take me to a hospital, I think. Door opens; a shadowy figure looms, speaks, “We’re from A_____ Fine Arts. Are you Robert Croker?”

“I don’t remember. Here’s the painting; here’s the frame. Here’s the waybill. Sign and date here. This is your copy. Tell Steven Merry Christmas from C______ F___ A____. Where’s the head? I really gotta take a leak.”

They start opening the crate before the doors shut.

I’m slogging through the snow toward what I hope is a motel, about a mile or so away. (At least it’s not North Korea.) When I get there, I go straight to the bar, where I’m the only customer. Barkeep says, “Last call in five, Buddy.” I can get a room later, if they have one: “Four Martinis, bone dry, olives.” He doesn’t blink; lines ‘em up, pours ‘em out. I think, “Shit. Franz Kline would’a’ ordered six….”

There’s a room; the shower is an almost spiritual experience. Snowed in again in Chicago, I spend the next night in the O’Hare airport, so it’s another two days before I get home, still wearing the clothes I started in. Pickle and Chesty are glad to see me (I probably smell really good…). The whole operation cost the client close to $15,000, but Spielberg liked the painting, so everybody made out OK. And for all my troubles and hours of overtime I didn’t have to go back to work for a month.



Robert Croker is an artist who has been based in Philadelphia since 2003. Born in Louisiana and raised in Atlanta, Georgia, he holds a BFA from Georgia State University (’64) an MFA from The University of Arizona (’66) and studied at the Art Students’ League of New York. He taught at LaGrange College and the University of Georgia and has worked as a professional art handler, preparator, and collections manager for 40 years, working with internationally-recognized collections at the Soloman R. Guggenheim Museum, Dia Art Foundation, The New-York Historical Society, and many more.