In the Words of General Jack Galvin, 1929-2015

Jack Galvin, taken in his Fletcher  School office on October 18, 1999.

Jack Galvin, taken in his Fletcher School office on October 18, 1999.

John R. “Jack” Galvin, the son of a bricklayer who rose to become  NATO supreme allied commander of European forces and dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy died on September 25, of complications of Parkinson’s disease.

New York Times and Washington Post obituaries both published solid roundups of a remarkable man and career. I’m sure his autobiography, which I’ve been anticipating for years now and just learned was published in April, goes into a lot more detail. Gen. David Petraeus, whom Galvin mentored, wrote the foreword.

Galvin was a rare individual: a humanitarian and humanist who climbed to the greatest military heights. A couple of years after I left Fletcher, the writer David Halberstam was in Colorado to receive the Denver Press Club’s Damon Runyon Award.  I approached him and mentioned having back in Medford at the Galvin home – he had spoken to class, and Galvin had invited a few students over the evening before to meet the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist (for whom Galvin had been an important source in Vietnam).

Halberstam became animated at the mention of Galvin’s name. “What a great guy!” Halberstam said. “Can you believe he was a four-star? A four-star!”

Halberstam’s surprise wasn’t at Galvin’s lofty military accomplishments, but rather a comment on Galvin’s temperament and gentle bearing. The man didn’t come across like a “four-star.” There was none of ego or the self-import that so often comes with those who have achieved stratospheric professional standing. Galvin came across as intelligent, thoughtful  guy. As the Washington Post obit put it, he was “a prototypical warrior-intellectual.” A warrior-intellectual, if Galvin was the prototype, is a warrior who comes across as anything but.

What ultimately made Galvin different than most people, though, was that he cared incalculably less about who he was than about what he did. His career advanced in spite of a lifelong habit of doing what he felt was right from the perspectives of those his decisions impacted and that of his ultimate employer, the United States of America.

Galvin taught a course on leadership and management during his years at Fletcher (1995-2000); I was a student in the last of these. I took notes using a laptop – still an odd thing to do 16 years ago. With his passing, I it’s time to go through a few them and post some of the gems, in chronological order. If it’s not in italics, the words are his.

 

March 3, 2000

Followers set the terms of acceptance for leadership. Leadership is a mutually determined actvity. Leaders can’t act without followers. Stengel: “I couldn’t have done it without the team.”

In the Army, you can shoot people if they don’t follow orders—theoretically. We haven’t shot any people like that lately. . .

Think of someone:  Would that person shade the truth for the sake of their own benefit? Turn the truth a little bit? Do you have any reservations about how that person relates to people of whom he/she’s in charge? Does he push other people to lie/do things that lack integrity? Favor friends and cronies and give them advantages over someone else?  A manipulator? Who gets the credit? Do you have any reservations about putting yourself in his/her care? Would this person sacrifice others to get ahead?

How does this person really treat the person he or she is supposed to love? = the family? Is he very nice to people outside the family and very impolite and rough with people inside the family? Willing to admit mistakes? How fair is this person with competitors? How predictable/steady? How much does this person set a culture of integrity? Does he inspire groupthink? What kind of a code of ethics does the organization he works for have?

Galvin then related a story. He had once worked for two-star general Galvin declined to name (but was Keith L. Ware), a Medal of honor winner, for the U.S Army’s information wing. Galvin’s job was to analyze all media editorial content on what was being said about the U.S. Army. This general began changing stuff Galvin gave him. Taking out the negatives. The Justification: “These are hard-working people who don’t need any more bad news on Wednesday.” Galvin looked for another job, ended up worked in McNamara’s office writing the Pentagon Papers with Holbrooke and Gelb and others. “This general was killed in action in Vietnam later; a good man, but hadn’t thought it through very well. The generals needed that information.”

If you’re going to complain, do it in a positive way to enact a positive outcome.

If you are empowering people and doing a good job, then you should be able to move on without problem.

Can’t always make these family vs. work choices. Can’t always afford these choices. Middle management in particular. You want to get to a place where you can make these choices.

