By Mike Faricy
In March I left Teresa in Dublin and flew home to Minnesota armed with the knowledge that when I saw her in nine weeks for an Irish wedding we had to attend I would ask her to marry me. We’ve carried on a long distance relationship for years, no pressure from her, it was me who wanted to take it to the next level. I’m 56, spent time in the Army, raised three kids, run my own business, have been kicked around the block a number of times, how hard could this possibly be? Famous last words.
The first thing I did was send my passport to Passport Control in Philadelphia; though still current for three more years, I needed more pages. That’s Department of State Form 4085 for anyone interested. Next, I had the brainstorm to purchase the diamonds myself and have a ring specially made. Third, I had to inform/consult my three adult children along with Teresa’s daughter who works for the Irish Distiller’s Association in New York City. I immediately learned I was out of my element looking at diamonds, color, clarity, weight and a hefty price tag had me quickly returning the task of finding three matched stones to the hands of a jeweler friend where I should have left it in the first place. I booked my flight at four weeks out and got a reasonable deal via Continental Air, given the season. I planned to take a red eye into Newark, spending the afternoon with Teresa’s daughter in New York City asking her for her Mother’s hand, then taking the late flight to Dublin where I would pop the question. My plan was flawless.
With three weeks to go the jeweler located matched stones, the ring would be ready when I had my three geniuses over for dinner to inform them of my intentions, at this stage, other than the jeweler and myself no one knew. I casually called the toll-free number to check on my passport. After negotiating the Federal government’s idea of a user friendly touch tone system the recording informed me that they only dealt with requests fourteen days from the international travel date but if I cared to email my request they would answer my email in three weeks. I suddenly had that nagging feeling where past experience tells you things are about to go the wrong way.
I emailed Teresa’s daughter in New York and requested an afternoon to take her to a late lunch ostensibly to catch up, requesting she not mention my visit to her Mother. The young woman graciously replied, not adding what I’m sure was her chagrin at burning a half day’s vacation to meet with her Mother’s doddering boyfriend. The jeweler called a week later to inform me the ring was ready. I scheduled dinner with my three geniuses for a week before I departed the only time we could all get together.
At 7:00 AM, fourteen days prior to my departure date, I phoned passport control. After an hour and twenty-three minutes on hold I received a nine digit locator number from a helpful live body who informed me that although I sent my passport to Philadelphia it was now in the Charleston facility. Unfortunately she couldn’t do any more until I was ten days out from my departure date. There was that nagging feeling again.
At ten days from my departure date and with the government touch tone system opening at 6:00 AM EST I set my alarm for 5:00 AM, remained on hold from 5:05 until 7:15 when my cordless phone began to beep signaling a low battery. At 7:25 a recorded message came on line and cheerfully said “thank you” before promptly hanging up. I phoned intermittently throughout the day and most of the next day with the same result. It was now the weekend, I had the ring which cost me more money than a number of cars I’ve owned. I had dinner scheduled with my children. I had my plane tickets. I had my afternoon meeting in New York scheduled with Teresa’s daughter. I had my new shirt and tie for the wedding we were going to attend. I also had a growing fear that my passport was lost somewhere within the vast government system. In my weaker moments I envisioned it being used as a coaster under a coffee mug on someone’s government gray desk deep in the bowels of ‘Charleston’.
Monday morning I set the alarm for 5:00 AM and with five working days before departure I ventured into the touch tone maze. The system had been changed over the weekend and would not allow me to remain on hold, after fifteen minutes the cheerful electronic voice simply said ‘thank you’ and hung up. After the fifth time even I was beginning to get the message, I gave it one final shot when lo and behold I got a warm body who worried me when I told her I was calling from Minnesota.
“Is that anywhere near Charleston?”
“No, it’s in the Midwest, north of Chicago.”
