Fear of Flying


Preparing for a trip to Israel this month, I was filled with anxiety that had nothing to do with Saddam Hussein's Scud missiles. It's just that the last time we tried to leave the country, we barely made it.

A month before that trip, my wife, Michele, tried to get a passport for our daughter, Francine, whom we were in the process of adopting. After obtaining a copy of Francine's birth certificate and going to the wrong place a couple of times because of bad advice, Michele finally arrived at the office in midtown Manhattan where the State Department issues "emergency" passports for an extra fee.

But only if your papers are in order. We thought ours were. The passport clerk disagreed, pointing out that our letter of guardianship mentioned not only Michele and me but also Francine's previous guardian, her biological grandmother.

Rather than produce a fresh document, the family court clerk had slapped some correction fluid over the grandmother's name and scrawled our names in its place. But he had overlooked a second reference to her, a mistake we had never noticed before.

Neither had anyone else. We had used the letter to enroll Francine in school, get her covered by health insurance, and obtain medical treatment–all without a problem. But now the passport clerk insisted that the court clerk's oversight rendered the letter invalid.

We called our lawyer, who said the government had no right to deny us a passport: Regardless of how many names appeared on the letter, we were clearly Francine's guardians. Michele went back to the passport office, but the clerk was not impressed by this argument.

It was Friday, and our flight was scheduled to leave on Monday night, so we were getting nervous. Our lawyer said it was unlikely that he could get the family court to issue a new letter of guardianship on such short notice. He suggested that we try to find a less persnickety clerk.

It seemed to be our only option, so on Monday morning we were back at the passport office. Instead of returning to the clerk who had twice rebuffed Michele, we stood in the long, snaking line, pretending to be fresh arrivals.

The closer we got to the front, the more worried we became that Michele would be recognized. When our turn came, the window that lit up was too close to the original clerk for comfort.

We let the man behind us go instead. He thanked us profusely. Now we started to worry that we would call attention to ourselves by being so inexplicably generous, so we decided to take the next available window.

It was right next to the window of the clerk who seemed determined to sabotage our vacation. As we handed over our documents and money, Michele shielded her face with her hand.

"This is the letter of guardianship?" the new clerk asked. We nodded. I was sweating like a drug smuggler watching a dog sniff his suitcase.

"Who's Evelyn?" he asked, pointing to the grandmother's name. My heart skipped a beat. "Her grandmother," we said in unison.

"Oh," he said. "Excuse me." As he walked off, we wondered aloud, in the muffled tones of co-conspirators, whether the jig was up.

For a few paranoid moments, I was convinced that the clerk was deliberately stalling, waiting for us to crack. I even imagined that a microphone was hidden in the grill beneath the window, transmitting our incriminating remarks to a room in the back.

But soon the clerk reappeared and gave us a receipt that allowed us to claim a passport for Francine that afternoon. We didn't quite believe it until we actually had the little blue booklet in our hands.

When we arrived at the airport that night, an airline employee noticed that Francine's ticket had a different last name than her passport. Given our recent experience, we thought she was about to turn us away, but instead she just printed out a new ticket.

This year, I made sure to buy Francine's ticket under her legal name, the one on the passport, so there would be no last-minute scares. But a couple weeks before the flight, we were summoned to court for the last step in the adoption process.

Now Francine had a new legal name that did not match the one on her passport or ticket. Somehow we made it to Israel anyway.