 

March 10, 2000

We do a lot of talking. Learn to be a good observer. See what’s around you. Listen to a random conversation; see how well or poorly they’re communicating.

One of the most satisfying things in the world is a good conversation with someone who has similar interests. It’s one of the smaller things but one of the finer things in life.

If you want to go up in the world—really up in the world—you have to be comfortable with the people that are up there.

With Margaret Thatcher, you are never at a social event. You are always working. Also, Margaret Thatcher always emphasizes every fourth word.

It wasn’t hard to listen with Margaret Thatcher. There wasn’t much else you could do.

In communications, there’s the carrier wave and the information riding atop it. “I don’t want to talk about that subject” is the carrier wave. The real message is usually, “We’d better talk about it.”

Remember that you’re your own teacher; successful people are excellent learners. They are always trying to learn something else.

If you’re doing a job evaluation, at the beginning, launch it by asking questions about how things are going. As you move up, you’re not talking to peons anymore, but other senior leaders. You can learn a lot. People working for you have tremendous experience already.

In NATO and the U.S. forces, had 12 different four-star generals who worked for me. Many of them were senior to me, coming from other countries.  I was still in charge, and they recognized that.

But how do I go about telling this Norwegian four-star general that I thought something wasn’t well done? You could say it’s beating around the bush, but I asked him how he felt about it. How he felt it turned out. What did he think might have improved things.

Galvin erases a massive chalk-scripted “Please sit in your groups” from the chalkboard and sketches out an intricately planned ambush on the Ho Chi Minh trail. It failed because someone fired early. Galvin and a lieutenant colonel called in the captain who had been in charge. What went wrong?,  they asked. “Smith has 2 weeks left in ‘nam and didn’t want to get killed so he fired early,” the captain said. A very straightforward answer. Galvin and the lieutenant colonel did nothing for two reasons. First, the lieutenant colonel depended on straight information from the captain. And besides, I can understand that the kid was scared. So the message to the captain was: Tell me the truth and things will work out. Don’t tell me the truth and we’ll have a problem. And the second message was: it’s better that that captain handles the situation in a way that he sees is best.

If you don’t feel that people are basically good, you’re going to have some problems.

On reporters: They just interviewed someone else about having a lion as a pet, and now they’re talking to you. And they may not know much about it at all. They are happy if you lead the discussion. This is a matter of initiative; you want to seize the initiative if you can. You don’t want to run the show, but do want to exercise your own will about what will be said. You know more about the subject than they do.

Also: a little bit of silence is not a bad thing. They can make you say more than you want to say, which is what they want—to get you freewheeling, off your plan. Because they feel that something better comes out that way. If you feel that you’ve said enough, you’re probably right. And: if you answer too quickly, it sounds too pat.

The worst people in all of media are the headline editors. They hide in the building and don’t ever come out of the building, don’t care about you or their reporters. They just want a headline. Those are the only people in the media that I really don’t like.

When you’re writing, never use , ‘etc.’ At best, it makes you look lazy; at worst, it makes you look dumb.

 

April 7, 2000

Don’t get mad. You’re at your best when you ought to be mad and you’re not mad.

Getting mad is not the answer; getting over it is the answer.

When you get mad, you get self-righteous, start piling all of the things on your side of the see-saw, leaving the other person nothing.

It’s like crisis: you know that this is the time to get more soft spoken, make sure your mind is clear of garbage so you can see what’s happening, keep your eyes and ears open.

Why should it be lonely? Because I’m at the top because I’m better than anyone else? To me it’s rather a silly notion. If you’re at the top, you should be the most involved person at all in all kinds of ways.

The top is one of those places where you don’t have time to be lonely. But there are times when very, very tough decisions have to be made and standing apart is important.

Whenever you find yourself saying “I’m going to make a decision and that’s it. . .” If you see this happening, let the little voice say, “What the hell am I doing?” and see if there isn’t another way.

People with integrity get ahead, and those who don’t fall behind. Given a zillion exceptions, that’s the way it works.

Never give up, never surrender your ideals. Never surrender yourself.