She seemed to brighten at this additional information and provided a number to phone so I could arrange an appointment at the Chicago office for a new passport. “They can issue a passport in one day if they need to, and at this stage that might be your best option, your sort of running out of time,” she optimistically informed me. Since they had my passport for the past two months and I was still waiting for new pages I wasn’t quite prepared to share her optimism. The touch-tone system for scheduling appointments has a separate set of commands for the morning and afternoon of each day you attempt to schedule an appointment, not that an open time slot exists anyway. The system informed me that no appointments were available, morning or afternoon of any day, up through and including my date of departure. Just for the sake of added pain I foolishly tried the Seattle, New Orleans and St. Louis offices obtaining the same result. “No appointment available,” the electronic voice cheerfully informed me. It informed me once for the morning, once for the afternoon, for each day including the weekend and my departure date—eight days, morning and afternoon multiplied by four facilities equals a total of sixty-four separate times I listened to “No appointment available.” I attempted to phone the passport customer help number a few dozen times throughout the day but never got through “Due to the high volume of calls . . . ”
My adult children came over for dinner that evening and after cheers, hugs, kisses, trying on the ring and lapping up my best wine they suggested I call my Congressman’s office, proof positive of Darwin’s theory of evolution, they’re a lot smarter than the old man. My daughter even mentioned she dated a guy as a sophomore in high school fifteen years ago who is now on Senator Norm Coleman’s staff. The following morning, Tuesday, four working days before my scheduled departure I set my alarm for my now customary 5:00 AM wake up in the futile hope I might be able to handle this myself. At 8:00 I slammed down the phone before the electronic voice told me for a twelfth time that “due to the high volume of calls, blah, blah, blah.” Desperate, I phoned Senator Coleman’s office, by 8:10 I was emailing passport and flight information to staff who deal with this government abuse every day.
At 8:15 I phoned my daughter at her office, “Didn’t you tell me you had an old boyfriend on that congressional staff, call him, please!”
“Daddy, no, he’ll think I’m stalking him or something.”
Reminders of a smashed car at homecoming, prom dresses, college tuition, that arrest at the Allman Brothers concert and anything else I could pull out of my hat got the job done. I hung up the phone hoping he wasn’t the kid I disliked so much I told him not to park in front of our house. She phoned me back in fifteen minutes to say he was nice enough to laugh when he heard her request, it seems he did park in front of the house and he would do what he could. I decided I’d get passport photos taken in the odd chance that a new passport became my option.
9:15 Wednesday night, two working days before I depart. That’s 10:15 Washington DC time, I received a call from a staff woman in Senator Coleman’s DC office. “There’s some sort of problem with scanning your photo image, they’ve tried four or five times,” she told me. Small wonder, I look like a war criminal in the passport photo.
I told her I had new photos and could overnight them to the Charleston facility, then proceeded to get pertinent department address information. Finally it felt like things might be happening with just 2 working days before I departed.
At 11:30, that’s 12:30 Washington DC time, she phoned again sounding very tired. “You’re the last one I had to check on, it scanned, it’s sitting in ‘QC’ which usually goes pretty fast so I’ll call you tomorrow with a tracking number. They’ll overnight your passport to you.” In the course of conversation I learn I’m one of about 50 passport headaches she’s working on just that night. That’s just one Congressional office, this one night, do the math. I didn’t hear anything all day Thursday. At 9:00 AM on Friday I phoned Washington, the last working day before my scheduled departure, I was put through immediately, “Oh yeah, sorry, they were slow getting me shipping numbers,” saying this like it was not the first time, which I’m sure it wasn’t. “Your package is on the Fed Ex truck in St. Paul, it should be delivered by 10:30 this morning.”
I thanked her profusely, hung up and ran to my window, a Fed Ex truck was literally pulling up across the street and I dashed out the door. The driver had a look on his face that suggested ‘lunatic alert’ as I dodged between oncoming cars to get to him.
“You won’t believe what I’ve been through to get this package,” I exclaimed, I was thinking of hugging him by the way.
“Was it something we goofed up?” he asked, genuinely concerned.
“No, our Federal Government.”
“Oh, passports,” he said glancing at the return address. “I feel your pain, my wife and I got ours the day before we were supposed to leave but the kid’s didn’t come until two weeks later.”
I was standing in my dining room tearing open the Fed Ex envelope half expecting to see the passport of some woman from Dallas, but no, it was actually mine. The new twelve page insert could have been inserted by my seven year old grandson in less time than it takes to type these two lines and I have no doubt that if I hadn’t asked for congressional help I would have forfeited my $850 ticket not to mention the grand plan for our future.
Thirty-six hours later I was seated outdoors at a New York restaurant, on a sunny afternoon with a gorgeous young red head I hoped would soon be my step-daughter. She cried when I asked permission to marry her mom and showed her the ring, then laughed because she figured people at the neighboring table would think this old guy was proposing to her. My geniuses called her that night to welcome her into the family, she’s always wanted brothers and sisters. Be careful what you wish for, darling.
The following night, at 5:12 Dublin time, I threw my rehearsed grand speeches out the window, told my tale of the passport, the ring, the dinner with my three, and why I’d secretly spent the previous afternoon with her daughter in New York. Teresa said yes! All four of our kids, already conspiring against me, phoned later that night with congratulations and party plans.