At any time, across the country, legions of clandestine operations of a particular sort are afoot.

They are assignments of utmost importance that usually require lies, covert maneuvers and the highest order of secrecy. Success is crucial. Fail, and your bungled mission will be recounted for decades to come.

Perhaps, even generations.

It's the Big Wedding Proposal, a phenomenon that has become an essential pitstop in the journey between first date and happily ever after.

Guys are jetting their girlfriends to Paris for surprise romantic trips, filling hotel rooms with dozens of red roses, organizing labyrinthine treasure hunts that lead to diamond rings. Recently, Baltimorean Mary Cook received her own high-profile proposal when her Army beau Capt. Ciro Stephano popped the question from Afghanistan on the Late Show with David Letterman.

Once upon a time, a guy thought he was doing his part as long as he bought a ring and got down on one knee. These days, however, simple is out and elaborate is in.

Thanks to a combination of changes in societal expectations and the prevalence of super-romantic proposals in movies and the media, popping the question now looms as large in the love story as the petal-strewn walk down the aisle.

"I always tell guys," said Fred Cuellar, author of The World's Greatest Proposals'(Casablanca Press, $9.95), "This is the story that is going to be repeated over and over. You're either going to be the hero in this story or you're going to be the mule. The choice is yours.'"

Elaborate proposals have become especially popular in the last five years, wedding industry observers say, due to pop culture's increasing emphasis on romance and marriage.

Proposals have become much more significant in movies like last year's Sweet Home Alabama, where Reese Witherspoon was led into a darkened Tiffany & Co. so her boyfriend could pop the question - and invite her to pick any ring in the room. The media, too, have been flooded with many things wedding-related - from the splashy celebrity wedding specials on television that dwell on each saccharine detail to magazine covers like Us Weekly's recent "Hollywood's 25 Most Romantic Proposals." (We learn that actor Brendan Fraser, for example, took a self-timed Polaroid of himself and actress Afton Smith on a bridge in Paris. As the picture appeared, she realized he had opened his jacket to display a note that said, "Marry Me.")

And then there are the many girlfriends who enjoy breathlessly sharing stories of swoon-worthy askings and the plethora of Web sites that catalog big-deal proposals.

"Women expect a lot now," said Brian Boteler, a 26-year-old Eldersburg mortgage broker who recently popped the question during a surprise hot-air balloon ride over bucolic Carroll County.

"It's society, movies, friends," he added. "Everyone wants to one-up everyone else. I was trying to think of something different than just going to dinner and getting on one knee. I just didn't want to be typical."

'Expectations are high'



Antonia van der Meer, editor-in-chief of Modern Bride, said the trend of big proposals is due in part to the fact that many couples now tend to date longer before getting married.

"Most couples who are at the point where he's about to propose, she knows it's coming, often because they've already been ring shopping, they've had some discussions, so it's not a total shock," she said.

"The reality is that expectations are high because there's no surprise," added Carley Roney, co-founder of Theknot.com. "So you have to manufacture a different kind of surprise, something that is above and beyond the norm. You've waited so long for it, and everyone's hearing all the big stories, and it feels like a cop-out if he's the guy who just gets down on bended knee."

And so you have guys focusing their efforts on Operation Cinderellas that won't put them to shame.