When hard days come—you can’t give up. Keep on going. You do what you can do. You stay by your principles to the best that you can. But you will make mistakes in life, and sometimes, if you’re like me, they can be very, very costly. It doesn’t do me any good to say, ‘anybody else in the same situation would’ve made the same mistake.’ You have to take responsibility for the mistake. You have to recover the organization—as well as the person—from that mistake.

If you’re not making mistakes, are you not living a life of challenge? Are you growing? When you’re down, say  “Hey, I’m down today, but not down forever.”

A couple of years ago, I asked Henry Kissinger to be our commencement speaker, and he said ‘yes.’ And a couple of months before the date, he said, ‘no.’ He’s felt bad about that, a I’ve done what I can to enhance that. [Kissinger visited Fletcher at Galvin’s invitation in May 2000]

Everybody says [Kissinger] has a big ego, and he does, he’s got the biggest ego you can ever run into. But he can laugh at himself in a nice way. I was with him in Frankfurt, and we went to a small dinner – about this size, about 90 people. There was a short introduction. Kisinger got up and said thank you, I’m glad you didn’t take to much time on the introduction, but actually, a few superlatives would have been alright.

 

April 21, 2000

If West point taught me one thing, it’s how to make a decision when you don’t think you have enough information.

But then: sometimes, waiting is better. If you look back, about half the time the problem would have gone away.

Don’t let the mission slip, where you find yourself doing something else, and not the mission.

There’s a political part to every decision. How do you then put the information out, of a) What might happen? and b) Get these people in with you on this. Have them participate. How can I motivate people to help me with this? How can I build consensus/market the decision? How do I make some friends that I don’t have now? How do I keep everybody on my side?

Remember that very few decisions are a final decision.

In the aftermath of the first Gulf War, Saddam had driven some 450,000 Kurds into the mountains of northern Iraq, where they had become trapped. Galvin, as SACEUR as well as CINCEUR (head of U.S. forces for the European command), visited and found horrendous conditions. I did whatever I could that was legal to get the Kurds out of that situation. At some camps, 31 a day were dying. Kids, mostly. I would bring this up and say, “Are we going to let them all die? Or are we going to get them out of there?” So sometimes the rules were twisted a little bit, but the rules were made for another time.

Listen, I was in trouble with this several times before. When the San Salvador earthquake hit, I had a medical hospital in Honduras. I sent a planeload of doctors and nurses. State Department wasn’t pleased. Got so mad, they said, ‘you pay.’ So I went back to the Department of Defense and they were happy to pay it. Wanted to be seen as being in the act, too.

What if you’re a major military commander with resources near a major disaster? Are you supposed to call Washington and have your coffee?

Commander’s Intent: what would my higher do (if out of contact).

Sometimes I wonder how I ever got to the top.

 What actually happened: remember those punch cards? They lost mine. That was the year my career took off.

 On handling adversity: Nobody gets through this world without a tragedy. You’re not the only one, although it seems like that. If you can help relieve them, then you do. And when it’s beyond your own ability, you try to learn from that.

That adversity has a far, far deeper impact on your capacity, intellect, and ability than the good times do.

When you feel like you can’t call, just don’t know what to say, then you should. Because when it happens to you, you want to hear a friendly voice. “I don’t know what to say to you right now, but I’m pulling for you.”

I think it’s important to always consider yourself an apprentice. You may be a great professional and know lots of things, but it’s a sad thing when people stop learning.

Try to keep the child’s delight in novelty for as long as you can.

Language skills teach you a lot about your own articulateness, learn about other culture, makes you versatile, which is vital if you want to make decision in an environment when there are so many to make.

Careers have their ups and downs.  What’s hard is that people write memoirs that make it look like a straight line. They leave out things they’re not proud of, that don’t enhance their figure. And that’s too bad, because they make as many mistakes as you and I make.

On Success: When you look back at your grandmother or grandfather, you don’t look at them and say, ‘he was a great businessman.’ you say, ‘he was a wonderful person,’ he was unique, he cared.

When you get to the nirvana of leadership people work for you because they think you’re right, because they would feel sad if they let you down, they follow you because they admire you.

Read, read, read, read, read. Across a vast scope; it can be anything. Write, write, write, write, write.

