I got my new passport in the mail, ahead of a trip to London next month. There I am, looking slightly sinister, like a man caught in a spy ring. I immediately placed it beside my previous passport, issued in August, 1969. You want sinister? Here’s a terrorist’s mug shot if ever there was one. The forelock of shame. The thwarted, gloomy gaze. There’s a story there.
It was the best of times and the worst of times. Simultaneously.
Best of times: I was twenty, I was in the village of Uig in the Isle of Skye, Scotland, it was summer, and I was off to write poetry in a Scottish meadow where sheep were grazing. I had flown to Scotland and hitchhiked from Glasgow to the Edinburgh Arts Festival to meet up with a girl I’d met the year before while studying in London. This time it hadn’t gone well. But never mind. I’d seen Ian McKellen in Edward II and the British premiere of “Easy Rider” with a gang of Scottish bikers occupying the front rows. I’d slept on a hill in Oban. And now I was in the Isle of Skye.
I took a path from the youth hostel where I was staying, to the sheep meadow, and I wandered. (Did I actually write anything poetic in my journal? I doubt it.) I was guessing my way back. There was a ravine, the River Rha, cutting me off from the other side. But ravines, I reasoned, grew shallower the further upstream they went, did they not? I would outwalk it. When I judged I had gone far enough, I headed down. I soon discovered that the ravine was, if anything, steeper here, not shallower. And then I finagled myself onto a small rocky outcropping with nowhere to go. A double waterfall was roaring below me. In one hand I had the leather pocket secretary that contained my journal and a few other items: namely, money, passport, and airline ticket home. Perhaps I had been reluctant to leave them in the hostel. Perhaps I was by temperament a hobo, carrying all my possessions with me. Withal, as they say, I was in a tight spot.
I called for help, the first time I had ever dared to announce to the wide world that I was helpless. No one could hear me, probably, over the roar of the waterfall. I was very scared. I considered my life, only twenty years of it, and the possibility that it would be over, done, if I made this blunder even worse.
I needed two hands. The right hand was busy holding the leather organizer. I needed to free it for more important work. It did not occur to me that I could shove the amanuensis into my pants or my sock. I should have. My own solution was more of a cartoon idea, a light bulb in a thought balloon. I would toss the thing onto a flattish square foot of grass a few feet away. Then I would maneuver myself to a more advantageous position, and then I would retrieve the thing and I would be all right. But it started with the toss. So I readied the toss. It was not a difficult toss. Just a gentle, short arc. Easy. Here we go. Toss…plop… And I watched it continue its not-so-flat momentum and tumble over the side into oblivion. My money, my passport, my airline ticket. And my poetry, let’s not forget my poetry, which was the reason I’d brought the damn thing.
No time to indulge in shock. I had two hands. I used them to get down the ravine, around the waterfall, and up the other side. Got back to the youth hostel, babbled my tale to a fellow youth, who immediately organized a search party for my organizer the following day, reasoning that the waterfall had kept it pinned in one place. I tagged along, watching my heroes have a hell of a good time manfully diving and coming up empty. I took a train back to Edinburgh, I assume with a loan of money from the youth hostel. Got a new airline ticket. It happens. And got a new emergency passport at the U.S. Consulate, the one with the woebegone, worst-of-times, mug shot, hours before flying home to my comparatively uneventful life in college.
Passports sure have changed. This new one is filled with engravings of iconic Americana: Francis Scott Key beholding the star-spangled banner, eagles, mountains, Liberty Bell, locomotive, clipper ship, etc. Looks like a warehouse for dollar bill art. Also lots of epigrams, like this one from LBJ: “…Is our world gone? We say ‘Farewell.’ Is a new world coming? We welcome it — and we will bend it to the hopes of man.”
Of course the image that I return to is the one on page 2 opposite the We the People page: me in the new world, age 61, bent to the hopes of my family, my ego, humankind, whatever. Set down next to the mug shot of the woebegone mad bomber of Uig, forty-one years ago. I don’t say “Farewell” to him, obviously. In fact, I'd like to import from him some of that daring to be dumb, to risk, to lose. And also tell him, “It gets better. But you’ll never be twenty again.”
We are, it turns out, our passports.