Thursday, July 25, 2013
Once again, a member of the writing class has shared a wonderful story. I can't imagine being this brave and this lucky! Although times were different then, no doubt luck had a huge part in his adventure!
Sometimes when I get caught shaking my head at the perceived foolishness of the young, which is so easy to do at my age, up pops all my past mistakes, my hubris, my misconceptions, risks taken in ignorance. One such a blissfully ignorant undertaking still makes me shake my head in wonder at my stupidity, and I shiver.
My first baby girl was born in August of 1964. The miracle of this event hit me like a bolt of lightning after the plodding months of pregnancy. This beautiful little being was mine, my responsibility, my joy, one reason for being. My first thoughts went to my mother. I had to go home to have her hold my Christina, share my joy with her.
Since home was over 6,000 miles away, this was not so easy to do. I had lived in Oregon for two years. My husband and I were married in my hometown in Germany. It took six months to get my visa so that I could come to the USA with him. My German passport was still valid at that time. It had been granted several years earlier for a high school trip to Great Britain. I was set to travel to America and to exciting adventures in my new home.
A green card was sent to me several months after we arrived in Baker, called Baker City today. I was adjusting well to the American way of life, but the need to go back and connect with my mother was now overwhelming. So when Christina was nine months old and the sweetest easiest baby ever, I had her ticket and mine to Hannover, Germany via New York and Frankfurt. Since Christina was an American citizen and I was not, she had to have her own passport with this adorable little passport picture.
When I checked my own passport, I noticed that it had expired a few months earlier. Here comes the incredible act of foolishness I tended to be possessed with in my youth. I assumed that I no longer needed this passport. I did not find it necessary to check with anyone who knew anything about traveling across borders. On my green card it said “in lieu of a passport” and that was good enough for me. Off I flew with the baby in my arms to New York.
I got to New York without any trouble, no security checks. There was a special airplane bassinet and other pampering from a not overworked attendant for Christina and me, after all this was 1965.
At La Guardia airport I checked in at the International desk of Lufthansa to continue my trip. The agent looked at me with open mouth when I presented my tickets, Christina’s passport and my green card.
“You have to go back,” he said, you cannot leave this country without a passport.
“Impossible,” I replied, “I paid for this expensive trip, and I have to keep going!”
Visions of an embarrassing return to Baker without having been in Germany, knowing that I would not have a chance to repeat this trip for a long time kept me fighting. I really do not remember how I talked them into letting me board the plane. I told everyone I had a passport in Baker and I would send for it as soon as I got to Germany, leaving out that that passport was expired. The knowledge I have now that it is a lot easier to allow someone to leave a country than to get permission for entrance probably had something to do with it. In any case we were on our way across the ocean.
In Frankfurt I climbed down the stairs of the plane with a bit more apprehension and continued to go through customs. There was no discussion, just a look of disbelief and I was led into a small office. Here someone took Christina out of my arms. I started to panic but was told that she would be fine at an in-airport nursery close to us. Then the questioning began: Where was I from, where was I going, why was I going, had I run away, was I stateless, was I a fugitive, a refugee and on and on. I told my story and told it again – my interrogators could hardly believe that someone could be so blissfully ignorant, so dumb, so careless about international travel. They really did not know what to do with me and my baby.
Finally, they decided to call my hometown and check with the courthouse there about the information I had given them – birth date, place, address of my mother, etc. It all checked out and all was as I had said. Then it was decided that I could travel home since I was going to send for my passport from there. A parting remark from one of the agents was. “Make sure you have that passport when you return. If you think we were hard on you, it will be much, much harder to get back into the USA!” But I would have my passport renewed in my hometown, and I would be fine.
It was wonderful to be back home after three years. I showed off my baby wherever I went, Mutti cooked my favorite dishes, friends and relatives wanted to hear about my new life and told me about their changes. My husband had sent my expired passport. I went to the courthouse with confidence. “No,” they said, “we cannot renew your passport. You are no longer a resident here.”
I was stunned. I knew better than to argue with a German bureaucrat. I slunk home to consider my options. What amazes me today is that I did not seek advice from anyone, nor that anyone asked me about my passport. Everyone must have assumed that I knew what I was doing, and I was too embarrassed to tell them otherwise.
I decided (or did I decide?) to do nothing and so the last day of my stay came and my family escorted Christina and me back to the airport in Hannover. Our tickets were checked, suitcases weighed, but no one asked for passports since we were leaving the country. Today that would never happen! I looked with foreboding at my mother and uncle and aunt who were hugging Christina and kissing me ‘Good Bye.’ Would I see them again very soon, or worse, would I not see them for a long time, locked up somewhere with my baby on Ellis Island? I didn’t even consider that my precious baby could be taken from me ... which has happened, as I now know, to other immigrants with faulty papers.
We arrived in New York tired of course. Customs loomed. I handed over the passports, Christina’s on top with her immunization records all in order, legal, and my passport below, outdated. The middle aged customs official smiled at us and started paging through the green booklets. I was waiting for the explosion, for the open mouth, the incredulous questions. But none came. He handed the passports back and I moved on. I could have hugged him, but no, I moved coolly on. He had not notice the date of expiration in my passport, and I was back in the USA! We probably looked so innocent, so average, young mother with baby going home. It never occurred to him that there could be something wrong, that someone would dare to travel with incomplete papers. Forty-eight years later I can still see the face of that agent and his absolutely wonderful smile.
The year after I got back I applied for citizenship. It was granted just before my second child was born. Being separated from my children because of my different nationality had been giving me nightmares. There are lots of stories of immigrants being sent back to their country of origin while the children, American citizens, have to remain here in the USA. I have heard of people trying to enter with incomplete paper who were not allowed back in the USA for many years. I shake my head at my incredible foolishness. I was young, I was lucky, but at least I now always carry an up to date passport!
– Kaethe W.
Kaethe, thank you for sharing!