I did unusual things: I went to Columbia University to get a masters in English. I was an infantry soldier. We’re just supposed to grunt. I Wrote about 80 articles – about different things, about tactics and stuff. Then I got jobs writing for the highers. That put me in the front office, so I saw how that worked. And then I had to go talk to other people, built the network. Ended up suggesting speech content. Did that twice for the Supreme Allied Commanders when I was a colonel. Eight years later I was a four-star general in that job.

It was a palimony pony of a career, all speckled.

It’s hard to say, but the thing is not to look for some sort of a golden path to success, but prepare yourself. Read more study more, build your networks, be someone interesting to talk to at a cocktail party.

 

April 28, 2000

Leadership isn’t doing things—it’s getting other people to do things. It’s influencing.

It’s concerned with change. Concerned with action.

We came from a tiny creature. Our tendency is to hide, as it would. Not to act.

When you leave here, your main point has to be your story. Who are you?

When interviewing job candidates: Where do I rate this person on the winner-loser scale? What is their promise? I can listen to a lot of things that tells me what you did in the past. What I’m interested in is what you can do with me now and in the future.

You want to have an interesting story. I grew up here, I have these values, I have these goals in life that I want to achieve, and I think that your organization can help me achieve that, and I can help the organization in the process.

Don’t be too modest about things, being a wallflower when your job is to show who you are. You don’t want to seem too self-deprecating. I heard someone say this as “self defecating” recently.

What he looks for: poise, confidence, articulateness, straightforwardness, a sense of competence, wisdom, knowledge, judgement, energy, drive, commitment, conviction. What kind of an ego? Colin Powell talks about needing to be able to handle big egos, which often come with success. Big egos are a warning sign to me – what deficiencies are these covering up? I also compare that with your contemplative side: are you a thinker and a doer? A cogitator and an agitator? How’s your ability to see interrelationships among things. A test of intellect. You can’t be too smart to do a job. I was always trying to send people back for more training, and I was an infantryman. How quick on the uptake, how smart, how worldly.

Creativity. You’re trying to understand somebody’s comfort level with change. How much to-the-point is this person? Is this a rambler, who wanders off into outer space every time you ask a question?

How well-informed? How does this person manage eye contact? Some people come in and stare.

“Going by the book”: people don’t do this so much as by follow the example of the leader. They will tend to follow your action and seek the exemplary part of you. They want you to serve as example. In crisis, a mythology builds around the leader. Make giants of leaders because we want them to be that way.

You have to realize that you’re always onstage, that everything you say is taken as important.

They’d always have me go into buildings first. “after you, sir,” but I wouldn’t know where we going, so I would walk confidently into the broom closet.

Leaders can believe this stuff an lose control of their egos. Yeah, sure, my ego swelled. I would begin to get that feeling sometimes, you know, “Yes, there is god, but I’m at his right hand.” But most of the time, I knew I had a role to play.

But also, I had the tremendous advantage of starting as a private in the army. I would drink out of Styrofoam cups. They would say no no, not for you sir. Please use the china. I’d say no, I was a private and I know where they wash the china.

They’re not building you up because they’re polishing the apple, but because they want you to be a special kind of person.  I would walk by and say, gosh, the grass really suffers this time of year. And they would go out and paint the grass.

Having started as a private gave me great respect for sergeants.  And I come from a blue-collar family. My father was a bricklayer, and I used to work with these people. He was also a plasterer. All I wanted to be was a bricklayer when I was a little kid. When I would take the tools and pretend to plaster or lay bricks, he would take the tools away from me.

In Wakefield, in the paper, you will sometime still see: “chimney by Jack Galvin.” (his father). Gives me chills.

Everything you do in an organization should carry the organization forward, and you have to start looking at it. Bureaucracy occurs when you forget the mission of the organization, when you start talking about the housepeople, or start thinking about your own self.

Have you had rest? Have you had enough to eat? If you’re tired, your courage wanes on you. Not just in combat, but in negotiations, where you have to take a hard stand, you need to get rest. A great ploy in negotiations is to keep you from getting enough rest.

Body and mind come together, and courage is a function of the mind.

