For most folks in these United States, the almost-holiday of Halloween isn’t much of a holiday at all – and it hardly bears any philosophical importance of note beyond, perhaps, deep debates about how many pieces of sugary candy somebody can eat in a day before they develop instantaneous diabetes.
Around our little slice of swamp, however, Halloween is a red-letter day. But that’s not because we’re an uncontrollable mob of candy-lovers, or because we’re stoked with anticipation of Pastor’s upcoming All-Saints Day sermon.
The morning of October 31, 2005 was chilly and rainy as my wife and I stood outside the US Embassy in Guatemala City, trying to keep our 8-month-old son warm and dry while simultaneously digging through our paperwork to find the appointment slip demanded by Mister Whackenhut Guard with a Shotgun and an Attitude.
I was pissed off, to put it mildly; pissed off in a very special look-you-little-shit-I’m-an-American sort of way. It was 8 a.m., cold, and raining on my wife and baby and here I was debating civics lessons with a snotty, five foot tall rent-a-cop just to gain access to my own damned embassy.
Our embassy experience wasn’t exactly a jolly welcome to Guatemala’s little slice of the land of the free and the home of the brave. The place was a cold and imposing urban fortress, guarded not by nattily-attired US Marines but by some seriously unhelpful local security grunts. The Whackenhut Ranger was getting just as soaked as we were, though, so after we produced the appointment slip we were allowed to make our way through the metal detectors and concrete truck-bomb barriers and into the embassy.
After 10 days in Guatemala City, we had only managed to gain our 8:30 a.m. interview appointment by dint of a small miracle. A few days earlier we had been told that the embassy staff couldn’t possibly find time for our 10-minute interview any earlier than Nov. 14. Since we didn’t fly back down to Guatemala until the embassy had informed us our appointment would be within a week, we were extremely aggravated to discover ‘one week’ actually meant ‘three weeks, maybe’.
And then – a minor miracle. Just moments after receiving anxious inquiries about our case from the offices of US Rep. Cliff Stearns and US Sen. Bill Nelson, the embassy staff discovered they had an open appointment much earlier.
Never, ever underestimate the political power of four registered-voter grandparents armed with telephones.
As our embassy interview concluded and we handed over the requisite paperwork, the staffer informed us that our son’s visa would be issued that afternoon at 2:30 p.m. She handed me another appointment slip for the Whackenhut Rangers. I couldn’t help notice that behind her, in the easily-visible embassy offices, most of the rest of the staff was very busy decorating the place for Halloween.
“You’re not closing up early today for any sort of Halloween party, are you?” I asked nervously. By many accounts of some fellow Americans we had met, the embassy kept notoriously spotty hours and seemed to close up and cancel appointments whenever they felt like it.
“Probably not,” she shrugged.
Great. Don’t mind us. We only have a flight back home booked tomorrow.
When we returned around 2 p.m., the embassy lobby was a good deal more crowded. Most of the Guatemalans waiting for their visas were at the very end of a process that had stretched across years. We shared their anxiety as the embassy staff called out names in groups of 6 or 7.
2:30 came and went. Then it was 2:45. 3:00 p.m.
“They close at four, don’t they?” my wife and I asked each other about ten times in five minutes.
3:15 p.m. and another group of names. “Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, Foster.”
The embassy staffer behind the little window smiled as we propped Juan Carlos up on the counter. She was wearing a nice set of vampire fangs. We encountered a lot of people – adults – sporting fangs that day. No ‘Dracula’ costumes or anything like that. Just fangs.
It took away a little something of the Cecile B. Demille drama of the moment, I must say, to be handed our son’s visa documents by a fanged functionary.
But there it was. A thick manilla envelope with an embassy seal over the flap, to be handed – unopened – to an immigration officer at the airport in the US.
As we left the embassy it was still cloudy and crappy outside. The Whackenhut Rangers were dispersing the line at the security checkpoint because the embassy was getting ready to close. I checked my watch. 3:45 p.m., October 31, 2005.
It was official. We were a family.