I guess we each have our own little tale of how we learned how to drive.
My first experiences behind the wheel though, were a little different then most. In fact, it wasn't your usual Sunday drive with the old man yelling at you, it was more like a Keystone Cops' adventure. Yup, there were lots of thrills and excitement in my efforts to master the beast. It's kind of a long story, but believe it or not, it's all true .
Lesson 1 - The Importance of Connotation and Pronunciation.
I didn't like school very much. So when I turned seventeen, I decided to get the rest of my education in the army. Now, that might sound strange coming from someone who wanted to be chemist, but at the time, it seemed like a good idea. It was 1963, and thanks to the Draft, there was no doubt in my mind that the army would get me sooner or later. So, I figured I'd get it over with, at least then I could start a real life when I got out. I had also heard, that at seventeen, you could get a driver's license in the army. However, the main reason I joined was my mistaken belief that I would actually become a bonafide chemist there. So I enlisted with a guarantee from my recruiter that I would be serving in the United States Army Chemical Corp. Like most young men, I soon found out that army had its very own connotations for words like intelligence, chemical, police and what have you. In fact, it turned out that the Chemical Corp's main mission was to make smoke by pouring oil into compressors. Now, that wasn't quite the way I had initially envisioned my service with the army. Somehow I had gotten the idea from my recruiter, that I'd be working in a laboratory. So after training, I decided to pay him a little visit to clarify the matter. I was in uniform when I arrived at his neat little booth, so we ended up having a brief, but friendly conversation. He started it off with his usual big smile. "Hey, how you doing, Martin? You're looking good, kid." "Thanks, Sarge, I replied. Then I asked, "Hey Sarge, I was just wondering about something. Didn't you tell me I'd be working in a laboratory?" He thought for a second, and answered with a puzzled look on his face, "You mean you ain't cleaned no latrines yet, kid?" His counter query puzzled me a bit, and I guess it showed on my face. So he thought again for a second, and quickly cleared up the confusion. "Wait a second, kid! Did you say lavatory or laboratory?" "Laboratory, Sarge, with a "B", like baker." "Oh! You'd need to go to college for something like that, kid." Then with that smile on his face, he rose from his chair and quickly walked over to me. He then placed a friendly arm over my shoulder and said good-bye as he escorted me to the door. "Well, anyway, it was real nice seeing you again, kid. So, good luck, private, and stop in anytime." Now, despite my initial confusion, I did manage to get an education in the army. It wasn't quite the one I had planned on though. However, at seventeen, I actually did learn how to drive.
Lesson 2 - Discovering My Short Comings
The driving part of my education began right after training, when I first arrived at my permanent unit at Ft. Bragg. I was assigned to a small technical intelligence outfit, whose primary mission was battlefield monitoring. That meant, that in the event of an all out war, me and my new buddies were to drive around and locate any nuclear, chemical or biological "Hot Spots" on the battlefield. Then of course, we'd report our findings directly to the Commanding General's staff. They in turn would plot them on the general's battlefield map as particularly hazardous areas.
On my first training exercise, I drove the jeep, and my new buddy Parker held the simulated rad monitor. Of course, it didn't take Parker and the army very long to figure out that I didn't have a driver's license. In fact, my actual driving ability at the time was self taught, and limited to first and second gear only. Now, with driving being part of my job and all, naturally, the army decided that I really should have a driver's license. So my commanding officer quickly scheduled a road test for me at Main Post. The test seemed easy enough. All I had to do was drive a two and a half ton truck, once around the tree lined headquarters block, and the license was mine.
The test started out pretty smoothly. I drove the truck about twenty yards down a sunny street without a problem. Then with a smile of approval, my examiner told me to put the truck in third gear as we approached the corner. When I did, I lost control of it and my examiner lost control of his friendly smile. But I quickly slammed on the brakes as soon we jumped the curb, and thus rapidly slowed our progress across the manicured lawns and clean swept sidewalks. Fortunately for us, the truck came to a screeching halt, a foot or two before striking a very substantial oak tree. I knew right away that this was probably going to adversely affect my final score. In fact, after slowly removing his hands from his eyes, my examiner, a Korean War combat veteran, mumbled to himself, "Good grief, I was safer in combat, wasn't I?" He then turned to me with a shaky smile, and gave me the bad news. "Well, I'm afraid we're going to have to try this again someday, private." I immediately took his comment to mean that I had failed the test. But, just to be sure, I asked, "Does that mean that I not going to get my license, Sarge?" The brave old veteran maintained his military cool and calmly replied, "Let's face it, private. You can't drive!" Then he thought for a second, and added, "Although, I must say, kid, you'd make one heck of a kamikaze pilot." With that said, we switched seats and he drove back.