You don’t want to stay in a career because of some sort of sedentary approach to your life. Find a job that you like! You’re going to spend 8 hours a day doing it. I don’t mean liking it in that I went in with joy every day. I liked it because it made things better. It’s about making the world better, serving.

Don’t be afraid to admit that there are things you still need to learn. Does it mean you’re backward?

Try to maintain your curiosity across fields.

Kids don’t mind feeling dumb about something; you do, though. You lie to yourself. It takes some practice to be open-minded and to watch yourself. It takes some self-analysis.

Most of the time when you ask a question, you also convey the answer that you want. “Is your job coming along well?” This is a way to shut off information that is becoming ingrained.

That’s what’s interesting about the military: all the little things are swept away in regulations. Dress. Who salutes who when. And that leaves you free to work the bigger issues.

You have to be able to give them your intention and let them figure it out. Train them and train them so that they have the confidence to know what to do when they’re out there and it hits the fan.

Basically, ethics has a lot to do with how you feel about fellow human beings.

You learn a lot about other people when you need them. I came from a broken home—mother died very young—I learned very early that I needed people, and I really needed them bad. My first letters, to my aunt Florence, saying, ‘Could you call me this afternoon? please call me.’ And it’s often a very lonely place.

Throughout my career I was always either studying a language, writing books, writing articles, collecting my experiences.

On his own faults: I’m impulsive. I once threw an entrenching tool at a sergeant, meaning to scare him but if it hit him, that’s OK too. While I was in Ranger school. I was tired, I was upset. . . I could have been thrown out of the army. Held a small, informal court among officers and NCOs and decided not to report it.

The Vietnam experience did a lot to calm me down and teach me that, if you want to get something done as a leader, you don’t want to do it yourself.

In the memoir, these are the sorts of things I’ll talk about.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Going deep for far-out life

NAI astrobiology team mid-jump

The Borup Fiord Pass Glacier Astrobiology research team (L to R): Christopher Trivedi, Steve Grasby, Alexis Templeton, Graham Lau, and John Spear. In addition to advancing microbiology, this research team proved that humans can indeed hover. (Courtesy of John Spear).

I do some writing for the Colorado School of Mines, which is really one helluvan institution (while they do pay me to write for them, they didn’t pay me to say this).

Mines, as we in Colorado know it, is best known for… well, guess. Yes, and oil and gas expertise. But they do a ton of other stuff out on their Golden campus. One recent story I did there, published recently in Mines Magazine, had the additional benefit of harking back to one of the first science stories I ever wrote.

Marcel Marceau

Marcel Marceau

As somewhat of an aside, in about 1993, some friends of mine from Michigan, where I grew up and went to school, flew out to Vail to crash on the floor of a buddy ski-bumming and working as a lift-op. Somewhere up there, I assume in Eagle County, there was a roadside sign marking some sort of Mines infrastructure. We had never heard of the Colorado School of Mines, and one of us said, having honestly muffed the data capture, “What’s the Colorado School of Mimes?” This prompted us to laugh our asses off, U-turn, exit the vehicle and, doing our best Marcel Marceau imitations, pose with the sign. One of us covered the right-edge of the “N” in Mines for ambiguity’s sake. I would post this photo, but I believe it to be lost to history. Probably for the better.

Anyway, in 2005, John Spear was a postdoctoral researcher up at Norman Pace’s microbiology lab at CU, and I was writing a story for the Daily Camera on his discovery of hydrogen-eating bacteria in the hot pools of Yellowstone. While their insistence on a steady supply of scalding, brackish water leaves these bacteria something to be desired as pets, they represent a form of life that needs nothing more than water and a bit of rock to subsist. This has big implications  among people interested in the origins of life.

Well, a decade later nearly to the month, and now long removed from the Camera, I met with  John Spear, now a Mines professor with a thriving lab, once again. It was great, underscoring my generalization that, if you are empathetic toward the tiniest life forms, you do a pretty good job with multicellular sorts, too. He’s helping lead a very cool new NASA Astrobiology Institute project called “Rock Powered Life,” and Mines Magazine’s new editor, Laurie Schmidt, had called out of the blue to see if I’d be interested.

She beat me up a bit in the editorial process, nothing I didn’t deserve, and the lead came out like this:

In February 2005, a research team led by microbiologist John Spear set out to study geothermal ecosystems in the hot springs of Yellowstone National Park. What they found astonished them: microbial communities in the boiling waters were thriving not on sulfur, as was previously believed, but on hydrogen. The findings, which were published in a cover story of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (2005), provided evidence of the first hydrogen-eating microbes ever identified in an Earthly ecosystem. It may seem a minuscule advance, but it was as if an alien visitor had confirmed the existence of giraffes and could now muse about the prevalence of other possible “herbivores.”

The rest is, as previously linked, here.

Should someone from Mimes Magazine call with a story idea, I’ll certainly pretend to listen. But I doubt that the simulated reporting process would be nearly as interesting.

How to earn your driver’s license in 3.5 hours

LicenseVOID-TBN

My driver’s license expires at the end of December, so I decided today was a good time to get in and get it renewed. I had to go in-person, the ten-year license I was issued in 2004 not allowing online renewal. So I watched my eight year old climb on the big yellow school bus and drove off to an Aurora branch of the Colorado Department of Motor Vehicles, where I stood in a U-shaped line of about 40 people just as the  place opened. I had heard the best approach to the DMV was to avoid Mondays and Fridays and be in line early. Check.

My wait was brief – less than 10 minutes. I handed my license to the young woman behind the counter. She was blonde, her station immediately next to a less-young, permed, more stereotypical DMV lady. The blonde keyed a couple of things and asked the permed lady a question, and they agreed: my license had been voided in 2006, when a new license had been issued. The new license had expired in 2011. Meaning I had no license at all.

I was like, what? I had no recollection at all at first; then only a vague sense of having misplaced a driver’s license at some point in the distant past, during the toddler-raising years. I had been driving illegally for somewhere between three and eight years.

I leaned forward and, elbows on the counter, put my palms to my forehead, trying to remember. Between my hands I said, “Are you sure it’s me? The 2006 one?”

“It’s your picture,” the stereotypical one said.

The tens of thousands of miles. The rented cars. The airport checkpoints. The drinks served and bottles bought. I had been living a lie.

The younger blonder one walked through the where-do-we-go-from-here. She seemed empathetic. I needed my learner’s permit first, which I could get after I had taken the written test. The learner’s permit would allow me to drive – if a licensed driver 21 years of age or older was in the passenger seat.  With the learner’s permit in hand, I could then take a road test, and if I passed that, I could come back in and get an actual driver’s license.

In moments like these, I’ve taken to repeating the mantra: “First-world problem.” Meaning my children do not have bloated bellies or Ebola; schistosomiasis is non-endemic to Colorado’s Front Range; I’m not being beheaded in Syria, those sorts of things.

I realize what probably happened: I misplaced the 10-year license, got the five-year license, found the 10-year license sometime after that and put that back in my wallet. I mumbled something to this effect. The girl nodded and said, “You can take the written test right now, over on terminal three. If you pass, you can get your permit right then.”

“How about the driver’s test?”

“We’re booked out about a month in advance,” she says. “But there’s a driving school right next door. They do driving tests for $45. You can try there, but you’ll need your permit first.”

I walked over to Terminal 3 with some trepidation, as I tend to prefer my study-to-test gaps to be somewhat less than 30 years.

The first question, a practice one, popped up on the screen – this is a digital test now, on a touch-screen terminal.

2 + 2 = ?

Multiple choice.

For the next 25 questions, I touched either A, B or C, then the Yes I’m Sure button. I was asked to properly identify “merge” and “yield” signs. Twice I was forced to guess twice. One was on the distance, at speeds over 40 mph, one should engage one’s turn signal on before changing lanes. The options were 100 feet, 200 feet, and 400 feet. I figured 30 yards was too short and 130 yards too far, so went with the just-right one, which worked out.