Lesson 3 - On The Job Training
At the same time I was failing my road test, there was a big maneuver taking place on post, called Air Assault One. In fact, this was the first dress rehearsal for the Vietnam War. Hence, there was the sudden appearance of an abundance of big brass from Washington on post. Then as luck would have it, my unit was suddenly called upon to supply a plethora of drivers for the purposes of chauffeuring these V.I.Ps around. Hence, a day or two after my failure, low and behold, my operations NCO, handed me a genuine military license, with my very own name on it.
The next day, I ended up at Post Headquarters with three senior officers sitting in my jeep. There was a full bird Colonel; a two star, Major General; and a three star, Lieutenant General, all wearing helmets and dressed in battle fatigues. Each of them was high a ranking visitor from the Pentagon, but they seemed like nice enough guys. After the social amenities, we started the day's journey by traveling slowly in convoy with two other jeeps. For me, this was good. I was following the two other jeeps and that made my feeble attempts at driving a little less conspicuous. In fact, with the prodding of the Colonel sitting next to me, I even found third gear. However, it wasn't long before my passengers figured out that I didn't really know how to drive. I guess that became obvious as soon we got on the highway.
Lesson 4 - My Final Exam
When we started out on the highway, there were two four star generals sitting in the back seat of the jeep ahead of us. I could tell because they kept looking back at me, as we started to fall further and further behind. After all, you can only go so fast in third gear before the roar of the engine becomes unbearable. That of course, prompted the Colonel to urge, "Put it in fourth gear, soldier. Soldier, step on the clutch, and put it in fourth gear, please!" I did, and I got the jeep up to 55 mph, and started to catch up. However, by that time, the two jeeps ahead of us had stopped in the emergency lane to wait for me.
Upon observing the situation, the Colonel pointed and calmly ordered, "Pull in behind them, soldier." So at 55 mph, I pulled into the emergency lane, pushed in the clutch, and hit my brakes. That prompted the Colonel to urge, in an ever increasingly louder voice, "Use your gears, soldier. Soldier, use your gears. Use your gears, soldier!" Now, at the time, that didn't make any sense to me. After all, I was going as fast as I wanted to go. In fact, I was trying real hard to stop. So I stuck to my brake idea. There was no harm done though. After a twenty yard skid mark, I did come to a full stop about two feet from the rear of the last jeep. In fact, I still remember the bewildered looks on the faces of those two four star generals. They just sat there, half turned in their seats, with gaping mouths, silently staring at my approach. Once I had completed my impressive stop, they started staring at me, as if asking for an explanation with their eyes. All I could come up in reply, was a great big grin, accompanied by the rapid, triple raising and lowering of my eyebrows. That seemed to work though, they quickly turned around, shirking their shoulders in amazement. Immediately afterwards the Colonel raised himself from his crash position, and checked on the condition of my two generals in the back seat. Everything seemed alright, but he was prompted by his seniors to make an inquiry. "You do have a driver's license, right private?" "Yes sir", I answered proudly. Then he smiled a little and said, "Look son, try to be a little more careful, alright." "Yes sir!" Then with the waving of my passenger's hands to the jeeps ahead, we started back on the highway.
For the next five minutes, things went smoothly, and I even found fifth gear. But then, that darn stopping thing came up again. This time the jeeps ahead of us had left the highway and were stopped at traffic light at the end of the exit ramp. Once again, with a loud screech, and brakes only, I managed to stop just in time. However, this time, the two generals ahead us, each had one leg hanging out their jeep in anticipation of my arrival. After that event, the Major General in the back seat of my jeep, quickly tightened the chin strap on his helmet. Then he called out to the Colonel, by his first name. "Tom! Cut it out, will yah! This isn't funny anymore." The Lieutenant General was quick to agree. So he immediately decided to switch seats with the Colonel for closer observation. So from that point on, I received driving lessons from a Lieutenant General.
It all worked for the best though. By the end of the day I was able to use all five gears. In fact, I had even earned the uneasy respect of those two four star generals. More important though, I learned how to gear down and avoid all those loud screeches and lengthy skid marks. Well anyway, I did learn how to drive in the army, though eventually I paid a heck price for the education. However, I never did become a chemist.
So what may one learn from my story, you ask? Well, if you want to learn how to drive, I guess the army is as good a place as any. That is, if they still have enough Lieutenant Generals around. But if you really want to be a chemist, you got to go to college, kid! - - COPY RIGHT:JVM 1999