With the second one, I got bogged down in the semantics. On a slippery road, if one feels one starting to lose control in a car with ABS, should one a) pump brakes lightly, b) take one’s foot off the accelerator and steer in the direction of the slippage, or c) just hold down the brake pedal. Having driven cars with ABS since the turn of the millennium, my experience is that both not-accelerating and steering and holding down the brake (ABS being all about the pumping) were reasonable, depending on the situation. Ambiguity is not, of course, a defining, feature of things DMV. I guessed c); answer: b).

My learner's permit.

My learner’s permit

I did the eye test (the little light goes on left first, then right, then left, then right; don’t tell them I told you) got my permit and walked straight next door to the American Driving Academy. A sign said to smile, I was on camera, and to have a cookie and some coffee. After a bit, a guy who I assumed was Jim came out and asked if I had an appointment. I assumed he was Jim because Jim was the instructor on duty, according to the whiteboard that told me to smile, I was on camera. I said no.

He explained he was booked for the day, but if his 9 a.m. appointment didn’t show up, he could take me out. It was 8:57. The minutes passed slowly as I nibbled on my windmill cookie and sipped my heavily artificially creamed coffee. Jim said he would give the appointee until five after nine. At 9:03, three women of three generations, starting with probably mid-50s, walked in. The oldest was probably in her nineties, in a wheelchair. The younger one asked if her friend could take a driving test. I was relieved when the middle woman showed him a document. The lady in the wheelchair would  be a real menace out there. They had no appointment. I felt bad. Then, at 9:05, I felt good.

The Hyundai

The Hyundai

Jim gave me the key to the 2009 Hyundai with a sign on it like we were going out to deliver pizzas together. The car was seriously worn, with a big, thick brake pedal at Jim’s feet. Jim was a gentle man, and he had forewarned me to stop fully at stop signs. One of the touch-screen test questions reminded me to not palm the wheel around corners (hand-over-hand, or hand-slip, I had answered, correctly and in direct contrast with my long-practiced one-handed-palm-only approach). Three times I stopped more completely and earlier than I had stopped for uncontested stop signs since 1984, when I took my last road test. I hand-over-handed my turns, an incredibly foreign feeling that manifest in the car’s slight lurching. I left two hands on the wheel longer than I had since Ronald Reagan’s first term. I watched my speed closely.

But I realized: hey, I’m just driving, here. Probably done a million miles or something since the L.A. Olympics. Left-hand drives, right-hand drives, stick shifts, vans, moving vans, the whole bit. So I started to talking to Jim, who I learned lives in Mayfair, not far from me. I noted the gigantic campers in the driveways, wondering how big a rig they need to pull them. I thought: I should pull out my cell phone and thumb up a quick text message just to freak old Jim right out. I asked him if there were drivers he went on road tests with that just scared the hell out of him.

“Yes,” he said.

DrivingTest-TBN

Passed.

During the debrief, Jim said two of my stop-sign stops were right on the ragged edge and one was an outright fail. “I gave  you the benefit of the doubt,” he said. This despite my belief that I had stopped long enough for an acorn to take root. But otherwise, everything was great, he said. Given that I’ve been driving twice as long as most permit-holders have been alive, I took it as I would take someone complimenting my near-native English. I said, “Yeah, I usually roll my stops if it’s totally clear – better for the environment. Hypermiling and all.” Old Jim raised his eyebrows, but signed the Basic Operators Driving Skill Test Completion Statement anyway. It was 9:25 a.m.

I walked back next door to the DMV and took another number, long after early now. This one advertised an estimated wait time of an hour and thirteen minutes, which turned out to be more like two hours, enough to write most of this.

I was asked the same questions as with the permit, though there was no eye test (I would have passed the peripheral vision light one easy, having memorized it). I paid my $21 for the actual license, the $15 I had forked over for the learner’s permit having been one of the most expensive ever, calculated on an per-hour basis. I sat back down until the photo guy called me back up.

Legal again.

Legal again.

“Long time no see,” I said.

“No kidding,” he said. “Birthdate?”

“Twelve-thirty-sixty-eight,” I said.

“Still?” he said.

Another signature, another infrared fingerprint scan, another photo. He considered whatever was on his screen.

“It looks a lot like the last one,” he said, and he handed me back my voided license and temporary license and said to have a good day. I wished him the same, walked out, and drove home legally for the first time in years.